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PhD Study in the USA

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The USA remains the top graduate destination in the world, and it’s not hard to see why, says Lauren Welch, head of advising at the US UK Fulbright Commission. “The first major attraction is the wide range of institutions – there are over 1,700 – which offer a wide range of choice and flexibility.” It is the quality of these US institutions which is also a great pull, says Welch. “The US comes out on top time and time again, no matter what ranking system you use, and the US is home to 75% of the top 20 institutions in the world.”

International experience

Of the 2.6 million graduate students in the US, over 10.5% are international. Numbers have been rising recently – there was an 8% increase for overall enrolment by international students in 2009, so figures are back to pre-9/11 levels. Another of the great pulls for international students, according to Welch, is the value employers place on international experience – whether through study or work. And international students are important to the US as well. During the 2008-09 academic year, NAFSA estimates that international students and their dependents contributed approximately US$17.6 billion to the US economy.

US higher education institutions are divided into private and public. Private institutions are funded by endowments and by their alumni. “They tend to be the smaller institutions, with more of a close nit community,” says Welch, “so may be more appropriate for international students worried about adapting to life in the US.” All the Ivy League institutions are private, but Welch is quick to point out that the Ivy League was based on a sports league, not an academic league, so there are other institutions which are of a similar high standard – such as Standford University and Berkeley in California, and the University of Chicago - for international students to explore.

Public universities tend to be much larger. They offer low cost education for residents of the state the institution is in – and for all other students, whether from another state or international, the rates of fees are the same. They tend to be more diverse and offer international students a lower cost.

Degrees in the US offer a range of flexibility and graduates can choose to specialize or do inter-disciplinary research. Welch says that although “the sticker price for US degrees looks higher, there are a lot of funding opportunities on offer. In total over US$49 billion is invested annually in research and development, so there is a lot of funding available,” she says.

Funding your studies

The average “sticker price” of US graduate education is US$21,000-34,000 per year, which covers both public and private institutions. For PhD students, this rises to US$28,000-40,000 per year. But as Welch points out, due to the amount of money invested in research, the majority of PhD students in science and engineering will get significant amounts of funding and roughly half of students doing an arts-based qualification will. One of the best ways of earning funding is through assistantship schemes. “In exchange for funding the students provide service to the university for between 15 and 20 hours a week,” says Welch. “This can include teaching, or helping with research. It is a real benefit to the student, for not only are they earning money but they are also building up their CV as they go through their course. The work helps the students to network.”

Combined with Fellowships, where students receive funding with no strings attached, over 43% of international students receive the main chunk of their funding from the institution, compared with just 3% of students who receive their funding from their home government or university. 

For students looking to top up their funds 20 hours a week paid employment is allowed on campus; during vacations, this allowance increases to 40 hours. “They can apply to work off campus, but this is only for students for whom this will be essential,” says Welch. “For instance, some students will need to do an external internship, but for the majority there are a lot of opportunities on campus.”


The first rule of applying for graduate study in the US is the more time you can give yourself the better. “With all the choice of institutions on offer, it can be hard to find the right institution to apply to,” Welch says, “but it is important to look beyond the brand name of a university and work out which one is right for you.” There is no central processing, so you have to apply to each institution individually, and as each institution will have an application fee of between US50-$100 Welch recommends applying to between four to six institutions. “I would recommend applying for your dream institution, some you are on the mark for and a couple of insurance institutions. It is worth spreading your choices around.”

For the application, each institution will have different requirements, but most will require three letters of recommendation, a personal statement, perhaps a research statement and a transcript from your original university. “There tend to be two sets of deadlines,” says Welch. “The earliest deadline can be in December, which can be for the more prestigious institutions. The regular admissions deadline is March, but apply earlier if possible.” The deadline for funding can be as early as December or January.

The deadline for institutions to get back to you to tell you if you have been successful with your application is 15 April.

When applying to study in the US, international graduate students will have to take one or more entrance tests as well as complete the institution’s own application process. The bulk of students will have to take the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) test. Other tests include the GMAT for MBA admissions; MCAT for medical and the LSAT for law.

For international students looking to apply for a visa, the process has now been simplified. “The hardest part of coming to America is getting a place on a graduate course,” says Welch. “Once you have done that, the visa process is relatively straightforward.” You have to prove that you have won a place on an accredited program, you have the money or the funding to cover your costs and that you are planning to leave the US after you complete your studies.

Video: Doctoral Study in America

Graduate School in the USA is different from PhD study in Europe. As well as giving you the experience of living and studying in a different country, PhD study in the USA can broaden your research horizons. The video below is just one persons experience of doctoral study in America, but it does give a nice overview.

PhD Research in the US: Tips from Fulbright Grantee Delphine Hesters

Reproduced by kind permission of QS World Grad School Tour.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of FindAPhD.

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