Most Competitive Phd Programs

Last Updated on December 15, 2022 by Omoyeni Adeniyi

If you are looking for a competitive Ph. D program, the rankings only tell a portion of the story. To get the full picture, it is necessary to know about the various opportunities that exist within each program and their specific features. This list will offer you an inside view on what these programs have to offer and allow you to make your decision based on a wide array of criteria.

Reading through the article below will grant you easy access to the latest information on Most Competitive Phd Programs, most competitive phd fields & most prestigious phd programs.

You will also find related posts on most prestigious phd programs, Top graduate schools in the world on collegelearners.

Most Competitive Phd Programs

It is common for Bachelor’s and Master’s degree applicants to look up the rankings of a course before they apply. Now, can you do this for a PhD? The simple answer is no. This is because the nature of a PhD is very different from other higher-level courses. But here are a few metrics that can help you decide. 

25 Best Part Time PhD Programs [2021 Guide]

Although PhD programs are not ranked themselves, university rankings can be a strong consideration point. In fact, the currently listed top 10 most competitive PhD programs also happen to fall in order of the university rankings:

Educational instituteStrong Disciplines
1University of OxfordArchitecture, business and management, law, education, the arts, engineering, music, history, health sciences.
2Stanford UniversityHistory, Mathematics, Political Science, Physics, Psychology
3Harvard UniversityPolitical science, Public health, Statistics
4California Institute of TechnologyEngineering, Chemistry, Computer Science, Earth Sciences
5Massachusetts Institute of TechnologyAccounting, Biological sciences, Economics, Earth Sciences
6University of CambridgeBiology and Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Oncology, Physics, geosciences
7University of CaliforniaBusiness programs, Biomedical Engineering, Corporate law, Chemistry
8Yale UniversityBioengineering, Medical research, Law, Biophysics, Structural Biology
9Princeton UniversityEngineering, English, History, Political Science
10University of ChicagoFinance, Marketing, Business law, Medical research

Top 10 most competitive PhDs and their universities.

The courses in these institutes are so competitive that some international students are required to do a pathway course just to meet the eligibility criteria. How are they capable of attracting such a big crowd of students? Are they worth the effort?

Now, where you wish to do your PhD depends on a plethora of reasons like your interests, relocation ability, and other preferences. But if any of the above institutions rank well in your field of interest, here are some compelling reasons for you to consider them also explaining what makes them so competitive.

What a PhD stands for: Research

Ph.D. stands for Doctor of Philosophy. You may also meet this term under the title Research Doctor’s degree or Research Doctorate, which describes the degree’s idea. 

Ph.D. is an academic degree focused on original research and data analysis. Its main purpose is to create new knowledge through independent study. To complete a Ph.D., one should present and defend a dissertation on a new and unstudied topic before in the specific field. 

As a PhD candidate, you will essentially be a postgraduate researching working to answer that one focused question. You will be guided by an extremely experienced individual in the field. But that’s not all. 

Research is about collaboration. And the above-listed research institutes facilitate the same efficiently and effectively.

In an ideal PhD lab, you will constantly be engaging in conversations with other people in your research group or department. The top 10 universities listed in this blog have a strong record of research quality in terms of impact, visibility, and credibility. Impactful research comes from sustained strong collaborations and work as a research community. 

These institutions also house some of the brightest minds in their respective strong disciplines and are capable of providing a challenging yet encouraging environment favoring cutting-edge research. 

A Teacher Affects Eternity

The importance of a good mentor in everybody’s life need not be explained. Yes, a PhD is a research degree and will be extremely hands-on. This is why what most broad teaching metrics demonstrate will not apply in this case. However, this does not rule out the necessity of a good guide. 

A good PhD supervisor will teach you to learn by curiosity. In the learning process, you will understand the essence of research. There are no factors currently that can measure or rank the quality of any university’s PhD supervision. 

But a majority of the programs aforementioned guarantee the availability of sufficient staff and an engaging environment that is very important for a PhD. In addition, some PhD guides in these institutes are luminaries in their respective fields and have effectively demonstrated the value of lifelong learning. 

Influence And Social Profile

If you look at the above list, you may notice that most of these are really old and established institutions. An upper hand for these other than the quality of mentor-ship and availability of resources is the external engagement and influence they have. Maybe you aren’t looking to get into the industry but there are many ways these can benefit even your career in academia.

A good reputation is able to attract a more generous funding. Although you may not want to become a working industry professional, a good reputation also indicates the potential to work with such dominant partners in the industry. This can be highly beneficial because you will avail of much better technology while also contributing to humanity and seeing your hard work bear fruit. 

Having a strong influence also means that the institute is able to attract students from a variety of academic and social backgrounds. Such internationalization can provide a great learning experience. 

Factoring In University Rankings For Your PhD

Turning university rankings into “PhD rankings” can be tricky. The first thing to bear in mind is that these rankings do not directly translate into what’s the best for you. You still have to be the one making the choice. Your direct benefit will be the specific characteristics of the institute that these rankings elucidate. 

Another thing to understand is that the quality of your own research will matter as much as the program you are into. You will only be able to create an impact if you put in the hard work and you are really passionate about the field. Your curiosity can only be aggravated by a supervisor. 

Also, the university rankings are like an over-the-top view. It is because a university is ranked based on the average measures of all metrics derived from all its individual schools and disciplines. This may not speak much even about your field of study, let alone the specialist area you will be focusing on for your doctorate. 

How relevant this is to you will come from the impact of research the university has in your specific field. 

