Thinking about getting a PhD? Here is some advice that may be helpful!



Greetings everyone! This summer, I was selected to participate in a fellowship at UCLA and USC. This fellowship was a “Pre-Doctoral Workshop for Urban Planning”. They flew me out to California (my first time EVER on the West Coast!) and I was finally able to walk on the iconic campus of UCLA and USC. They are beautiful places but UNC has my heart <3.


Anyways, below you will see some notes I took during my time there. These notes can be helpful if you’re contemplating if a doctoral degree is necessary for what you want to do later or if you’re confident that you want to pursue doctoral education, below are some practical steps of things you will need to know.

Why should I get a Ph.D at all?

  • PhDs help you become a leader in your field. You don’t necessarily have to research, you can become a leader in a corporation or agency you decide to work for
  • Real development in the career/field you are interested in depends on who is teaching. If you want there to be a change in your field, become a teacher to the next generation of professionals.
  • People can learn a great deal from minority professors/professionals. We become a voice for the voiceless
  • Getting a PhD helps you become a critical thinker
  • Helps you create knowledge
  • Will give you platforms in front of many people in many places to help you advocate for what and who you care about
  • Teaches me to write and communicate more effectively
  • Teaches me to research and communicate that research
  • Equips you to ultimately do something. It is action oriented.
  • Becoming knowledgeable in GIS is very important and useful skill (look into courses on this even before you begin a Ph.D program)
  • They teach you to be analytical and how to measure things to figure out problems. You don’t get that in undergrad.
    • To make a difference, you need to be analytical
  • You get your skills—skilled. You take your cutting edge skills and you get to come up with more innovative skills and solutions.
  • You get to read and lear
  • Students of color need to make their way into leadership positions. One of the ways to produce social change is by having leadership of colored individuals in these societies that are evolving.
  • These programs require strength and courage.
  • PhDs are people who are independent thinkers. They know how to design and create things from start to finish.

Basics of PhD study

  • The first two years are classes, third year you are moving away from classes into the field to do research/collect data, fourth and/or fifth year, you focus on writing.
  • You work with an adviser closely the entire time.
  • Take the courses you think you need to write the dissertation you want to write
  • With funding, you get paid to go to school for at least the first two years (it is pretty common, however, not all schools provide funding).
  • You need to find a place that will fund you. Look for places that will fund you at least 4 years after you are accepted to their program.
    • You may be asked to become a TA or a RA. Depending on your skill set, you may be offered more funding.
    • Look into Ford Foundation. Start applying for fellowships early
  • You must motivate yourself to get the work done. Employers look at how long it took you to complete your PhD. 4-5 years is a typical finish time.

What are some good things to do when searching for a program?

  • Reach out to faculty you would like to work with. Email them, meet up with them
    • Make yourself known. First contact the program admissions person (just tell them who you are, what specific things you are interested in, and some faculty you may be interested in. Ask them what you need to know in reference to applying and having all your materials together), Next, contact the faculty you are interested in, and then the department chair.
  • Make sure there are at least two people at the university you choose, that share your professional interest. You wouldn’t want to enroll in a program and the faculty member you desire to work with, leaves for some reason.
  • Make sure you go to a place that will provide you with the best advisers, don’t focus too much on the location of the program
  • Apply to more than one doctoral program— you can negotiate funding offers
  • Make sure you take visits to the places you would really want to study. Make sure you meet all the key people you have been emailing/contacting beforehand.
  • Look up articles by topic you’re interested in, find out where those people work, and look into the programs at their school.
    • Make sure the faculty that you are looking for are real faculty, not adjunct, lecturers. Look for assistant, associate professors or professors. Be careful about looking at deans because they will be focused on administrative things.

What matters in a PhD application?

  • Tell them what frustrates you, tell them about the gaps in the literature, and why your research will help.
  • You should demonstrate a passion to understand why things happen a certain way and why that strikes you
  • What questions from your field/work experience have to you in regards to your research interest?
    • How does your personal experiences lead to new research?
  • They are looking to see if you can be a researcher. That’s really what they want to know. Are you interested in research?
    • Can you phrase a research question that’s practical?
    • Don’t sound too narrowly focused on your research question that you don’t seem interested/willing to grow and develop different ideas when you enter the program
  • Try to make sure majority of your recommendation letters are from researchers.
  • Let them know you know methodology

Words of advice from recent PhD grads:

  • Join a writing group to hold yourself accountable to writing
  • Most dissertations are between 150-300 pages
  • Think about each chapter as being a bunch of 20 or 30 page papers
  • Don’t get the “ I don’t belong here blues”
  • Don’t take extra courses you don’t need to graduate. Just take what you need. However, if you think a extra class will give you more insight on your research, do it.
  • Could be a good idea to collaborate with an organization and come up with a research question.
  • If someone give you the opportunity to publish in a “edited volume” remember, they aren’t as good as journal publications.
  • *Undoing the silence—book that helps with writers block
  • *Writing your dissertation- teaches you to write your dissertation, 10 min a day
  • There is an option to do a 3 page paper dissertation or a full paper manuscript.

I hope you all were able to take something from these great notes listed in this blog post. I will definitely use this as a guide as I continue to search for doctoral programs this fall. I plan to enroll into a doctoral program Fall 2015, so I am currently in the same boat as many of you are, in applying for masters programs. My research interests in a nutshell: What are low-income communities doing to remove barriers to academic success for minority students and how are these communities preparing them for college and to graduate from college? My passion lies in college access and empowering students and families to rise above their current and past situations and follow their dreams.

If you are considering a PhD in Social Work, check out the UNC School of Social Work Doctoral Program Enjoy!

Until next time folks~~ *


About Monique Smith

Hi all! I am a final year MSW student! Concentration: Community, Management and Policy Practice Hometown: Erwin, NC Areas of Interest: Education policy, College Access, Rural Communities, Adolescents Field Placement: Blue Ribbon Mentor-Advocate Interesting Fact: I published my first devotional book entitled “Progression: Being Perfected” in May 2014 and it is available on! Reach out to me with questions about field placements, class schedules, workload, and anything else you may have in mind!
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