Here’s the Tea: 7 Tips for Applying to PhD Programs (& Getting Accepted!)


I’ve wanted to earn a PhD ever since I knew what the letters stood for. I have been a “nerd”, driven student, and scholar nearly my entire life. Once I discovered my passion for mental health counseling, it was a wrap. There would be nothing that could intercept my pursuit of earning the highest honor and becoming an expert in my field.

I also posted recently about my acceptance into my top PhD program in Counselor Education and Practice — Georgia State University. If you don’t know, now you know, and you should check it out!

4 applications…

3 interview invitations… (because 2 were on the same day and I had to choose one)

3 acceptances…

1 commit!

PhD programs are extremely selective, so how in the world did I do it?! Keep scrolling.

*Please note that my experience is limited to Counselor Education PhD programs, a human development field. I am unsure of whether or not these tips can be successfully applied to programs in other fields such as STEM, Arts, or Business. The tips are pretty broad, but if you’re in a field other than human development/counseling, I would cross-check this with tips specific to your field. 

*Furthermore, these tips assume a master’s level degree has been acquired before the PhD… I know there are certain programs that allow students to jump from Bachelor’s to PhD. If this is the case for you, I believe these tips are still applicable!

*Also, keep in mind that this is not like a quick-fix acne cream to apply overnight and wake up to perfection. The tips below take time and dedication. 

Okay for real this time… Let’s get into it. Get your notepads (or screen-shotting fingers) ready! Here are the 7 things that I believe contributed to my success in my PhD application process.


1. Get some mentors.

Emphasis on the “s” in “mentors”. Get you not one, not two, but at least three mentors! I intentionally placed this as tip #1 because I believe it to be the most important. The following six tips are things that I learned from who? My amazing mentors! Shoutout to them. At the time I was applying, I had about four mentors.

“There is no need to re-invent the wheel.”

A mentor is someone who has been through and to where you’re trying to go. They can give you insight, pointers, and keep it real with you when needed. They don’t necessarily need to be in your exact field, but they need to at least be attaining (i.e., current PhD student) or have attained a PhD in a related field. For example, one of my mentors serves as the director of a student program in higher education, but has a background in Counseling Psychology. Although she has no experience with Counselor Education programs specifically (yes, they’re different), and is not currently practicing psychotherapy, she was able to give me insight into the PhD application process for helping professions and provide support by reviewing and critiquing my materials for me.

Meet with your mentors regularly. Yes, I would schedule meetings with my mentors whom I didn’t come in contact with on a regular basis so that I could sit down with them, keep them abreast of things I was working on, and get their feedback on anything feedback-able.

2. Extend your learning and training beyond the classroom.

Don’t just go to class and go home. Be on the lookout for additional learning opportunities, workshops, and trainings for you to expand your knowledge. Yes, I know grad school is already expensive enough, but seeking out additional opportunities for learning will diversify your CV to stand out amongst the stack of other applicants. Even if the opportunities won’t win you an extra line on the CV, they can serve as talking points in and beyond class. Webinars, certifications, and even conferences (featured in tip #5) are some great examples, just to name a few.

3. Get to know your professors.

These are going to be the people who will write your letters of recommendation, so get to know them! It’s 2018, so most instructors’ CVs can be found on the program’s website. Comb through them, note the professors with whom you share a common research interest, and set up times or simply chat with them after class to pick their brains about the things they’re passionate about! They are typically very excited to discuss their passions with an eager student. Caution: some may be friendlier than others. Approach with caution, LOL!

4. Participate in research.

PhDs involve contributing to the literature by conducting research. If you are lucky enough to be studying in a master’s program that also houses doctoral students, ask them how you can get involved with their research. Otherwise, you can always fall back to tip #3 and ask some professors if you’re able to get involved with their research. A commitment to research at the bachelor’s or master’s level is an extremely good look when applying to PhD programs.

5. Attend and present at conferences.

Certain fields allows students to present at conferences… Go for it! Don’t be scurred! I remember my first conference presentation and feeling overwhelmed with all the symptoms of the imposter syndrome. But I leaned on my mentors and solicited their feedback prior to presenting, and have been working to hone my presentation skills over time. Conference attendance and presentations show a commitment to teaching, learning, research, and professionalism — all qualities desired in a PhD student!

6. Do your research on potential programs.

Really know which programs you’re wanting to apply to and why. Research their faculty. Is there a faculty member with research interests that align with yours? Is geographical region important to you? Browse through their program handbook to discover what your academic life would look like if you were admitted to that program. Most are featured online, or you can request a copy from a program representative.

Reach out to the professors (if the desired PhD program is different than your current master’s program). Yes, you can e-mail them, ask questions, attend information sessions, and even attend conference presentations of faculty you wish to work under in a PhD program. Shake their hand, say your name with confidence so that it sticks in their memory, and keep popping up! I think I attended about 3 conference presentations of a faculty member of GSU whom I wished to work under. After each presentation, I approached her afterwards, shook her hand and introduced myself, and stated parts of the presentation that resonated with me. By the time application season rolled around, she knew who I was and that I was committed to the process.

7. Stay organized.

When applying to PhD programs, organization is key because there are so many moving parts to the application process that it can easily overwhelm you.

It’s important to keep your CV up-to-date. I keep a copy of my CV on my laptop, and every time I complete a training, presentation, or some other experience, I add it to my CV and *save as* the date, so that I have evidence of the evolution of my CV (lol) as well as the latest copy on hand ready to go at all times.

Once I decided on the programs I wanted to apply to, I made a chart of each program with the following details:

  • The due date
  • Materials required
    • # of letters of recommendation
    • What type of personal essay (e.g., goals statement, statement of purpose, etc.)
    • CV or resume
    • GRE score required or recommended
    • Any other special application instructions
  • Interview dates (they usually disclose that information along with application information)

I organized them by the due date, so that I would be working on them most efficiently and in order. And I checked off each of the items as I completed them and uploaded them. (Most applications should be electronic at this point.)

I hope this tea was piping (i.e., helpful, lol)! Are there any specific tips you’d like to see me expand upon? Any other questions regarding the grad school application process? Any PhD students or graduates that wish to extend this list? Let me know below.

Be well. ♥


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9 thoughts on “Here’s the Tea: 7 Tips for Applying to PhD Programs (& Getting Accepted!)

  1. This is great! I applied to one program on a whim and was accepted but the weather isn’t conducive for my mental health. And it would be a great opportunity but now I’m looking at programs based off of geography . I’m going to start planning my conferences and training more specifically now! Great tips

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jamecia, omg congrats girl!!! That is awesome. I think weather is huge too! It’s important to weigh what matters lol. Also closeness to homes/support played a factor in my decision. Thanks for reading! ❤️


  2. These tips are so helpful!! I still remember Dr. Hagedorn saying that “either use or lose him!” And emphasizing always to keep in touch with them. Thanks Ashlei! & congratulations for your acceptance to all programs. It is a great success!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: What’s in My Counseling Toolbox: The 5 Must-Haves – Counselor Ashlei

  4. She said this tea was piping i.e. helpful 😂!

    But first, I have one question. You mentioned that to prepare for the application process you kept a chart of what you needed and one of them was your GRE score. PhD programs look at your GRE score? I never knew that!

    Also, this is a lot of work… especially so that you can pursue a end goal of helping others. It is very inspiring to see. I think that this field is unsung in many ways. Long live the listeners and the empathizers! In a way you all champion for peace by seeking to understand the perspectives of others and give those you encounter the opportunity to do the same. 🌷

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: I Survived My First Year as a PhD Student! | Recap & Reflections | Counselor Ashlei

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