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PhD in USA for international students

The USA, which has the reputation of being the top choice for higher education, attracts a sizeable number of international students each year.

For those interested in a doctorate degree, USA has some of the most prestigious universities offering PhD programs in a wide variety of subjects and interest areas.

The flexibility of curriculum, availability of ample funding options, sprawling campuses and better job opportunities help it gain an edge over other study destinations.

PhD in USA for international students


PhD Trend in the USA

According to NSF (National Science Foundation), the number of doctorates earned from the US in 2017 was 54, 664, out of which 16, 323 were earned by international students. The top three countries of origin with the highest share of doctorate students were China (5,564), India (1,974) and South Korea (1,126).

The S&E (Science and Engineering) field had the biggest share of doctorates awarded at 75% in 2016. The number of doctorates awarded in other fields like education was quite low at 9% in 2016. PhD in Management had a very small share at 2.8%.

A PhD program requires many years of dedication and research, so you need to be passionate about your field of study. Your motivation plays an important role, and your interest needs to be sustained, so that you are able to spend several years devoted to your area of research and make a meaningful contribution.

According to the Council of Graduate Schools, a survey of both private and public institutions revealed that a surprisingly low percentage of doctoral students (56.6%) are able to successfully complete their PhD program. These figures indicate the completion rates ten years after students had started with the program.

It was also found that this success rate varies depending upon the area of study. It was lowest at 49.3% in humanities and highest at 63.6% in engineering.

So, before you decide to take the plunge, and dedicate several productive years for pursuing a doctorate, do the necessary homework before you decide to apply.

Find out more about your professor’s (supervisor) expertise, experience and reputation and research papers published. It is very important that your research interests are aligned with that of the faculty member.

Research areas for faculty keep changing over the years, so make sure you’ve checked their latest publications and their research interest areas.

Know more on how to choose your PhD university, program and research topic.

PhD in USA Age Limit

The median age for PhD completion was 31.6 years across all fields in 2017. Out of these, the maximum numbers (43.8%) were in the age group 26-30 followed by the age group 31-35 (31.4%). Beyond that, the numbers drastically reduce to 11.06% for the age group 36-40 and 5.1% for the age group 41-45.

So, though we cannot say that there’s an age limit for doing a PhD, it’s true that that the earlier, the better. This is because data from NSF reveals that if you’re able to complete your PhD before 30, you’ve better prospects at funding in the form of TA, RA and grants.

94% of students in the age group 21-30 age group managed to secure funding. Out of those in the 31-40 age group, only 79% had their luck with funding. The number went down greatly for those who were 41 or older at the time of completion, around 50% were required to self-fund their PhD.

PhD in USA Duration

According to WES (World Education Services), it would usually take around five to six years to complete a PhD in USA. However there are cases where the PhD duration has gone up to eight to ten years as well.

Funding is usually not an issue.

According to the US News, the United States is still the global leader when it comes to R&D expenditure which has gone up by around 3% from 538 billion in 2017 to $553 billion in 2018. Also, here is a funding success story of Management PhD in Europe.

PhD after MS / MTech / MBA

Though there’s a general perception that a PhD has to follow a masters degree, it is not so in the USA where you can apply immediately after completing your undergraduate degree. Though the Masters Degree may provide certain advantage like course waiver / credit transfer, it is not mandatory.

It is more common to find students doing a PhD after MS or MTech rather than after completing an international MBA program. Doing a PhD after an MBA from a reputed business school could pave the way for securing an academic position at a top elite business school.

Read more on PhD after MBA

Admissions for PhD in USA



Universities need candidates to have a Bachelor’s degree to be eligible to apply.

However, note that most of the universities would need candidates to have a minimum 16 years of education before applying for a PhD. So, it means that if you’re an engineering graduate (4 year duration), you’d have met the criteria. However, those who’ve completed their graduation in science, arts or commerce field (3 year duration) would need to complete their post-graduation to be able to apply.

Application requirements

  • GMAT / GRE (scores are valid for five years)
  • TOEFL / IELTS scores required from students whose native language is not English
  • Statement of Purpose (SoP)
  • Letters of recommendation
  • University transcripts
  • Writing sample (wherever required)

Read this article for Sample Resume for MS and PhD Applications.

Also read PhD in Biomedical / Biological / Life Sciences – Tips For Application and Admission

If you’re applying to a top PhD program, getting in would surely not be easy. Most of the PhD programs require a competitive GRE score; a few may also ask for subject test scores. If you’re applying for a PhD program in a business school, you could have the option of either taking the GMAT or the GRE test. You need to check the school’s website to know what the application components are and which test you’d be required to take.

Know more about how to write an SoP for PhD

Also read how to get into PhD programs abroad | Admission process for top universities

What universities / professors look for in PhD application

Your mentors are looking for those who are genuinely interested in the concerned field. So, your SoP must reflect your commitment and drive so that you’re able to convince the professors that you’d be in a position to excel in your academic pursuits. Make a mention of achievements or work experience in the related field. Other components like a good GPA, fantastic recommendations and of course, a good GRE score would all matter as your application would be evaluated holistically.

Stipend for PhD in USA

The stipend would vary depending upon the subject you choose. For example a business related doctorate program offered by a business school would, in general, have a higher stipend. Next come science related fields. Arts and humanities usually have the lowest stipend of them all.

