Written by: Emma McGee, Tigist Menkir, Lorelei Mucci, Kelsey Vercammen
So, you’re thinking of applying to a PhD program? While this is an exciting time in your life, we know firsthand that it can also be overwhelming to think about all the pieces that go into a successful application. This blog post will provide some practical advice – based on our experiences either preparing our own PhD applications or reviewing applications from prospective students – on how to put forward your best possible application. Of course, these are just our suggestions, and you should always follow the requirements outlined by each school, as well as get advice from mentors and trusted colleagues.
To start, we will focus on some of the key factors common to most PhD applications: letters of recommendation, letter of intent, and a CV. After that, we’ll touch on a couple other pieces you may be wondering about: choosing which schools to apply to and how to network with faculty members with whom you are interested in working. Let’s dive in!
The core pieces: letters of recommendation, letter of intent, and CV
Letters of recommendation
- At the most basic level, your letters of recommendation should come from people who know you well and can speak to your preparedness for a PhD program. For example, it is common to have your master’s advisor write a letter of recommendation since they can speak to your past research abilities and future potential. If possible, consider asking for references from different organizations as this will highlight your ability to work effectively across diverse settings and teams. In addition to highlighting your abilities as a public health researcher, ideally, the letter should be able to convey your potential as a leader, mentor, or teacher (if the letter writer has knowledge of these activities).
- Consider seeking references from individuals who can attest to different stages in your academic trajectory. For example, you may seek a letter from both an undergraduate research mentor and your current research mentor to show continuity across your career. You may also showcase your diverse technical and substantive skillsets through your letters (e.g., by requesting letters from an epidemiology professor, a statistics professor, and an expert in environmental health).
- If you’re struggling to identify references, get creative. For example, you could consider asking a professor from a graduate-level course you were particularly engaged in and regularly attended office hours for. You might also solicit a letter from a prior supervisor with whom you worked or volunteered in a public health capacity. Such individuals may offer a unique perspective regarding your leadership, creativity, and impact outside of academia. Just make sure that your recommenders know you well enough to be able to write a detailed, sincere letter!
- If you think your application could be strengthened with an additional reference beyond the minimum requirement, write to an admissions coordinator or other school contact to see if this is possible. Most schools require a minimum of 3 references, but some will allow you to submit more than 3. If you have options and are struggling to decide which references to include, it doesn’t hurt to inquire if you’re allowed to submit more reference letters than the minimum requirement. However, any additional references should be able to speak in detail to your character as a student, leader, or researcher.
- Make it as easy as possible for your references. Be sure to ask early and send friendly reminders as deadlines approach. If you’re asking for letters to multiple schools, consider providing your references with a table that summarizes each school/program you’re applying to and the deadline for letter submission.
- Provide your references with all the necessary information they need to write a strong and compelling letter. At a minimum, you should share your CV. Additionally, it might be useful to provide a 1-pager with some bullets summarizing the projects you’ve worked on together and the specific skills you demonstrated, in addition to other projects you worked on outside of collaborations with the reference in question that may illustrate these skills or center on similar topics. This approach is particularly helpful if it’s been a while since you worked with your reference, you’ve worked on several projects with your reference, and/or your reference works with many trainees. Finally, if you have a draft of your letter of intent (see “Letter of Intent” section below), it may be helpful to share this document with your references as it will summarize your motivations and interests in doing a PhD, which they can in turn emphasize in their letter.
- Check out this PH SPOT blog post for more tips on approaching references, including sample email templates on how to ask for a reference: https://phspot.org/applying-graduate-school-approaching-references/
Letter of Intent/Statement of Purpose
- There is no single way to structure your letter of intent. However, ideally you will touch on 1) how your past experiences have you prepared you for a PhD, 2) where do you see yourself going in the future after the PhD, and 3) why is a PhD an important step on this path. This is your opportunity to share a compelling narrative on why you’re interested in and prepared for a PhD program at this point in your professional life. If relevant, you can consider incorporating a personal narrative that depicts why a specific area of public health is important to you.
- Wherever possible, be specific! While you don’t have to have your dissertation papers defined by any means, it is great to be as specific as you can be about what kind of research you’re interested in. For example, instead of saying that you hope to study public health nutrition, try to be specific about the population you’re passionate about studying (e.g., children living in low-income households in the U.S.), if there are specific exposures/outcomes that you’re particularly interested in examining (e.g., the role of supplemental nutrition assistance programs in shaping children’s dietary behaviors) and methods you hope to apply. Doing this shows the application committee that you’re well positioned to articulate PhD dissertation goals down the line.
