If you’re looking for the right university to obtain your PhD at, then you’re probably already an expert in your area of interest and want to back that up with the right credentials. You may also be tempted by access to the world’s top universities’ research capabilities, which could allow you to conduct empirical studies of whatever it is that you’re interested in.

Regardless of whether you’re a math-oriented person looking to get a doctor’s degree in one of the STEM fields, or you’re more inclined towards social sciences, there is no better place for you to look for a satisfactory PhD program than the United States of America!

It’s home to some of the most prestigious universities in the world. With flexible curriculums, beautiful campus grounds, and some top-notch job opportunities, you’re sure to find what you’re looking for in the States.

There is a significant difference in the approach to PhD studies in the USA and the rest of the world. The PhD programs are much more structured and provide comprehensive, thorough training to complement your independent research.

One of the most challenging and troublesome parts of obtaining a PhD in the USA is the application process itself. There are plenty of things to take care of, and if you’re not stringent about it, you might find yourself failing to secure funding or worse yet, getting denied on your visa application.

Consider this page to be your go-to guide to the US PhD programs and opportunities. Here, you’ll find all the information you could possibly need regarding the PhD application process, the best schools to satisfy your research interests, as well as information regarding funding and tuition fees.

PhD in the USA vs. Anywhere Else

The most fundamental difference between partaking in a PhD program in the United States and Europe is the structure of your studies. While the British and European universities tend to focus on the individual pursuit of your area of interest, schools in the States are more inclined towards helping you hone your skills and expertise. If you consider yourself more independent and don’t like too much oversight when conducting research, you may want to think twice before deciding to study in the USA.

American universities will allow you to apply for a PhD right after completing your undergraduate degree, whereas in European and British universities, a master’s degree is a requirement. So if the only accreditation you’ve got is a bachelor’s degree, but you still want to pursue a PhD, you’re left with no choice but to study in the USA.

In terms of workload, you’ll have much more to do at an American university. The entire duration of your program will be much longer than in the case of other schools, with about five to six years on average to complete the studies. In Europe, most PhD degrees can be obtained within three or four years.

On top of that, schools in the USA will actively encourage you to pursue research assistantships and other side activities that will not only contribute to your workload but could also serve as a means to generate additional income. While the positions of a research or teaching assistant are also available at European and British universities, these opportunities are not nearly as plentiful as in the case of American institutions.

Finally, there is one major difference in the application process. While students hoping to get into a university in the UK or Europe have to present their research project prior to getting into the school, it is a vital part of the decision process. On the other hand, in the US, you can apply to a particular department and submit your research proposal later on, after you’ve been accepted into the student body.

PhD in America 2020: Overview of Universities

The concentration of universities and other higher education establishments in the United States can give many prospective students quite a headache in the beginning. The US Department of Education lists 4,298 degree-granting educational institutions as of 2019. Not all of them can grant PhDs, but even after subtracting those out, you’ll still end up with a wide range of universities to pick from. To make it easier for you, we’ve categorized them so that you can narrow down your choice to the school profile that suits you best.

Public vs. Private

While the day-to-day campus life does not differ much, whether you’re in a public or a private school, the most important discrepancy is that regarding tuition fees. Public universities receive funding from governmental institutions, while private schools rely mostly on donations and other sources. This means that private institutions will charge higher tuition fees (on average) than public state universities.

If you’re from the USA, you should keep in mind that state (public) universities impose much lower fees on students originally from the same state as the school. If you’re not hellbent on moving out of your home state and exploring the country, you might want to consider looking at the local public options first, as you won’t have to chase after as much funding.

Graduate Schools

A graduate school is a specialized entity with the purpose of running its mother university’s graduate programs. There are various kinds of graduate schools — some of the largest and wealthiest universities in the USA might have a few of these, each one specializing in a particular subject.

It’s important to know what they are, since more likely than not, you’ll end up sending your PhD application over to a graduate school belonging to a certain university rather than the main institution itself. Keep this distinction in mind when applying — you don’t want to be enrolled in a bachelor’s degree program all over again!

The Ivy League and Other Groups

When considering getting a PhD in the USA, you’ll come across one of the Ivy League schools sooner or later. The Ivy League is a group composed of the most prestigious higher education establishments in all of the United States. It includes schools like Harvard, Princeton, or Columbia University. The competition to get into one of these is fierce, and you might have to prove remarkable skill and aptitude in order to secure funding. As the elite of American universities, these institutions charge some of the world’s highest tuition fees.

Thankfully, your choice isn’t limited to the Ivy League. There are other university groups, such as the Public Ivy (comparable to Ivy League schools in terms of teaching quality with much lower fees) or the Association of American Universities (AAU).  Members of either of these groups offer quality education and research facilities at a fraction of the price of an Ivy League tuition.

