The USA isn’t just the biggest and most popular destination for PhD study abroad. It’s also one of the most unique. The US approach to postgraduate (or ‘graduate’) study is fundamentally different to the UK and Europe, involving structured degree programmes that feature comprehensive training alongside independent research.
These unique qualities enhance the appeal of a US PhD (after all, tens of thousands of international graduate students can’t be wrong). But they can also lead to some misunderstandings – particularly when it comes to fees and funding.
This page is here to help you make sense of PhD study in the USA. We’ve introduced the different types of universities and graduate schools, explained how doctoral degrees are awarded within US graduate programmes, demystified the cost of study and covered international visa requirements.
The popularity of the USA as a study abroad destination shows no real sign of waning, with almost 1 million international students at its universities and colleges. To put the sheer size of that figure into perspective, there are more British students studying overseas in the USA than there are total students at some universities in the UK.
It’s at PhD-level that the USA really shines though. America’s rigorous approach to graduate study delivers a standard of training and professional development that often surpasses the minimum requirement for a more ‘traditional’ research-focused doctorates in other countries.
Here are a few reasons to consider the USA for your PhD right now:
With so much to offer, it isn’t really surprising that the appeal of US universities is so consistent: easily trumping any obstacles that international students might find placed in their way.
|Oldest University||Harvard University (1636)|
|PhD Length||4-6 years|
|Representative Fees||USD $12,737-43,300|
|Academic Year||August to May|
Only around 1,500 of the USA’s 4,500 or so universities award doctoral degrees, but that’s still quite a lot of options to make sense of!
Thankfully, the differences between institution types and naming conventions aren’t that important at PhD level. It doesn’t generally matter whether somewhere refers to itself as a ‘college’, ‘school’ or ‘university’ (these terms often mean roughly the same thing in American higher education). Instead you should focus on whether or not an institution offers a graduate programme in your subject. These are where PhD study takes place in American universities.
In the USA, university education that takes place after a Bachelors degree is referred to as ‘graduate’ study: study that is undertaken by university graduates. The people who study for Masters and PhDs are therefore ‘graduate students’ or ‘grad students’.
US universities can be divided into two broad groups, depending on how they receive their funding and other income. This affects the fees they typically charge to students:
Other than fees, there is no hard and fast distinction between the kinds of graduate programmes offered by public and private universities – or their quality.
Public universities tend to be larger, with more students, but private universities are equally focussed on academic quality and are often run as non-profit institutions. In fact, many of the most famous and highly regarded universities in the USA are private.
Some private universities are run as commercial enterprises, using part of their fee income to generate profit for owners and shareholders. Many other private universities are non-profit institutions: the income they generate supports academic activity and covers running costs. Non-profit institutions are more likely to offer high-quality graduate programmes.
Graduate schools are specialised organisations set up by and affiliated with universities to run their graduate programmes. Larger universities may have several graduate schools focussing on different subjects, such as a Law School, Management School and so on. Smaller universities may have a single graduate school that administers all of their graduate programmes.
As a PhD student you may find yourself applying to one of these graduate schools rather than to the wider university it is part of. However, graduate schools aren’t a separate type of institution and it doesn’t generally matter how many a university has.
Other types of higher education provider also operate in the USA, but don’t typically offer graduate study. These include community colleges (offering two-year associate’s degrees, below Bachelors level) and liberal arts colleges (offering a comprehensive Arts and Science curriculum, usually for undergraduates).
The size and federal structure of the USA mean that there is no government body responsible for accrediting all US universities. Instead a range of accreditors operate independently on a national or regional level. The US Government maintains a database of the universities and programmes they have accredited.
It doesn’t necessarily matter which specific bodies have recognised a given university, but you should be wary of any institution that doesn’t have any verifiable accreditation.
Many American universities are part of wider associations. These are formed by the universities themselves, not by any ‘official’ process. Some groups (such as the Ivy League) are very famous and regarded as high quality. Things aren’t quite so simple though, particularly at PhD level. Membership of a prestigious group doesn’t always mean an institution offers a great graduate programme in your subject – and vice versa.