- Feel free to briefly mention coursework that has provided you with an array of skills that are crucial in your field. Be specific about what these tools and techniques are, and how you applied them to address a question of your choice in a final term project or other setting.
- It is not necessary to have a full-fledged career plan and/or commitment to the specific space you want to work in following your PhD (e.g. academia or industry). It is perfectly reasonable to enumerate different roles that you might be interested in, but strive to tie those roles to your motivating research interests.
- Emphasize any and all past research experiences you’ve had. If you’ve written papers or presented at conferences, be sure to highlight these experiences and talk about skills you learned (e.g., SAS programming expertise, experience working with complex administrative data or collecting data such as surveys or biomedical measurements, etc.). Once again, be specific. For example, you might note that you spearheaded a project which included collaborators from 10 different academic institutions, or that you cleaned a dataset with more than 20,000 observations. You want the reader to think “wow, this person is ready to hit the ground running in the program”.
- While some components of your letter of intent may be similar across applications, be sure to include a tailored section that describes why you’re specifically interested in the school/program you’re applying to. This may require some research ahead of time – for example, speaking to current students and faculty or looking at online materials to see what the program self-identifies as setting them apart from other schools (e.g., content/breadth/depth of the curricula, research groups and focal areas, etc.).
- Consider identifying 2-3 professors who you could see yourself working with for your PhD research. Ideally, you will have reached out to these individuals ahead of time to confirm they are accepting new PhD students and are interested in working with you (see “Networking with Faculty” section below). In your letter of intent, you can summarize briefly why you’re interested in working with them (e.g., your research interests align or there is a specific skill/capability you hope to learn from or contribute to their lab, etc.). Note, if you have specified a specific area of public health in your letter, it is important that there is a faculty member at the school you are applying to whose research interests are closely aligned. For example, if you state your interests in studying risk factors for childhood cancers, and there is no one on the faculty who is working on childhood malignancies, the admissions committee may wonder if the program is the right fit. If there are no faculty members whose research directly overlaps with yours, consider whether you are flexible in expanding your research scope. You might find that your research could reasonably take on a slightly different angle in different research groups.
- Be genuine and sincere! There is a balance between highlighting your accomplishments and roles on projects with coming off as being “braggy”. For example, you don’t have to have led every single project, as public health is a team science! Also, bring in personal experiences only to the extent that they truly motivated you in one way or the other, and be genuine in how you describe the experience.
- Ask as many people as possible to read and edit! Consider this a writing sample, so you don’t want to have any spelling or grammar errors. Ask trusted colleagues, friends, faculty, and, if possible, your master’s advisor and/or potential PhD supervisor to give feedback (they may say no, but it’s worth a try!).
- Most application committees will be expecting to see a CV, a standard document frequently used by academics. Compared to a resume which is typically 1-2 pages in length and presents a concise picture of your skills/experiences, a CV presents a fuller picture of your past experiences and so can be longer (there is no set length, but a CV may end up being around 2-5 pages for PhD applicants).
- This is your chance to summarize your previous public health or research experience, including a comprehensive list of any publications, presentations, awards, and leadership roles. If you have teaching experience or have been awarded funding for research projects (even if only from your university), you may also consider including these accomplishments on your CV. Some of your research projects may still be “works in progress” (e.g., papers that are under review at a journal or in preparation). While you’re unlikely to see “works in progress” on senior academics’ CVs, as a PhD applicant it is typically fine to list “in progress projects,” given that you’re earlier on in your research career. Just be sure to make it clear which projects are completed vs. works in progress.
- Be sure to tailor your CV to your audience. This is particularly important for any descriptions you’re providing of past work/volunteer experiences. For example, if you are applying to an epidemiology PhD program, you may want to place particular emphasis on any quantitative/analytic experience that you’ve had in the past, whereas if you’re applying to a health policy PhD program, then you may want to emphasize positions working with government partners or conducting policy analyses.
- For extra guidance, check out the career services offerings at past universities you’ve attended. They will often provide great guides/checklists for developing a CV. For example, the Harvard Chan School of Public Health includes a resource page on Resumes/CVs here: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/career-services/career-tools/resumescvs/. Also, the career services office at some schools may be willing to review your CV for you and provide feedback, so be sure to check what services are offered at your university.
