10th Apr 2023
Afia Azmi

Your Roadmap to a PhD in the USA: The Ultimate Guide | 2023

A PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) is a postgraduate research degree awarded after a research project. 

PhD programs in the USA often involve coursework, seminars, and independent research projects. The program length varies depending on the field of study and the research topic. However, most PhD programs require students to complete a minimum of four years of study and research. Upon completion of the program, graduates are well-prepared for careers in academia, research, and industry.

Universities worldwide highly regard and recognize the PhD program in the United States. It also gives you access to cutting-edge research and knowledge and the chance to collaborate with renowned academic faculty members.

How do you select the most suitable PhD program for you?

Step 1 - Before selecting a PhD program, it is important to identify your research interests. 

Step 2 - Once you have identified your research interests, you can start researching potential PhD programs.

Step 3 - When researching PhD programs, it is important to consider their admission requirements. 

Step 4 - Look for faculty members whose research interests align with yours, and whose work you find interesting. 

Step 5 - When selecting a PhD program, you should also consider the location of the university, as well as the resources available to you.

Types of PhD

1.) Traditional PhD - A conventional PhD is a doctoral degree awarded after a research-based dissertation. It is the highest academic degree and typically requires three to five years of study and research. A dissertation is a written work that evaluates, analyzes, and synthesizes research. 

2.) Professional Doctorate - A professional doctorate is a type of doctorate that focuses on practice-based research and prepares students for professional careers like law (J.D.J.D.), medicine (M.D.M.D.), or dentistry (D.D.S.). It enhances their skills, knowledge, and expertise in their chosen field. It typically requires coursework, a comprehensive exam, a dissertation, internships, and clinical rotations. 

3.) Joint PhD - A joint PhD is a doctorate obtained jointly from two or more universities. This type of program often involves collaboration between two universities, whereby a student studies at both universities and receives a joint degree from both. 

4.) Interdisciplinary PhD - An interdisciplinary PhD is a type of doctoral program that allows students to integrate different areas of knowledge and research. It combines elements from two or more disciplinary fields, such as sociology, psychology, and anthropology, to create an original research focus or approach. 

Top PhD programs in the USA

Popular S.T.E.M. PhD programs in the USA include computer science, engineering, mathematics, and physics.

Other popular PhD programs include -

  1. Business Administration and Management

With a PhD in business administration and management, one can gain an advanced understanding of business and management fundamentals.

  1. Psychology

A PhD in psychology is a terminal degree that qualifies students to become researchers, professors, or practitioners in the field. It focuses on advanced study in a particular area of psychology, such as clinical, developmental, or cognitive psychology.

  1. Public Health

A PhD in public Health prepares students to become public health professionals. It gives them the necessary knowledge and skills to conduct research, analyze data, and develop and implement evidence-based public health interventions

  1. Economics

A PhD in Economics provides a strong foundation and prepares students to pursue research-oriented jobs in academia, government, and the private sector.

Top Universities for PhD in the USA

  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
  • Stanford University
  • Harvard University
  • University of California, Berkeley
  • California Institute of Technology (Caltech)
  • Princeton University
  • University of Chicago
  • University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
  • Columbia University
  • Johns Hopkins University

Course Structure

Duration - 4-6 years 

Academic Year - August-December and January-May

CourseworkPhD students are generally required to take a certain number of courses, which may include core courses related to their field of study and elective courses. The number of courses required varies, usually between 4-6. Students typically complete these courses during the program's first two to three years.
Qualifying ExamsAfter coursework, students must pass qualifying exams. These exams differ depending on the program but usually include written and oral components. The qualifying exam aims to demonstrate that the student understands their field of study and is ready to begin independent research. 
Dissertation ResearchAfter passing their qualifying exams, students will begin dissertation research. This research, which usually requires close collaboration with a faculty advisor, can take 2 to 5 years to complete. Finally, the student must write a dissertation in which they present their research findings and defend their findings.
Dissertation DefenseOnce the dissertation is completed, the student must defend it before a faculty committee. The defense usually begins with a research presentation, followed by questions from committee members. 

How to apply for PhD in the USA?


