How to Apply for a PhD in the US: Advice from a Successful Applicant

Laura Bridgestock

Updated April 19, 2021 Updated April 19

Platon Selemenakis
Greek student Platon Selemenakis is pursuing a PhD in the US at Colorado State University, specializing in cancer biology. Having attended the QS World Grad School Tour while researching his study options, Platon spoke to the TopUniversities team to share his advice on choosing a university, submitting a successful PhD application, and adapting to life in the US.

What motivated you to apply for a PhD in cancer biology?

I was always interested in research, especially in cancer biology. This particular field is very challenging, mainly because the behavior of cancer cells is not black and white. The more you dig into the different pathways that drive tumorigenesis, the more vague it gets. I love challenges and that is why I took the big step to start a PhD in cancer biology.

What and where did you study previously?

In 2014, I graduated from the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens with a BSc in Biology. After my graduation I worked for two years in Dr Gorgoulis’ lab at the Medical School of Athens, Greece.

Why were you attracted to studying a PhD in the US?

I have the privilege of being a dual citizen; I am Greek-American. I was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Greece. I have family in the States so the decision was easy. In addition, universities in the US offered me a chance to apply directly for a PhD, which is what I wanted.

How did you choose a university? What made you decide on Colorado State?

I searched for universities based on two things: the PhD program of my interest and faculty members involved in research that I am interested in. Last year’s QS World Grad School Tour event in Greece also helped me find other universities to apply to. In fact, St. John’s University in New York was one of the universities that I had actually had the chance to meet with at the event.

Finally, when I had to narrow down which offer to accept, I went with Colorado State University (CSU) in Fort Collins, Colorado. When I went for the interviews at CSU, I was amazed by the program, the faculty members who I had the chance to speak with, and the quality of the research. St. John’s did not have the type of research I was looking for, so my decision was easy and I chose CSU. Not to mention that the town here in Fort Collins is beautiful and the people are amazing.

What is most important when choosing a PhD program?

When you are at the point of finding a university for your PhD, you have to consider:

1) Do they have the PhD of your interest?

2) What are the admission requirements and do you meet them?

3) Faculty members and their quality of research, papers published, grants

4) Tuition, stipend and living costs – can you make it through with the amount of money offered?

What advice would you give to others applying for a PhD in the US?

Start searching for the PhD programs that you will apply to ahead of time, at least one year before. Start preparing for the standardized tests at least seven to eight months before the application deadlines. Spend some time researching the work of faculty members that you would like to work with. Finally, apply to more than one university, as the positions for PhD are highly competitive

What do you think makes a strong PhD application?

The key to success is a strong GPA (grade point average), a diverse CV and a flawless personal statement. Also, if you have publications, it is always a helpful addition.

In the US, apart from a good GPA and high marks on the standardized tests, they also look at the extracurricular activities you’re involved in. They are not searching for a student that is all about school and work, but a person who is active, enrolled in volunteer groups or in sports clubs.

When it comes to the personal interviews, show your passion and be well-informed about the research work of your interviewers. You need to show them that you care about the position and that they should choose you over several other candidates.

How has your experience of studying in the US been so far?

I can say that so far my experience has been the very best. I am very happy with my decision. My schedule is quite hectic during the week, but my work is productive and I enjoy it. So far, no surprises and I hope it will stay like this.

The most challenging thing was to adapt to the lifestyle here and the cultural differences. It was difficult in the beginning. However, I manage day by day to overcome these challenges by meeting other international students, attending events and being involved in sports clubs. Always be open to new things!

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This article was originally published in November 2016 . It was last updated in January 2020

Written by

The former editor of TopUniversities.com, Laura oversaw the site's editorial content and student forums. She also edited the QS Top Grad School Guide and contributed to market research reports, including 'How Do Students Use Rankings?'

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