Online PhD Programs

Not everybody looking to obtain a PhD in the USA has the time and resources they can devote to the full-time pursuit of a degree. Whether it’s work or other responsibilities that are preventing you from enrolling in person, you should not give up on your ambitions. There are plenty of online PhD options in the USA for both domestic and international students. They usually come at a fraction of the cost of a regular, in-person degree, with funding options available as well.


You can find all sorts of PhD programs to pursue online, from computer science through management all the way to business administration. It’s also possible to study some of the more specialized subjects, such as behavioral analysis, which is quite convenient if you already have a masters degree in a more general area and would like to get a PhD in a certain niche.

USA University Rankings 2020

There are plenty of official university rankings that pit all of the schools against each other with the aim of helping students find the most suitable program. Rankings such as the Times Higher Education Ranking or the TopUniversities Ranking are immensely helpful when it comes to comparing various schools and PhD curricula. Still, it’s important to avoid getting caught up in the comparison game too much.

There are thousands upon thousands of schools in the world, and the most prestigious, elite schools always take up the first 50 spots on these lists. This can lead some students to disregard some of the lower-ranked schools as not worthy of their time and money.

Do not make that mistake. Aside from comparing universities using some of the rankings mentioned above, you should also check student satisfaction ratings and browse through lists of faculty members working at the department you’d like to apply to. These factors are equally as important as general rankings, and they might have a significant impact on your final decision.

Most Popular Student Cities

The USA is a huge country, and, like every large nation, its various regions are fundamentally different from each other. There are quite a few “student hotspots” across the fifty states. Here are four of the most popular ones. Each one is located in a completely different area of the country in order to give you the most complete overview of the US as a whole.

New York City

The Big Apple is probably the most popular student and tourist destination in the whole of the United States. It attracts dozens of thousands of prospective domestic and international students. It’s home to such prestigious institutions as the NYU, Columbia University, or the Juilliard School. NYC is a vibrant, multicultural metropolis — a great place to pursue higher education in performing arts or social sciences.

Chicago

If you want to get a more gritty, day-to-day American reality, free of the distractions of the fairytale-like life in New York, you might want to give Chicago a shot. It isn’t as glamorous as NYC or San Francisco, which also means that the cost of living is a bit lower in this city. You’ll have a pick of some great schools, such as the University of Chicago or the Northeastern University of Illinois, just to name a few.

San Francisco

San Francisco has traditionally been at the forefront of social justice in the USA. As such, it is one of the most inclusive and friendly cities for students from all kinds of different backgrounds. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the cost of living in San Francisco or all of California, for that matter. Since the city’s close proximity to Silicon Valley, it makes for a great place for students pursuing a PhD in the STEM fields. You’ll have the opportunity to land an internship or a full-time position at one of the tech giants located there. The competition is fierce, though, so you’ll have to be at your very best to stand a chance!

Houston

You might be slightly baffled by seeing a Texas city on a list of the most student-friendly places, but there was simply no way for us to exclude Houston from this list, especially if you’re looking for a place to get a PhD in USA. Houston is home to Rice University, a school with a strong focus on comprehensive research. There is also the University of Houston or the Texas Southern University, both of which are strong, household names with rich histories. The Sunbelt Capital is the perfect place to meet some great, like-minded people and focus on your research, far away from the hustle and bustle of New York or San Francisco, not to mention the complete lack of annoying travelers and tourist-trap restaurants!

Finding the Right Program and University: a Checklist

Choosing the right school to obtain a PhD is a tough task. Once you’ve narrowed down your options a little by taking a look at the rankings and finding a city to spend the next six years of your life in, you need to take a more detailed look at the universities and the programs they have on offer. If you’re having trouble evaluating all of the information, help yourself by using the checklist below!

  • Research facilities. Do they suit your needs? Are you going to be able to conduct all of the empirical and theoretical research you need to complete your PhD dissertation?
  • Faculty members. Take a good, long look at all of the professors who work at each school. Try and identify those whose work interests you the most — those people will be immensely helpful throughout your PhD program.
  • Funding opportunities. Look into all of the scholarships, grants, research, and teaching assistantships available at each school to see where you’re most likely to secure funding.
  • Job placement rates. In the end, the likelihood of you getting a job is entirely up to you and your own skills and experience, but the university you’ve graduated from can influence these characteristics in more than one way. Checking up on how many former students of the department you’re interested in have achieved professional success can be a good way of evaluating the actual quality of education you’ll get at each particular institution.
  • Extra-curriculars. Whether it is on-campus activities, groups, or teams, or activities outside of the school grounds, you should make sure that there is something you can do in your free time in the vicinity of your chosen university. Four to six years is a very long time, and you’re not going to spend all of it studying.

Structure of a PhD Program in the USA

The initial stages of a PhD in USA are very similar to taught masters degree programs. You might even end up in some courses with masters students in the beginning! The taught classes and modules are divided into two groups: core classes and elective courses. The completion of core subjects is obligatory if you want to pass the year, while elective courses are optional, but bear in mind that you will need to pass some of them in order to satisfy the program requirements.

