How to Search for a PhD Program

When I started looking for grad schools I knew I wanted to do a PhD in Electrical Engineering and I wanted it to be tied to health applications, but other than that I had no clear idea of what exactly I wanted to study. This made looking for grad schools really daunting. How do you figure out which schools have programs you are interested in? How do you choose where to apply when there are hundreds of graduate engineering programs out there?

The secret is it takes time. Time to sort through universities, programs and labs. With a PhD program, the most important part is finding research you are interested in and an advisor you want to work with. In this post, I’m going to cover how to start this process. If you want to learn more about what to look for in a school and what to ask your potential advisor, check out some of my previous blogs!

Find Your Focus Area

The first step in this process is to narrow down what you are interested in. This is going to involve a lot of googling. Your goal is to narrow down your interests into a few categories so you can find schools that do work in those areas. For example, I narrowed my interests down into wearable health monitoring, human/machine interface, and aerospace related wearable technology. 

Start by looking up schools with a PhD program in your broad area of interest. Go to the “research” tab on their website and look at the categories they divide their work into. If any of them sound interesting, dig deeper and learn more about what that particular area of study focuses on. If it sparks your interest, use that same language or category for your next google search.

As you narrow down your interests you can begin to search PhD programs in that narrower field of interest.

You can also look up that field and look at higher-level articles about cool research going on in that field. For example, if I google “wearable health research” there are some easy to read news and magazine articles that come up. These articles usually include specific labs and universities that are doing research in that area. These articles are also much easier to read than research papers! 

Determine Other Criteria

Once you have a few focused topics you are interested in, determine other criteria for your search. 

Is there a state or region you want to be in? 

Do you want a university that also has specific clubs or activities ? 

Do you want to be in a big city? 

These things can seem trivial compared to finding research you want to dedicate the next few years of your life to but they are so important. 

Search With Your Specifics

Now that you know your area of focus and other criteria you care about start searching! Find the universities, labs and professors you are interested in and keep track of them!  It’s also a good idea to make sure there are at least 2 labs you are interested in at each school.

The number of universities you apply to is totally up to you, but try to create a list with a few more universities than you actually plan on applying to. This gives you flexibility and more options if you decide later you aren’t actually interested in a certain program. I applied to ~6 programs but I also know some people applied to 2! It is totally up to you!

If you are just starting your search or looking for more guidance in the grad school application process, email me at about one on one coaching! I can help you get organized, find great recommendation writers, put your application materials together and offer my insights to the whole process!

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