Author : Zainab Rashid
Studying at a top US university often seemed like an idea too far-fetched, almost unattainable to me. Despite my raging self-doubt and an absolute cluelessness about the entire application procedure, I nonetheless decided to give it a shot.

Studying at a top US university often seemed like an idea too far-fetched, almost unattainable to me. Despite my raging self-doubt and an absolute cluelessness about the entire application procedure, I nonetheless decided to give it a shot. I completed my Bachelors and Masters degrees in History from Lady Shri Ram College for Women and the Faculty of Social Sciences, DU respectively. While pursuing my Master’s degree, I received employment from IIT-Bombay to work as a researcher/writer on a project for the Ministry of Culture, GOI. Almost three years into my job and in the midst of maternity leave, I decided to apply to a Ph.D. program in the USA. After a rigorous application procedure, I got accepted into the Ph.D. program of Princeton University, Department of Religious Studies with full funding covering my tuition, healthcare, and living expenses. In the following article, I will delineate a step-by-step process of applying to a Ph.D. program in the US:
Identifying a research area: A Ph.D. essentially means undertaking a scholarly inquiry into a narrow area and studying it thoroughly within the ambit of a larger discipline. For instance, a history student examines the trade networks of 18th century Gujarat as part of their Ph.D. One must identify an area of research for oneself, which ignites their interest and has the potential of becoming the subject of a five-year-long inquiry.
Identifying a potential advisor: Once you have roughly identified your area of research, the next and most important step is to look for professors who are scholars in your chosen field and has the potential to become your advisor/supervisor during your Ph.D. For instance, if you want to study the Tablighi Jama’at in contemporary Northern India, you must find a professor who specializes in South Asian religious studies, essentially Islam. The best way to do this is to do a thorough web search of the universities’ websites and see the department and faculty list. They generally offer very detailed information in this regard.
Contacting your potential advisor: You will find yourself with a list of professors from different universities whose academic profile aligns with your research interest. Draft a short but carefully written email enquiring whether they would be interested in serving as your advisor. In this, one must mention their academic background and their potential research topic for the Ph.D. While some would not reply, and some would refuse, there will be some professors who will show interest in your topic and encourage you to apply. It is the safest to apply to only those universities from where you receive a positive response. On a side note, one must roughly acquaint themselves with their potential advisor’s academic works i.e. the books and journals they have written because most likely, they set up informal meetings to understand your research interests. The best time to do this is August-September since most application deadlines are in December-January, so a considerable time to discuss these things in between is necessary.
Funding Ph.D. in the USA is usually 5 years long and mostly fully funded if top universities are concerned. The Ivy Leagues offer tuition waivers, healthcare, and a stipend. Other universities at least give partial funding. Ideally, a Ph.D. should not cost a scholar anything, which is why an applicant must abreast themselves with the funding scheme of the universities they are applying to beforehand. This information is given on the universities’ websites in detail. Partial university funding can be supplemented with external fellowships and scholarships like the Fulbright scholarship, the Aga Khan Foundation international scholarship, the American Association of University Women Fellowships, etc. One should thoroughly go through the website of each of these organizations to get to know the scholarship amount, eligibility, and when and how to apply, among others.
Application procedure: Understanding the requirements: In the US universities, generally, the following things are required as part of a Ph.D. application: a.Transcripts: Generally known as the marksheet, one must submit transcripts of all previous education after schooling i.e. from undergraduate onwards. A scanned or an electronic copy can be uploaded while filling out the application online. b.TOEFL/IELTS Score: For international students, most universities require efficiency in the English language which is represented through either TOEFL or IELTS score. A student can give either of the two exams. The best practice is to check the university admission requirements page where one is applying to understand their preference. Usually, they give a choice between either TOEFL or IELTS. Most universities also give a basic minimum score requirement for these tests. It is better to give this exam at least two-three months before the application deadline so that one has enough time to prepare the writing sample and statement of purpose. The scores are valid for two years. c.GRE: GRE scores were anyway not required for all the courses and to our relief, most US universities in the recent past have waived off the GRE requirement. Yet it is best to check the requirements of the university one is applying to, whether they need GRE or not. d.Letters of Recommendations (LoRs): Two or three LoRs are required. These should be from the college professors and can be also taken from one’s employer, if at all. LoRs should be requested from people with whom you share a good rapport and who you think will write a positive and detailed LoR for you. Never ask for an LoR from someone with whom you share a vague acquaintance. This is because a student can’t read the LoR before its submission. The faculty uploads it directly to the university application portal. Please give your faculty ample notice, at least 15-20 days before your application submission. e.Writing Sample: One of the most decisive parts of the entire application, a writing sample, preferably of 6000-7000 words is needed by all the universities in the US. This can be a research paper, thesis, or dissertation that the applicant had written in the past. The best practice is to send something which is broadly linked to the course of study you are applying to. Before submitting, make necessary edits to fine-tune the rough edges of the paper. This will truly speak for the applicant’s scholarly and writing capabilities. f.Statement of Purpose (SoP): An SoP can make or break one’s application. While the SoP for a Master’s program tends to be personal in nature, a Ph.D. SoP should reflect critical thinking and scholarly maturity. One must, very comprehensively, discuss their research interest which they would like to pursue as part of their Ph.D. in the SoP. It’s important to raise critical research questions and problematize the research area. It should show awareness of the current research trends in the field and point out where the applicant fits in and what he/she brings to the table. Pitching important questions is more important than giving answers in the SoP. One should always mention the academic methodology and tools they would employ to study the area and name the professor who they see as their potential advisor. Please don’t write more than 1500 words in the SoP. Brevity and maturity are the keys to a good SoP. Very good samples are available on the internet, usually on the universities’ websites. One must go through them. I would humbly advise you not to apply to more than 5 universities because the application fee is costly and requires meticulous effort. Shortlisted applicants are interviewed before releasing the final result. Happy applying!


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