Once you’re done with all of your classes, you’ll have to pass a dissertation qualifying exam, which is a comprehensive examination that will test your knowledge and evaluate whether or not you’re qualified to carry out your own research.

After the exam, you’ll have to go through the lengthy and difficult process of conducting research and writing your dissertation. This stage of a PhD study consists of choosing your research topic and submitting a dissertation prospectus (research proposal). This is an essay outlining the entire project, your methodology, and the intended outcomes. Afterward, you’ll be assigned a group of advisors (a.k.a. “committee of supervisors”) who will provide you with assistance and evaluate your work as you go along.

As for the grading and assessment of your work during the US PhD program, you will be assessed based on the following:

  • coursework – essays and examinations from all of your core and elective courses,
  • examinations – a comprehensive exam that meant to assess whether you’re ready to begin conducting research or not,
  • dissertation prospectus – the outline of your intended research and its oral defense,
  • dissertation defense  –  the culmination of your PhD pursuit — the presentation and oral defense of your dissertation.

Applying for a PhD in the USA: What to Expect?

Once you start applying to your chosen schools, it is important to keep calm and have an alternative course of action in mind in case things don’t go the way you planned. Admissions to American schools are amongst some of the most competitive globally, so there is a high likelihood of failure at every stage of the process. Even students with impeccable accreditation and outstanding letters of recommendation get rejected, which is why it is so important to be mentally prepared for every outcome.

As for the practical side of things, everything you’ll need to submit is listed below.

Application Materials

It’s quite likely that some universities will expect you to submit some extra materials with your PhD application, but you’re expected to have the following at the ready regardless of where you’re applying:

  • academic transcripts,
  • personal statement,
  • entry test scores,
  • CV (resume),
  • letters of recommendation,
  • research statement,
  • writing samples.

Admission Requirements

You already know that a master’s degree isn’t a requirement to pursue a PhD in USA. There are, however, other criteria that schools will use to evaluate whether or not you’re a suitable candidate. This includes a Grade Point Average (GPA) based on the academic transcripts you’ve provided, your Graduate Records Exam (GRE) results, as well as widely recognized English proficiency test (ex. IELTS or TOEFL) if you come from a non-English speaking country. 

After you’ve successfully satisfied the admission requirements presented above, some schools might invite you for a format interview, after which they will come to a final decision. Keep in mind that not all schools hold interviews, and many of them will accept or deny your application based only upon the submitted materials.

Finances and Aid

Tuition payments for a PhD study in the United States are incredibly high, with dozens of thousands of dollars per year being the standard nationwide. According to the American National Center for Education Statistics, the average yearly fee at private universities was as high as $44,000. Public (state) universities charge much less than that, although it is still a hefty fee at around $13,000 per year for in-state students. Those coming from another state or abroad should expect a much higher payment, albeit still lower than what they’d need to pay at one of the private establishments.

You should plan your finances ahead of your PhD application so that you don’t end up with crippling debt at the end of your studies (unless you’re absolutely certain that you’re able to pay it off). Whether it’s through various assistantships at the school, funding programs, or scholarships, you should not have to go into your PhD studies worrying about how you’re going to pay for them.

Information for International Students

Incoming international students need to face additional screening and evaluation in order to get admitted to their chosen university. This is mostly due to the lengthy visa process, but you should also have some time set aside to figure out your living arrangements and travel itinerary.

The Visa Process

Once you’re accepted for a PhD at a university approved by the Student Exchange and Visitor Programme, the visa process will be fairly straightforward, albeit lengthy, and quite unpleasant. Here are the main steps that students wishing to enroll in a PhD program at an American university need to go through:

  • Paying the $200 SEVIS registration fee. The Student Exchange Visitor Information System charges a pretty hefty fee for registering you within their ranks. Unfortunately, without this payment, your university won’t be able to provide you with the right visa application form (the I-20).
  • Filling out the online application. This will require you to fill out another form, as well as upload a current picture of yourself. You’ll also have to pay a $160 application fee.
  • Schedule and attend a visa interview. The interview will take place in the US Embassy in your home country, and it’s not as scary as it sounds. Just make sure to bring all of the required documents, and you’ll be good to go!

If you want to avoid going through all that trouble just to be able to get a PhD in the USA, remember that you can also complete an online program with a school located in the States. These degrees are just as valid as those obtained in the traditional manner, with the added benefit of students completing all the coursework at their own pace, should their schedule not allow them to enroll in a full-time PhD program.

The Bottom Line

Getting a PhD in USA is a major aspiration of many students all over the world. Such a degree opens up many career paths, not to mention the ability to teach at universities! A PhD is particularly helpful if you want to land a well-paying job in the USA as a foreigner. It is much easier to get a work visa with such accreditation, especially if you’ve received your PhD at an American university.

Not only does a PhD provide you with many opportunities that would otherwise have been unavailable to you, but it also immensely contributes to your personal growth. Becoming a true expert in your area of interest is incredibly fulfilling, arguably more so than the career prospects that come with a PhD degree.