These are the main US university groups:
Probably the best-known and most renowned university group in America (if not the world) the Ivy League was actually formed as a sporting conference including eight universities in the north-eastern USA. Its membership is actually based on geography and athletics, not academic quality.
That said, the Ivy League does include eight of America’s oldest, wealthiest and highest-ranked universities. A PhD from any of these institutions is a very prestigious qualification indeed.
‘Public Ivy’ is a term used for top public universities that are regarded as offering an equivalent standard of academic quality to the (exclusively private) Ivy League.
This grouping is much looser than the original Ivy League as ‘membership’ is based on the subjective opinion of different writers and commentators. Wikipedia maintains a list of the 30 universities generally counted as Public Ivies.
This is a North American membership body formed by universities themselves, based on academic quality. As such, the AAU is actually the closest thing in the USA to the UK’s Russell Group, even though the Ivy League is probably better known outside America (seven out of eight Ivy League members are part of the AAU, anyway).
The AAU members include 60 US institutions, as well as two Canadian universities. They include public and private providers and collectively award almost half of all doctorates in the USA. Membership can therefore be a pretty good indicator of graduate school / graduate programme quality.
The USA performs very well in global university rankings, with far more ‘top’ universities than any other country. It’s worth bearing in mind that the sheer size of the American higher education system plays a role here, as do other factors (such as language). Still, there’s no getting away from the fact that the ‘best’ American universities are generally also amongst the ‘best’ global universities.
The following table gives the highest-ranked universities in the USA for 2020.
|University||Groups*||THE 2020||QS 2020||ARWU 2019|
|California Institute of Technology||AAU||2||5||9|
|Massachusetts Institute of Technology||AAU||5||1||4|
|Princeton University||AAU, IL||6||13||6|
|Harvard University||AAU, IL||7||3||1|
|Yale University||AAU, IL||8||17||11|
|University of Chicago||AAU||9||10||10|
|University of Pennsylvania||AAU||11||15||17|
|Johns Hopkins University||AAU||12||24||16|
|University of California, Berkeley||AAU, PI||=13||28||5|
|Columbia University||AAU, IL||16||=18||8|
|University of California, Los Angeles||AAU, PI||17||=35||11|
|Cornell University||AAU, IL||19||14||13|
|University of Michigan-Ann Arbor||AAU, PI||21||21||20|
|University of Washington||AAU, PI||26||68||14|
|Carnegie Mellon University||AAU||=27||48||95|
|New York University||AAU||29||39||30|
|University of California, San Diego||AAU, PI||31||45||18|
|Information in this table is based on the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings, QS World University Rankings and Academic Ranking of World Universities. Visit their websites for more information.|
|*AAU - Association of American Universities; IL - Ivy League; PI - Public Ivy|
As you can see, US universities do very well in global rankings. All of the 'top' American institutions are also part of at least one of the groups outlined above.
All of these have the potential to be great choices for PhD study. That said, global rankings are quite limited when it comes to measuring the specific quality of American graduate schools and graduate programmes. These can involve unique components that might be quite separate to a university’s broader teaching and research activities.
Almost all US cities and larger towns will have a local university of some sort, but some parts of the USA are particularly renowned as hubs for higher education and research.
Here is a selection:
With so many factors to consider – and so many universities to choose from – it can seem difficult to make a decision. The best advice is to take your time and evaluate options carefully. The following tips may also be helpful:
One of the simplest ways to get started is by using our search. You can also check the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education to identify universities with a particular focus on graduate-level study. This is an unofficial, but well established, categorisation of universities according to their size, academic focus and other factors.
Unlike doctoral degrees in most other countries, a US PhD is almost never a pure research degree. Original research is still a key requirement for an American doctorate, and you’ll still present and defend a substantial thesis. It’s just that you’ll do a lot more along the way and quite a few other things first.
Whereas PhD students in countries like the UK normally start researching for their thesis right away, US doctorates begin with of taught classes and assessments, culminating in a comprehensive exam. It’s only after passing this stage that a student confirms their final dissertation topic and gets to work researching it.
