How to Apply for a PhD in US in 5 Steps

Many Sri Lankan students struggle to find quality sources of information on higher studies except for those who are lucky extremely enough to have the right connections. This guide will help you learn about graduate study opportunities and how to discover them. 

First of all, I should mention about US-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission. They offer wide range of advice on undergraduate and graduate education in USA. If you’re serious about planning your higher education, you should definitely visit them. 

Let me start by introducing application periods. There are two seasons for applications: Spring and Fall. Usually it’s difficult to get funding in Spring. Because of that reason most students apply for the Fall term. Whichever season you’re applying, you have to start one year before your program start date. For example, if you want to enroll in grad school in Fall 2019, you should apply this year before the deadline (usually in December).


Research your options. The most important decision is the choice of your college. However, you should not follow rankings blindly. The reason is that some rankings are merely based on specific criteria. In contrast, there are also research related rankings which are based on the number of publications of researchers in the university. Don’t just look at the number but also look at the meaning behind those numbers. 

When you’re searching information about universities it can be overwhelming so I created a table to record all my universities. Here’s a snapshot. 

University 1University 2
Total Cost (per annum)
Scholarship types 
GRE score
Graduation Percentage
Deadline for application

Usually students select 10 universities. 40% from dream ivy league universities and 60% from distinguished but with a higher acceptance rate. 

The best source of information is the website of the university that you’re interested. You can extract information about all of the factors below from their website. One of the critical factors is the major that you’re going to study. There can be subtle differences in names but the PhD programs might be vastly different based on their focus. 

I know there are many terms that you might not be aware of. But let’s start with fulfilling university requirements. 


Laying out the ground work. You need to summarize the GRE (Graduate Record Examinations) and TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) score requirements. Some universities do accept IELTS score but TOEFL is accepted pretty much in every college  in US. 

Planning out before hand for the test is crucial. The US-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission provides free library facilities and tons of resources for these exams. The higher your score, the higher your bargaining power is. However, this does not mean that scores are the only critical factor of consideration. It also depends on your research experience, work experience and personality traits.


Presenting yourself. The US graduate application process requires you to prepare two essays: Personal Statement and Statement of Purpose (SoP). 

Personal Statement is where you describe about yourself, your ambitions, experiences that shaped you to be the unique character that you are. Although this seems trivial, this exercise makes you question all of your experiences that you’ve had up to the point you’re applying. I rewrote four personal statements. Only on the fourth try was I satisfied with what I had written.

Statement of Purpose commonly referred to as SoP is the most critical essay. This is the place where you describe your research experience, work experience and how all of that will help you for the PhD that you’re applying. You also have to describe about your ambitions and what you will do having achieved your PhD goals. Again, this process made me question what I really wanted to achieve in life. One thing that I really admire about the admission process is that even before you get selected, the process of applying it self starts to shape your character. 

You also need two or three recommendation letters from professors or  lecturers in your undergraduate institute. This is one of the hardest tasks because they might be very busy with academic work. You might have to let them know in advance (about 2 months earlier) than your deadline. Plan ahead and allow for contingency. 


Discovering scholarship opportunities. A PhD is a huge investment of time and money. Funding is a major problem that you have to solve. There are three major types of funding available for international students.

  1. Fellowship
  2. Teaching assistantship
  3. Research assistantship

A fellowship is a fully funded scholarship awarded by the university based on merits (Academic excellence and other achievements). It’s really tough to secure a fellowship.

A teaching assistantship is where you have to work as a teaching assistant for a given number of hours per week. This includes marking papers, assisting students with course work etc. 

A research assistantship is where you get the chance to work on your research and you’re paid for your work (Monthly stipend). Your tuition is also covered by the assistantship. This is the best deal and it requires a lot of effort to secure a research assistantship. 

You might want to go through the college website and find available funding options. Some professors might be openly hiring and the university might be expanding at a rapid rate. It’s always good to keep your eyes open.

At this point, let’s see the two ways of playing this game.


Prof Hunting. To apply for a PhD, you have to go the university website and fill in their application, submit test scores and provide letters of recommendation and SoPs. There are two ways of securing a position and funding.

  1. Applying through the university website by filling the application and submitting test scores, academic transcripts and recommendation letters and hoping that the university will offer you a fellowship / teaching assistantship or hoping that a professor would come across your application when going through the pool of applicants and award you a research assistantship.
  2. Communicating with potential PhD advisors through email and submitting your test scores, academic transcripts and recommendation letters. If the advisor is interested, he / she will advise you on how to officially apply through the university website. 

In my view, option 2 is the way. But I chose option 1 for universities where I did not hear back from any professors I sent emails. I chose option 2 for universities in which I found a professor who was interested in hiring me. But the important thing to note is that playing safe can take you a long way. 

And that’s it. If you feel that this post was enlightening 😉, please leave a comment behind. If you want more details, feel free to contact me through the contact form.

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