Step 1Research ProgramsLook for PhD programs and potential supervisors that match your interests and resources. 
Step 2Meet the RequirementsPhD programs typically require a certain number of years of previous study and a minimum grade point average.
Step 3Contact Potential AdvisorsContact supervisors to discuss your research interests. Determine if they can provide you with a position in their research group. Make sure you provide evidence of your qualifications and research experience.
Step 4Submit ApplicationsWhen submitting a PhD application, it is essential to ensure that you understand the research the program focuses on and how your research interests align with the schedule. 
Step 5Attend the InterviewOnce the application is reviewed and approved, the applicant may be invited to attend an interview with the university's research staff. This interview allows applicants to demonstrate their knowledge.
Step 6Wait for your OfferAfter submitting your application, you must wait for admission decisions
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The cost of a PhD in the USA varies depending on the school and field of study. Most PhD programs are funded by research grants, teaching fellowships, and scholarships. Students may still need to cover tuition, fees, books, and living expenses. 

The total cost of a PhD program, including tuition and living expenses, can range from USD 131,000 to USD 263,000, depending on how long it takes to complete the program.

  • Public Institutions charge an average of USD 12,394 annually.
  • Private Institutions charge an average of USD 26,621 annually

How to Fund your PhD?

Funding for PhD programs in the USA is available through universities and research grants.

Fellowships - Several fellowships and grants including university-specific fellowships, government-funded grants, and private scholarships. Some examples of such fellowships are Fulbright-Nehru Fellowships and Tata Scholarships.

Teaching Assistantships - These are among the most common forms of funding for PhD students. Teaching assistantships involve working as an instructor or teaching assistant, usually at the university where the student is enrolled.

External Grants and Scholarships - External grants and scholarships are an excellent way to fund your PhD, philanthropic organizations, and government agencies often offer these grants and scholarships. They are usually merit-based, so you must demonstrate academic excellence to be eligible. 

Eligibility Criteria

  • Applicants must have a bachelor's degree or equivalent coursework.
  • Applicants must also demonstrate strong academic performance and provide letters of recommendation from professors or mentors.
  • Some programs also require applicants to take entrance exams such as the GRE or GMAT. 

Generally, to be eligible for a PhD in the USA, you must -

  • Have completed at least 16 years of education, with a bachelor's degree, master's degree, or the equivalent.
  • Letters of Recommendation
  • Well-written Research Proposal
  • Minimum GPA. of 3 - 3.6 out of 4 
  • English Proficiency Test Scores
  • GRE and GMAT are the actual entrance tests. A 320+ GRE score is acceptable.
Career options post PhD inGermany
PositionMedian Income (Annually)
Professors80,790 USD
Business Researchers84,000 USD
Data Scientists/Product Managers118,000 USD
Physicists101,100 USD
Consultant91,000 USD
Postdoctoral Research Associates55,200 USD

Post-study Visa Options

Optional Practical Training (OPT) - International students can take advantage of a temporary work permit known as Optional Practical Training, which permits them to work in the USA for up to a year after graduation. Furthermore, students who have majored in S.T.E.M. may be eligible for an additional 24 months of OPT

H-1B Visa - The H-1B visa is a work visa for highly qualified employees, such as recent graduates with specialized skills or knowledge. Specifically, it is employer-sponsored and typically requires a job offer from an American employer.

F-1 Visa Extension - Students pursuing further education or research in the USA may be eligible for an F-1 visa extension. 

EB-1 Visa: This is a green card option for people with exceptional ability in their field, such as those with advanced degrees or exemplary achievements. 

O-1 Visa - This is a work visa that is granted to individuals who have showcased extraordinary ability in their field, which could include those with advanced degrees or exceptional achievements.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q.1) How important is contacting faculty before I apply?

For PhD programs, it is highly recommended that you contact faculty before you apply. This will allow you to understand their research interests and determine if there is a potential fit. It also allows the faculty members to get to know you and your research interests, which can be beneficial when considering your application. 

Q.2) How do you approach prospective supervisors?

As a PhD student, you must demonstrate your enthusiasm, knowledge, and research experience when approaching potential supervisors. Be prepared to explain why you are interested in their work and discuss your research ideas and any relevant experience. Additionally, be prepared with any questions about the research program and expectations. 

Q.3) How long is a PhD dissertation?

The length of a PhD dissertation varies depending on the field and the university, but typically it's between 80,000 and 100,000 words. 

Q.4) Do you need to write your research proposal? 

Yes, in most cases, you do. Writing your research proposal is important because it allows you to explain the research topic you are interested in and how you plan to approach it. It also allows you to demonstrate your knowledge and understanding of the case and refine your research questions. If you need help writing your research proposal, consider contacting a tutor who can provide guidance and feedback as you develop your proposal.

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