In total the length of a PhD in the USA is usually 4-6 years (full time). Students spend 1-4 years on the coursework stage of their programme and 2-4 years working on their dissertation.
The academic year in the USA consists of two teaching semesters: August-December and January-May. These will be when your classes and assessments take place. Most graduate programmes admit students in the autumn (or ‘fall’) semester.
US graduate study looks very different to postgraduate study in the UK and other countries, but it may actually seem quite similar to the undergraduate study you’re probably used to.
You’ll enrol in a specific graduate programme, usually within a graduate school attached to your university. This programme determines the courses available (and required) for your PhD - a lot like a taught Bachelors or Masters degree.
Most universities will have separate graduate schools and / or programmes for different subjects, but smaller or more specialised institutions may only run one or two programmes, with students selecting classes appropriate to their intended research area.
Larger graduate programmes may also offer more specific degree concentrations in particular subjects. For example, an Arts and Humanities graduate programme might offer separate pathways for Literature or History, determining which core classes a student is expected to pass.
The first part of a US PhD is a lot like a taught Masters (in fact, a distinction between PhD candidates and Masters students may not actually be made at this point).
You will complete a series of taught classes or coursework modules:
The freedom you have to choose classes will depend on the design of your programme and, to some extent, the amount of essential technical knowledge required for your subject.
Some programmes require doctoral candidates to undertake other personal and professional development activities, such as completing work or volunteering placements or even learning a foreign language. These reflect the holistic attitude to university education in the USA and its focus on producing well-rounded, adaptable graduates.
Once you’ve completed all the classes and other requirements for your programme you will face a comprehensive examination (sometimes referred to as a ‘field exam’ or ‘dissertation qualifying exam’). This checks that you have acquired sufficient mastery of existing knowledge in your field to conduct your own original research. Students who reach this point in a graduate programme are sometimes referred to as being ABD (‘all but dissertation’).
Some students are allowed to exit a graduate programme with a Masters degree at this point. Others may be awarded a Masters en route to their PhD.
Some PhD programmes subdivide the coursework stage so that students begin with qualifying classes and a qualifying exam (confirming they're ready for PhD study) before moving on to more specific preparation for their dissertation stage. It’s a good idea to check and compare details for specific programmes you are interested in.
Students who have passed the coursework stage of their programme are ready to be confirmed as full PhD candidates and to proceed to their doctoral dissertation. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘capstone project’ for a graduate programme culminating in a PhD.
The first thing you will do is decide upon a research topic. Your proposal may be linked to ideas and potential directions indicated in your application, but you will have a lot of scope to refine your plans or define a new topic, based on the material you have studied during your classes.
The topic you wish to research must be put forward in a dissertation prospectus. This is a bit like the research proposal submitted as part of a PhD application in some other countries. You will produce an essay outlining your intended project, methodology and outcomes as well as a bibliography situating your proposal within current scholarship.
Some programmes will expect you to present your prospectus and defend your ideas. This is a bit like the MPhil upgrade that takes place early in a UK PhD. The difference is that you will be examined on your proposal, rather than on a sample of your research or thesis.
From here on a US PhD looks much more like a conventional research doctorate. You will be assigned a committee of supervisors (usually referred to as ‘advisors’) whose interests and expertise align with your topic. One of your committee will probably be designated as your principal advisor or dissertation director. They will support you as you carry out research, gather results and write up your findings.
Other development activities may continue to take place alongside your research. Some programmes expect students to carry out teaching and administrative work and / or to submit an academic article for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.
Eventually you will complete your dissertation, along with other requirements, and submit your work for examination.
American PhDs are much more like taught degrees than the research-focussed doctorates offered in other countries. You will need to pass regular assessments in order to progress with your programme and eventually defend your dissertation.
Requirements will depend on your graduate programme, but will usually include:
You may also need to demonstrate that you have satisfied other requirements for your programme, such as acquiring language skills, completing professional internships and submitting work for academic presentations or publication.
Most universities in the USA simply award the standard PhD (or Ph.D.) as an academic doctorate. This qualification is equivalent to PhDs in other countries, though an American PhD graduate will normally have completed many additional classes and activities in addition to producing a dissertation.
