I often get emails from international students who want to do a PhD in the Humanities in the US and Canada. Even for somebody who thrives on being repetitive, like I do, answering such emails is getting a little too monotonous. So I will provide the answers to the questions I receive most often in a blog post. Feel free to ask any questions that I forget to cover, and I will add answers to them.
1. How do I pay for graduate studies? The good news is that you are not supposed to pay for a PhD in Humanities. The university that accepts you will waive tuition and pay you a yearly stipend (between $17,000 and $22,000 per year, more or less.) In return, you will be expected to work as a teaching assistant or teach basic-level courses. If a university accepts you into a PhD program in the Humanities but does not offer a yearly stipend, my advice is: refuse the offer. This school does not really want you and you will get into a huge debt that you will not be able to repay.
2. The date of submission for the application is in December-February, but I will only graduate in May. What do I do? Don’t worry, everybody understands that people who apply don’t have their diplomas when the applications are due. You will be accepted provisionally on the condition that you do graduate when planned and provide your diploma as soon as you get it.
3. What kind of tests will I have to pass? This depends on a specific school but usually an international student cannot avoid TOEFL and GRE. TOEFL is a very basic English proficiency test that usually even people who speak almost no English at all can pass. GRE is trickier. You need to start practicing your advanced English vocabulary as soon as possible to prepare for the GRE. There are manuals that will help you prepare.
4. Do I need to describe my dissertation project in the application? More often than not, telling your prospective university that you already have a topic for a doctoral dissertation will weigh hugely against you. You are expected to arrive at the topic of the dissertation as a result of your graduate studies. Very few thesis directors have any interest in working with students who know what they want to do in advance. Even if you already have a topic you are in love with, just keep it to yourself.
5. Do I need to choose my thesis advisor before applying and get in touch with them? While it is a good idea to research scholars who work at your chosen institution/s, it makes no sense to decide on a thesis director so early. Wait until you get accepted, come to the department, look around, get to know people. Somebody who looks fantastic on paper can turn out to have an impossible personality. You need to be able to make this very important choice based on a very good knowledge of potential thesis directors you might select from.
6. How many universities can I apply to? As many as you want. You can apply to a hundred schools, if that’s what you want to do. Remember, however, that applications are not free. You will have to pay a processing fee to each school you apply to. You will also have to pay for every school that your TOEFL and GRE test scores are sent to in excess of 4 schools. This can turn out to be a costly process, so it makes no sense to apply to places you are not considering seriously.
7. What documents will I have to submit with my application? This varies from one school to another. However, everybody will expect you to fill out their application form (usually provided at the university’s website) and send in college transcripts (which have to be sent directly by your school, not by you), letters of recommendation (again, sent directly by the person who is writing the letter), your CV, and a letter of intent. Leading scholars often have their CVs online. Find one and try to fashion your own according to the same format. You might discover that a North American CV is very different from the ones you see in your country. A letter of intent is aimed at making you stand out and convincing people that they want you as a student. It shouldn’t be too long (usually, the school tells you how long it has to be). Make sure it is direct and personal enough to make you sound interesting and promising as a doctoral student.
8. How do I go about getting a visa? It is the university’s responsibility to get student visas for its doctoral students. In my experience, the visa is the last thing you need to worry about. After you get accepted and accept the offer, you will simply get your visa in the mail. Universities know how to handle visas very well and have attorneys on staff who take care of that.
9. What if I’m married/have a partner? If you are married, your spouse will normally get a visa that will allow them to enter the country. Unfortunately, most universities do not recognize common-law partners and don’t offer medical insurance for spouses. Often, spouses of grad student find jobs at the library, the computer labs, the university store, etc. You will need to explore what options are available with the specific department that has accepted you.
This is all I can think of right now. Feel free to add more questions / suggestions of your own.