Laying the groundwork: Networking with faculty and selecting which schools to apply to
Networking with faculty
- It’s a great idea to start networking with faculty at schools you’re interested in prior to the application review period.
- Start by leveraging your existing network to facilitate introductions. It is often helpful to begin with faculty members at the university where you completed your master’s degree or most recently conducted research. These faculty members will often know professors at different institutions and an introduction from a fellow faculty member is often better received than a cold email from a student.
- Review faculty lists/profiles on school websites and identify those whose research interests align with your own. Try sending an introductory email to these faculty (typically, their emails are listed on their profiles). Keep your email brief and to the point – introduce yourself and your interest in doing a PhD, describe why you’re interested in their research, and ask if they might consider having a brief conversation with you.
- If you have the opportunity to attend a scientific conference before applying, reach out to a faculty member you are interested in working with to see if they are attending (even virtually) to meet up for a “coffee”.
- If there are established networks for your area of specialization (for example, the Models of Infectious Disease Agent Study, or MIDAS, for infectious disease epidemiology), don’t hesitate to sign up as a student member, where you can access resources, student support/networking groups, and connect with faculty through talks and other venues.
- When meeting with faculty, be prepared with a short “elevator pitch” of your research interests along with a list of questions you would like to ask them.
Selection of schools to apply to
- Look to where your mentors and role models in the field trained. Similarly, look at what schools are publishing research on topics that you’re most passionate about (one way to do this is to look at the affiliations of the author list in papers you really enjoyed and see if there are any recurring research groups). This may give you some indication of what schools may provide a good training environment fit for you.
- Conduct informational interviews with current PhD students. Once you’ve narrowed down your list of potential schools, it’s a great idea to chat with students who are currently attending the PhD programs to hear their first-hand experiences. The professor you are networking with may link you to some of their graduate students or you can simply directly e-mail the students using their listed e-mails on department websites, for example. A PhD is a big commitment, and while it is important to find a good match for your research interests, it is equally imperative to find a supportive mentor and institution which will nurture your growth and learning. Consider asking current students about their thoughts on mentorship, training culture, coursework, etc. You might also ask current students what other schools they applied to and why they ended up choosing their present institution.
- Don’t limit your search to ‘public health schools’ or programmes, as other departments, such as statistics, computer science, economics, biology, etc. may engage in research that is directly pertinent, or is at least adjacent to, public health.
- Check the funding policy/model at the school. Some institutions may not sponsor your academic fees nor provide a stipend (and instead require you to pay for your program) over the duration of your study, or after a set number of years, so be sure to keep this in mind when selecting the program that is best for you
- Consider the location of the school. A PhD can be a several year journey, and as such the physical surroundings may be important to you for a number of reasons, such as the cost of housing/living, access to nature, proximity to other universities/college town, access to the arts and music. Think about how important these things are to you and help that to develop the list of schools you would consider.
As you can see, there are many different moving pieces to a PhD application. We suggest starting as early as possible, so you have sufficient time to craft a thoughtful and compelling application. Best of luck!
About the authors
Dr. Lorelei Mucci is Professor of Epidemiology and Director of the Cancer Epidemiology and Cancer Prevention Program (Area of Interest) within the Department of Epidemiology here at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (HSPH). In addition, she is the Leader of the Cancer Epidemiology Program at the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center. After receiving her doctoral degree in epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (formerly the Harvard School of Public Health), she trained as a post-doctoral fellow in cancer epidemiology at the Karolinska Institutet, Sweden. At the Karolinska, she gained expertise in using nationwide health registries to examine cancer etiology and formed a long-term partnership with epidemiology colleagues in the Nordic countries. For the past 9 years, her primary faculty appointment has been at the Harvard Chan School, where her research uses integrative molecular epidemiology approaches within cohorts in the United States and globally to investigate research questions focused on cancer etiology, mortality, and survivorship. She serves as co-Principal Investigator for the Health Professionals Follow-up Study (https://sites.sph.harvard.edu/hpfs/) as well as IRONMAN.
Dr. Kelsey Vercammen is an Epidemiologist with the York Region in Ontario, Canada. In addition, she holds a role as a Content and Partnership Strategist with PH SPOT. Kelsey has a PhD and MSc in Epidemiology from the Harvard Chan School of Public Health, where her research focused on drivers and points of intervention for obesity and food insecurity.