Applying to PhD Programs, Pt. 2: Finding a Program

As I mentioned in the last post where I talked about PhD programs, I am seeking to be accepted into programs around the world for a PhD.

One of my mentors when I was in undergrad told me a bit of advice that I have followed in this pursuit: “It doesn’t really matter where you get an undergrad as long it’s accredited— unless it’s Ivy League. It matters that you get into a good program for a master’s. But for a PhD, it’s your supervisor that matters.”

This set my worldview for how to look for schools since I started looking for postgraduate programs. Being who I am, I made up a system of positives and negatives: points for things I liked and points against schools for things I don’t like. I created a big spreadsheet. It led me to studying at University College Dublin and, I’m hoping, it will lead to me studying at a PhD.

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Top Schools in the World

Top schools are top schools for a reason. Throughout my process, I leaned on the QS rankings. One of the ways I used the lists they had was for the general QS World University Rankings. I added all of these universities to my list and a smattering of other colleges that I knew should be on the list (because of specialties or closeness).

The top school got 13 points. The next two got 12 points. The next two got 11. The next five got 10. The next ten got 9, and so on. This felt like a way to differentiate the scores without letting this take too much weight from the outset.

I think it’s important to note that this is a weird thing my brain wants to do, to quantify things like this. This is by no means required for your search— but is welcome to my brain.

Top Schools in the World (by Subject)

All that was good, but I don’t want to just go to the top school I can get into— I want to go to the top school for English I can get into. So, I looked at the QS World Rankings for English Programs. I applied the same system. Some schools moved ranks. Some didn’t.

One of my photos of University College Dublin, one of my happiest places on earth!

Best Cities to Live In

It may sound silly, but there are cities which are better to their students than others. This is also a list from the QS rankings. I applied the same system (giving some colleges a distinct boost).


One of the fears of any graduate, especially for we English graduates, is employability. We all want to get a degree and get out there in the world to use it and make money. QS also has an employability ranking list which I applied similar to the above lists.

Obviously, the QS lists had a big part in all my research. And this was all part of searching for an MA as well.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

Beyond Research

There are three factors I brought in at this point without further research:

  • Gut: How did I feel about the school before any other research was done. (I more or less looked over websites.) I gave schools somewhere between -5 to 5 as a gut score.
  • My Wife: Making sure my wife’s gut reaction was also important, I gave her the list of schools and she gave a gut reaction ranging from -5 to 5.
  • Foreign Schools: It may sound odd or it may make perfect sense, but I liked the idea of going abroad for my MA and I want to go abroad again for my PhD. So I gave all foreign schools in both searches 5 points.

PhD Exclusive: RESEARCH!

From here I had to research colleges. I know that I started to remove colleges from the list for being so far down the list that it (hopefully) would not come to them. (I kept them on the original paper list, just in case.) BUT now I had to start researching programs. I started to look at PhDs which had a creative writing component (or a Creative Writing PhD); I started to look at PhDs with a theatre connection; but, above all, I combed the programs for those with speculative fiction research.

Those with Creative Writing connections got 5 points. Those with Theatre connections got 3 points. Those with Speculative Fiction connections got 7 points.

Distance and Full Paid

I’m now in a different part of life than I was when I went to my MA in Ireland. I’m older. My wife and I have a house. We have cats and a dog. We have roots in our hometown. Places where I could commute to or do from a distance got 10 points.

I’m also not seeking to go into more debt than I have to. Some schools practically assure full tuition (for the cost of YOUR SOUL— I mean, your work on campus). Others you have to earn. Schools which provided full tuition got 10 points, schools which provided a hearty scholarship and a chance at full got 7, and schools which had a chance at full got 5.

PhD Exclusive: Language Required

Some PhD programs require that you gain proficiency in another language. Part of me rebels against that requirement because I’m not great at learning languages. So: -3 to schools that did that.

The List

And that’s how I got my list, arranged in order, for schools to apply to. I then narrowed it down to three— but then expanded to six. (I don’t remember why.)

Oxford, Cambridge, Toronto, McGill, Birmingham, and Indiana University.

It’s an ambitious list— but why shouldn’t it be?

I already know my grades were just below Oxford’s and Toronto’s typical acceptance rate (and I don’t know if I could make up the deficit), so they’re done. Much as it hurt to find out— it’s better to spend my energies elsewhere.

I’ll let you know more about the process in a later post! Thank you for reading! If this was interesting or helpful to you, please like and subscribe!

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