Doctoral candidates and departmental coordinators at the Wharton School outline a few tips to help you navigate the PhD application process.

It’s no secret the application process can be intimidating. Where do you start? What exactly are schools looking for on your application? What materials do you need to submit? Doctoral candidates and departmental coordinators at the Wharton School have outlined a few tips to help you navigate the process.

Don’t Delay the Process

A successful PhD applicant starts thinking about their application months or even years before the deadlines. For Alejandro Lopez Lira, a third year student in Finance, the application process began a year before he actually submitted the paperwork. He said, “I spoke to my advisors way before, like one year before, about my letters of recommendation, where to apply, everything involved in the process.”

Each program has different requirements, which can make for a tedious process. Karren Knowlton, a third year in Management, said, “I took a little while to draft a personal statement. I had my mom, who teaches creative writing, and a few other people that I trust just read over it. Then you have to tweak it for different schools because they want slightly different things.”

Taking time to prepare your application is critical. Starting the process sooner rather than later gives you several advantages:

  • It allows your letter of recommendation writers enough time in advance to thoughtfully prepare a letter that speaks to who you are as a PhD candidate.
  • It gives you more time to review your materials, fix any errors, and proofread, proofread, proofread.
  • Finally, it means a lot less stress when the deadline starts rapidly approaching.
    By planning ahead, you’ll have a much smoother process applying.

Get Letters of Recommendation

Prof. Matthew Bidwell, who previously served as the doctoral coordinator for the Management program, said a common mistake he sees are letters of recommendations from employers. Although he said it is impressive to see work experience, having an employer write a letter is not the best choice.

“We don’t pay very much attention to those because rightly or wrongly, we worry that they’re not looking for the kinds of things that we’re looking for,” he said. “If you have one, it’s not a disaster, but when you see people with two or three — most of their recommendations coming from their work — that kind of heightens our concern. You’re committing to a fairly specialized career, do you really know what that career entails?”

Instead, he suggests getting to know an academic who will be able to write a recommendation attesting to your ability to manage doctoral-level research and work.

Include Research/Work Experience in Your Field

Each program has a unique set of criteria to evaluate applicants, but several doctoral coordinators agree that some research and work experience in your field of interest will strengthen your application overall.

Prof. Fernando Ferreira, doctoral coordinator for the Business Economics and Public Policy and Real Estate programs, thinks work experience can be useful in demonstrating an applicant’s abilities. He said, “Any work experience after undergraduate school is important. If that experience is more related to research it’s even better, but work experience in general is always good.”

Prof. Guy David, doctoral coordinator for the Health Care Management & Economics program, thinks that work experience benefits applicants in terms of giving them a broader view of business. “Work experience creates retrospection about how the world works, how organizations make decisions, and how people function in various situations,” he said.

However, he warns that spending too much time away from an academic setting can have its drawbacks too. “It may lead people to start their PhD later when they are not in the habit of immersing themselves in rigorous studies and have a shorter horizons to develop a name for themselves,” he said.

Although having both research and work experience can strengthen your application, you will not be denied entry because you are lacking either.

Prof. Bidwell said, “I think research experience does give us some confidence that people have some idea about what it is that we do. In terms of work experience, I think we don’t have a strong view. We quite like work experience, but we also take people straight out of undergrad.”

Prepare for the Standardized Tests

Most PhD programs require students to take the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE). Having high test scores is a key part of an application as it tests skills learned over the course of many years in school. Quantitative skills are especially important when applying to doctoral programs in business areas. Much like any other standardized test, the GRE requires preparation.

Karren, who took the GRE twice to ensure her scores were high enough, offered advice to those who may be struggling. “I would absolutely recommend practicing the writing beforehand. Look up examples and have your outline structured,” she said. “So much of it is just getting the right structure and how you formulate your arguments so knowing what they’re looking for is key.”

Test prep can be time-consuming, but like anything else, practice makes perfect. There are multiple text books and online sites to help you prepare for the exam. Karren aimed to improve her math scores the second time she took the GRE and recommended this site to help strengthen math skills.

Taking advantage of resources to help you study can limit the number of times you need to take the GRE while ensuring you score high enough to remain in the applicant pool.

Posted: August 4, 2017

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