Going shopping: how to make your list of target PhD programs

graduate admissions PhD admissions school selection strategy

You just won a shopping spree to your favorite clothing brand. Elated, you spend your Saturday trying on the entire store (if you hate shopping, stay with me). You try on a shirt. It looks decent. You try on another. Now that looks good on you. After trying on 100 items you like, you buy 15 you love. This is how generating your list of target PhD programs should feel! 

When should I generate my list of programs? 

First. Before essays, before GREs, before requests for letters of recommendation. While programs may not update which principal investigators (PIs) are taking students until summer or early fall of the application cycle, you do not have to wait for this to start generating your list. 

How long will it take?

While the answer to this question is going to range on several personal factors, it is easy to underestimate the amount of time it will take to gather your list of programs. I started shopping a whole year prior to when applications were due, two years prior to starting my PhD, knowing that I had a variety of research interests and that I tend to be overly thorough in all types of shopping. Since applications are typically due in the fall, I recommend starting your list the fall of the year before, or the spring of the same year. Don’t expect to do this in one or two sittings. Shop. Systematically browse. Set aside 1-2 hours a day for 2-3 days a week until you feel you have browsed your entire field or hit your saturation point. 

How many programs should I put on my list and how many should I apply to? 

The recommended number of program applications varies by acceptance rates in each subfield. I applied to 15 Clinical Psychology PhD programs, receiving seven interviews and two offers. When making your list ahead of time, include about double the number of programs that you want to apply to. Let them marinate. Over time, additional information (or your gut) might lead you to eliminate a few. Then, when summer/fall of the application cycle rolls around and programs update which faculty members are taking students, your list will automatically be slimmed down further. Hopefully, you will be left with your target number of programs or more as solid options to apply to. 

How should I choose programs? 

Choose target programs based on the research interests held by faculty. This is far more important than the ranking of the school at the PhD level. In most programs, you are applying to be the mentee of a single faculty member as much as you are applying to be a doctoral student in the overall program. 

Be realistic about location. If you would be miserable living in Chicago because you are allergic to wind and cold, don’t apply there. PhD students are already stressed and at risk for anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. Go somewhere where you know you can support your mental health within the geographical environment.

Don’t ignore funding. Again, be realistic about what you need. Remember that there are ways to get outside grants if you work for it, but it is important to look at what is provided within house. Due to my personal circumstances I chose to apply exclusively to fully funded programs.

Finally, notice your reactions as you browse and read. You are shopping for the programs and faculty members who make you say, “now that looks good on me.” If you found the right type of program for you and you give yourself time to shop, this process can and should be fun and inspiring.


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