The average PhD student salary in the US is $30,604 per year according to glassdoor.

Tuition fees for PhD in USA

The tuition fees for international students would vary greatly. Tuition fees may be lower in some public universities as compared to private universities. Tuition can range from $30,000 to $60,000 depending upon the college.

Most of the doctorate students receive funding and stipend covering tuition, medical insurance and living costs. They may be awarded fellowships and assistantship which include Research Assistant (RA), Teaching Assistant (TA), Graduate Assistant (GA), and Graduate Research Assistant (GRA). Assistantship would require devoting the specified number of hours each week (15-20 hours) for teaching or research.

PhD programs that don’t require the GRE / GMAT score

If the GRE score is your Achilles heel and you’re not able to improve your score inspite of multiple attempts, you would perhaps be looking out for programs where this score submission is not mandatory. However, note that you’d be limiting your options as you’ll find few PhD programs that do not require a GRE score. We have listed down some of these programs.

University name Department GRE requirement
1. Washington State University Biological And Agricultural Engineering GRE optional
2. Purdue University Chemistry GRE optional
3. MIT Media Arts and Sciences (MAS) GRE not required
4. MIT The Department of Linguistics and Philosophy GRE not required
5. MIT The Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department GRE not required
6. Northwestern University Department of History GRE not required
7. Northwestern University Interdepartmental Neuroscience GRE score optional
8. University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Computer science GRE recommended but not required

Source: university website

Difference between PhD in USA / Canada / Europe (UK)

The biggest difference is that whereas in the USA, you could apply for a PhD immediately after completing your undergraduate course, a masters degree is a compulsory pre-requirement for applying to a PhD program in Canada and Europe.

In the US, the PhD duration would be much longer, the average being around five to six years or may go beyond that, whereas in the UK and Europe, the average length would be around three to four years. In Canada, it usually takes between four to six years.

The workload for a PhD student would be much more intense in the US and Canada than in Europe (and UK), mostly due to work related to TA and RA responsibilities.

When it comes to funding, the US is the most generous of all and you have a better chance of procuring a fully funded program. It also provides greater opportunities for TA /RA positions. So, even if the duration gets extended, it is not a cause for worry as you would continue to receive funding.

Again, due to the presence of a large number of universities, the US may be a better job-hunting ground for PhD graduates looking to enter academia or for any other jobs, in general.

In Europe and the UK, the decision regarding your choice of project is usually taken during the application process, before embarking on your PhD journey whereas in the US, you apply to a particular department. Though you may be required to present a research proposal while applying, the initial years are used to complete the coursework and the thesis topic may be decide later in the second or third year.

Visa required for PhD in USA

The F-1visa is the student study visa and would apply in case of PhD study as well.

Can you study PhD in the US while on H4 visa?

Spouses of H-1B visa holders, who are in the US on H4 visa and are not able to work due to visa restrictions, would want to make use of the available time and opportunity to study further. Doing the PhD could be an option. In fact, if you’ve been residing in a particular state for at least a year on H4 dependent status, you may also qualify for in-state tuition at some public universities. This means reduced tuition fees. However, you’d not be able to take up assistantship positions during your PhD or apply for OPT (Optional Practical Training).

Know more about best ways H4 dependent visa holders can work in the USA
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About Swati
After working for over a decade in technical and managerial roles in the corporate world, Swati now works as a freelancer and writes on a variety of topics including education, career guidance and self-improvement.

8 thoughts on “PhD in USA for international students”

  1. Hello Sir,
    I am pursuing integrated(BTech+MTech ) from IIT (BHU) Varanasi. I want to go for a PhD in the top 50 universities but my cgpa is 7.2 and can go up to 7.5 after the completion of the degree. Can I get admission in top universities at this low cgpa if I get a good score in GRE.

  2. Hello Swati & Sameer

    I am currently working in SBI as an Asst manager planning for ISB and will have work experience of 3 yrs 4 months at the time of commencement of program (2020 batch)

    My qualifications are
    BE Mechanical- 69.20%
    12 th- 66%
    10 th- 76%

    I had also done 1 year Post graduate diploma course(PGDC) in Power Plant Engineering from NPTI Delhi(73%)

    My concerns are 1 year gap between BE and PGDC
    Also 1 year Gap between PGDC and job
    Plus my educational background is all technical but work experience is all in financial sector.

    Am I targeting the right college or any other better suggestions for me?

    Please share your valuable advise.

  3. I am pursuing mcom Part2.
    I want to do phd.I am confused in which subject I can do.
    Can u please guide me with a brief view of subjects

  4. Hello Swathi, My Brother completed his MBA in Marketing from India and looking for some courses in USA through F1. Which one do you think really works for him. Appreciate your inputs

  5. @Shubham: There’s much more to PhD applications than GPA and GRE scores. If one aspect isn’t working for you, try to focus on the others. Read more about it here:

    @Swapnil: Here’s how How to handle gaps in your education and career in MBA essays:

    @Prachi: Here’s how to select the right PhD specialisation to choose:

    @Devaraj: Here’s a list of courses to consider after an MBA.
    But be aware that these will not get your brother overseas jobs. To do that some candidates consider a second MBA.

    @Manjay: We’ve collated the highest paying jobs after MBA:

  6. Hi i am ashutosh i am currently doing MA in anthropology and i dont know what is the process to apply for phd in top college in europe and usa please someone help me..


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