Some programmes award professional doctorates such as the DBA (Doctor of Business Administration) and EdD (Doctor of Education). These usually include very specific practical projects and case studies in addition to academic classes and dissertation research.
Other types of ‘doctoral’ qualification are available to students seeking to qualify for regulated professions such as law or medicine. These JD (Doctor of Laws) and MD (Doctor of Medicine) degrees are organised very differently to academic doctorates and don’t normally qualify students for legal or medical practice in other countries. They are not recommended for international students unless you definitely intend to live and work in the USA.
Universities in the USA have a reputation for being expensive and basic PhD fees can bear this out. That isn’t the whole story though. In fact, many institutions offer substantial financial support to their graduate students in the form of scholarships or paid assistantship positions.
With a huge range of universities offering PhD programmes in the USA it’s no surprise that American PhD fees vary a lot. They also tend to be exaggerated or otherwise misreported based on very high figures for prestigious Ivy League universities. These aren’t typical.
Actual fees vary between public and private institutions and sometimes depend on a students’ residency status:
These figures are based on data published by the US National Center for Education Statistics. As a general rule, public institutions will be cheaper than private institutions, but will charge a higher out-of-state fee to international students. This can mean that the actual difference in fees is smaller than it seems above. Private institutions, on the other hand, may have more funding available.
The best way to get a sense of the tuition fees you will actually pay for a US PhD is to look up a few programmes in your subject and compare their prices. Just make sure you’re comparing the same thing: some universities will list fees per year, whereas others may list fees per semester or per credit.
US universities don’t distinguish between international students and domestic fees in the same way as the UK. But public universities do differentiate between students from inside or outside their state. This is because ‘in-state’ students have their education partly subsidised by their state government. As an international student you’ll pay the same fee as a US student from ‘out-of-state’.
The sheer size of the USA makes it almost impossible to offer accurate figures for student living costs across all 50 states. So we haven’t. You should definitely include this in your research and preparation though. Some parts of the USA are much more affordable than others. Your university’s international office may be able to help provide a sense of typical graduate student expenses for rent, groceries and travel.
It’s actually very common for US universities to provide funding for their students and relatively rare for successful candidates on graduate programmes to be entirely self-funding. The ‘sticker price’ for a US PhD may seem high, but it’s probably not the price you’ll end up paying.
Funding will take various forms. ‘Full-ride’ scholarships will cover fees, living costs and other expenses. Other common options include partial fee discounts or full fee waivers.
In general, private universities will have more funding than public universities (though they will also have higher fees. . .). You can search some of the PhD funding available using an official tool provided by Education USA. These results aren’t exhaustive though: make sure you also check with the university/s you are considering.
As well as awarding direct funding, it’s common for US universities to offer assistantship positions to their graduate students. These are effectively a form of employment with the university: you will fulfil a selection of responsibilities in exchange for a stipend or a fee waiver.
Common types of assistantship include:
Graduate teaching assistantships and research assistantships are the most common types of assistantship, but it’s worth checking to see what different universities offer.
Applications for doctoral study in the USA are made to graduate programmes themselves, rather than to the overall university.
There are three key things to bear in mind when applying for a PhD.
In many ways applying for an American PhD is more like applying for a (very selective) undergraduate degree. Instead of trying to prove your suitability for a specific research project or position, you’ll be seeking to demonstrate that you can engage with and develop within a longer programme of study leading to a research task.
There are few different ways in which universities will assess this.
Universities and graduate schools will set their own admissions procedures, but you should expect to be asked for most (if not all) of the following:
Universities will consider all elements of your application when evaluating you, so make sure you give yourself time to put together a good personal statement and source suitable letters of recommendation. Don’t assume that a glowing academic record will be enough to secure admission to a graduate programme by itself.
You won’t necessarily need a Masters to apply for a PhD in the USA. This is because American graduate programmes effectively combine Masters and PhD study –some students actually receive a Masters at the end of their coursework stage.
If you do already have a Masters you may be able to receive credit for it and spend less time on the coursework stage of your program. This decision is made by your graduate school, who will decide how relevant your existing degree is.
