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Studying a PhD in The USA - The Complete Guide


The USA is a favourable postgraduate study destination for international students due to the high standard of academic study and the wide variety of subjects. By undertaking a PhD in the USA, you will find yourself becoming an internationally recognised expert in your chosen field.

A Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) from the USA is considered the highest awarded degree in many US universities and institutes for most fields of study. For many international students, it's a dream course that offers an exciting new life chapter.

Attending Grad School for a PhD in the USA is not the same as undertaking a PhD in Europe or the UK, it can often be a different experience. However, studying abroad will improve your global cultural understanding in addition to your network of contacts for your future career. A PhD degree is often required when you apply for high-level management jobs, government expert positions, and careers like a university professor, researcher, or scientist in many fields.

There are a multitude of reasons why the United States is a fantastic choice for your PhD studies. Here’s everything you need to know about studying a PhD in the USA.

1. Course duration

A US PhD usually takes longer to complete than one in the UK. Depending on your field of study, you could be spending between four and eight years to complete your PhD in the USA. With this in mind, you will have more time to adapt to your course and find your feet. This will allow you to focus more on developing a more detailed understanding of your chosen subject at a more relaxed pace.

2. World-class universities

The US repeatedly tops the charts of worldwide ranking universities, so what better place to do your PhD studies? Although rankings shouldn’t be the main deciding factor when making your PhD choice, they're a great indicator of educational expertise.

There are many factors to consider when choosing the location for your PhD. Does the university have a high employability rate after graduation? Are you wanting to go public or private university? What kind of research facilities do they have? 

Be sure to do some research before making a decision on your perfect place of study.

3. International community

The United States is a popular choice for international students from all over the world – making it an inspirational and cosmopolitan choice for your PhD studies. No matter what your choice of academic study is, you are guaranteed to find a diverse community that welcomes students from all backgrounds. 

4. Land of opportunity

It's fair to say that student life in the USA offers something for everyone, regardless of what you're looking for from a PhD. With 50 states, six time zones, and thousands of higher-education providers, there's an opportunity waiting for every individual across the globe.

So let’s take a look at some of the key factors to consider when studying for a PhD in the USA.


Studying a PhD in the USA: top tips

Method of study

Compared to the UK and Europe, studying a PhD in the USA involves several key differences. Students in the USA are usually in direct contact with their professor, compared with those in the UK where students might find that their PhD program is headed by a professor who gives them a little less flexibility to change their research and study areas. There can be several cultural differences between UK, Europe, and USA university lifestyles. US students are expected to undertake a great deal of teaching and marking, as opposed to PhD students in Europe. 

As a result, you may have less free time outside of the university when pursuing a PhD in the USA.

Application for PhD In USA

When applying for your chosen subject, you should expect to provide relevant information and statements to the university. This might include:

  • A personal statement on why you want to study the subject. Be sure to include any extra-curricular activities and achievements within the body of your statement.

  • References. Universities will expect that your referees will recommend you for the chosen course.

  • Test scores and grades. It is important that you provide a list of your awarded grades from previous courses you have studied.

  • Samples of work. It is recommended that you provide some work you have done that is relevant to your chosen subject. You may even be asked to complete a small task during the application process.


UK and Europe students decide on their PhD thesis subject area before they apply. While taking classes at a graduate level, prospective PhD students in the USA spend up to a year or two deciding on their specific research subject. It is normal to apply for up to six institutions for a PhD in the USA, and students apply to each institution separately as there is no central organisation. 

Students in the UK and Europe are expected to apply with an understanding of the subject already, usually in the form of a masters degree, and be ready to start studying at the PhD level straight away. In the USA it is expected that students do not have an in-depth understanding of their subject as they usually only have an undergraduate degree when they apply. 

Admissions for PhD In USA

Deadlines for applications to PhD programs in the USA tend to be between December and February, and institutions should let you know about your application by April. Most US institutions recommend that you apply as far in advance as you possibly can to give them, and you, plenty of time to make arrangements. 

Universities in the USA do not require a masters for you to apply as well. Because of the graduate programs in the US, you will receive your masters degree once you have completed your coursework stage. This practice combines the masters and PhD into one.

It varies from institution to institution, but international students in the USA are required to have a TOEFL score of about 90.

Funding your PhD in USA

PhD students are very likely to receive financial support in the form of PhD scholarships; some USA PhD students also receive PhD studentships.

Making your PhD application in plenty of time allows you more time to apply for and arrange your PhD funding. Many students find that funding can cover much, or all, of the cost of their PhD studies in the USA, which ranges between $28,000 and $40,000. Deadlines for funding applications can be as early as December before starting your studies in the Autumn/Fall. 

There are two types of PhD funding: fully funded, which pays for the student's graduate school tuition fees, accommodation, and living expenses, or partially funded, which pays for the student's tuition only partially or fully.

Some PhD students will receive a stipend from their institution with an assistantship position, but this varies between institutions and between departments within institutions. Other students can find funding from both their own and the American government, and there are plenty of American government schemes like The Fulbright Program that offer funds.

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How long does it take to study a PhD in the USA?

For part-time students in the USA, a PhD can take eight to ten years, but it usually takes five to six years for full-time students. PhDs can be completed in four to five years rather than five or six for students with a masters degree in an appropriate subject.

American university rankings

Based on worldwide rankings, the following table shows which US universities rank the highest.

US Ranking

Worldwide Ranking

US University



Stanford University



Massachusetts Institute of Technology



California Institute of Technology



Harvard University



Princeton University



Yale University



University of Chicago



John Hopkins University



University of Pennsylvania



University of California, Berkeley


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