American universities use a Grade Point Average (GPA) system to measure academic performance. Rather than applying a single academic classification to your final result, a GPA is shaped by all of the individual assessments you complete during a degree.
US graduate programmes may calculate a GPA equivalent for you, based on your final grades and transcripts. A GPA won’t make or break your PhD application on its own though and programmes are unlikely to set a minimum standard. As a very rough guide you can assume that a GPA of 3.0 or higher is ‘good’. That’s broadly equivalent to a UK 2.1 or ‘Merit’ – so about what you’d expect for PhD admission.
Most US universities use entry exams to assess suitability for graduate study. These test your skills in literacy, numeracy, critical thinking and different types of reasoning. A good score demonstrates that you are academically capable of advanced graduate-level work.
Universities don’t normally administer tests themselves (thought they may set essays or other tasks as part of your application process). Instead they use recognised third-party tests. The most common is the Graduate Records Exam (GRE) which comes in two versions:
Graduate programmes won’t normally state a minimum test score but they may publish details of the scores successful applicants generally achieve, as a benchmark.
Some PhD subjects may use other graduate entry tests in place of (or in addition to) the GRE. The most common tests are:
A wide range of languages are spoken in the USA, but English is the de facto national language and is used in higher education. If English isn’t your first language you will need to demonstrate that your ability to communicate in and understand it is sufficient for graduate study.
The most common way to do this is by completing a recognised English-language test, such as the IELTS or TOEFL. Providing evidence of a degree you have already completed in English may also be acceptable.
US graduate programmes will have specific application deadlines tied to the start dates for their taught classes. It’s common for application windows to open between August and December for admission to a PhD in the autumn (or ‘fall’) of the following year.
You’ll need to pay a fee for each graduate school application you make. This reflects the cost of processing and reviewing your materials. Typical application fees for PhD study in the USA are between $50 and $100.
You will also need to budget for the cost of any graduate entry tests and for your visa.
Formal interviews aren’t always required for US graduate programmes, particularly for international applicants. Some very competitive programmes may use a PhD interview to help distinguish between candidates. Other programmes may offer interviews as an optional part of the process for prospective students who want to discuss their application in person.
There are three potential outcomes for a US PhD application. You may be successful or unsuccessful, in which case the university will simply inform you of this. However, you may also be waitlisted as a second-choice candidate. If the first-choice candidate declines their offer or isn’t able to enrol on the programme, you will be offered their place.
International students will normally need a visa to study a PhD abroad in the USA. Exceptions apply to citizens of Canada and Bermuda, who can enter the United States without a visa.
All other students will need an F Student Visa. This is suitable for study at all academic institutions, including universities and graduate schools.
US visa applications are handled by the US Department of State and the US Department of Homeland Security. In order to get an F Student Visa you will need to be accepted to study at an accredited university. You must also be of good character and able to satisfy the authorities that you are entering the country as a genuine student.
There are several stages to a US visa application and they should normally be completed in the following order:
Be accepted for a PhD at an SEVP-approved institution – Most accredited universities will be able to sponsor students within the Student Exchange and Visitor Programme (SEVP). Once they have accepted you for a PhD they will be able to register you with the Student Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS).
In most cases you will need to pay fees of at least $360 during your visa application. This is made up of a $200 SEVIS fee and a $160 application fee. Some students may also need to pay an issuance fee.
You should check the official guidelines on the US Department of State website before beginning a visa application.
Am American PhD is globally recognised as a high-quality doctoral degree that demonstrates a candidate completed rigorous academic study and training alongside their own original research.
Universities around the world will accept your degree as a sound basis for beginning an academic career. Other employers will also recognise the emphasis on transferable skills and personal development that is a hallmark of the US PhD process.
The USA itself is a world-leader in academic research and an ideal place to seek a university career. However, you will need to apply for a new visa in order to do so (your F Student Visa will expire 60 days after your graduate programme ends).
The US Department of Homeland Security provides detailed information on applying for a temporary or permanent worker visa.
Last updated - 21/01/2020