Despite any amount of external engagement demonstrated by the universities, none of them can offer a commitment that your specific program will have a partnership. A lot of the outcomes depend on the work you put in. 

Big universities clearly exploit their influence and long-built reputation in these rankings. Yes, they continue to remain competitive for the reasons mentioned above. But because new universities aren’t able to do as good on these league tables doesn’t mean they aren’t good. In fact, they may specialise in the exact focused area that would favor your PhD project. This would also mean they have the required facilities and expertise. 

Some rankings have a major influence from the quality of instruction. This may not be extremely relevant for PhD candidates because they will have more autonomy than undergraduate or masters students. However, some rankings measure the number and ratio of PhDs these universities award each here and those are the ones that will actually help. 

Essentially, the rankings and competitiveness of PhD programs give you a good start point. But you must dig deeper and look for the exact information you need. It is always a good idea to get in touch with the PhD guides and potential lab-mates to try and gauge the strength of the program. 

Universities that do well in rankings are known to have a record of high-quality cutting edge research in terms of the technology they use and the reproducibility and impact of their research outcomes. However, historically, most rankings focus on STEM disciplines especially in terms of research. The data on courses that fall under arts and humanities is much less extensive. So, a strong focus on research and citations does not necessarily reflect a strong support for courses under that dome. 

To summarize, answering the question of, “which is the best option for me?” in the case of a PhD is not easy at all. Branch out from these listings and find out more about the PhD projects and programs that they currently have available. Know how these rankings work and understand the factors they consider before you narrow down your options. 

Top graduate schools in the world

Highly selective graduate schools are hard to get into, but they provide excellent educational opportunities. These schools are often well-ranked in national metrics, and they can be found across the U.S.

School Overviews

The University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University and Duke University are some of the nation’s most selective graduate schools. Students admitted into graduate programs at these institutions have high GPAs and top scores on entrance exams.

University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia

School Highlight: Alumni of The Wharton School include John Sculley, Jeff Weiner, and J.D. Power III.

The University of Pennsylvania was tied for eighth among national universities by U.S. News and World Report in 2021. The university has eight graduate schools and offers programs in law, medicine, engineering, business, education and design. The graduate schools are highly ranked and admission is competitive. The Wharton School, for example, had the second-best Executive MBA program in the nation according to 2022 rankings by U.S. News and World Report. For 2017, the acceptance rate at the business school was 19.8%, and the mean GMAT score was 732. The School of Medicine had a 5.4% acceptance rate in 2017, and applicants had a median undergraduate GPA of 3.87 and total MCAT score of 38.

Columbia University in New York, New York

School Highlight: Alumni of the business school includes Gail J. McGovern, Henry Kravis and Shelly Lazarus.

Columbia University was tied for third among national universities in 2021 by U.S. News and World Report. The university’s well-respected graduate schools offer advanced study in architecture, law, medicine, business and the arts. Columbia’s medical school had a 4.0% acceptance rate in 2017. Applicants accepted into the program generally had a 3.82 GPA and scored 36 on the MCAT total score. The acceptance rate at the business school was 18% in 2017. The average score on the GMAT was 715, and the average undergraduate GPA was 3.50.

Duke University in Durham, NC

School Highlight:The School of Engineering had a 24.5% overall acceptance rate in 2017.

The average GPA for students entering the master’s degree program at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, as of 2017, was 3.5, while the average GPA for the entering doctoral program class was 3.7. The average GPA for entrants to the law school was 3.76, and the overall acceptance rate was 23.3%. The median LSAT score was 169. Well-known alumni of Duke’s law school include Richard Nixon and Tucker Max.

Most Selective Graduate Schools

Here are some more highly selective graduate schools:

  • Georgetown University’s School of Medicine in Washington, DC, accepted just 796 applicants out of almost 12,700 for 2020.
  • Harvard University’s graduate business school in Cambridge, MA, typically admits only 9.7% of students who apply.
  • Northwestern University’s business graduate school, which ranked 6th in the nation in 2020 by U.S. News and World Report, accepted 20.6% of its 2017 applicants; the average GMAT score for those accepted was 724. The school is in Evanston, IL.
  • Stanford University’s Law School in Stanford, CA, was tied for second in the nation by U.S. News and World Report in 2020 and accepted only 11.3% of 2017 applicants.
  • The University of Notre Dame’s graduate school accepted 17% of its nearly 5,000 applicants in 2014. The school is in Notre Dame, IN.
  • Vanderbilt University’s School of Engineering in Nashville, TN, accepted 17.1% of applicants in 2017.
  • At Washington University in St. Louis, programs in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences typically accept 10-20% of students who apply. The school is located in Saint Louis, MO.
  • Yale University’s Law School in New Haven, CT, ranked 1st in the nation by U.S. News and World Report in 2017, had an 9.7% acceptance rate in 2017.

When looking for highly selective schools, it is important to consider overall acceptance rates, incoming student test scores and undergraduate GPAs.

most competitive graduate programs to get into

Most prestigious phd programs

A doctoral degree (PhD) is the highest degree you can earn in a particular field, but obtaining it isn’t easy. On average, doctoral candidates dedicate seven to ten years of their life earning a doctorate after completing undergraduate work. However, the earning potential varies greatly depending on the discipline.

Some of the most lucrative PhDs offer six-figure early career salaries, while mid-career salaries (based on 10+ years of work experience in the field) exceed $130,000 per year.

To find out the best Phds with the greatest earning potential, we looked at PayScale’s College Salary Report, which included a list of the highest paying PhDs based on alumni salary. We listed the top 10 best PhDs in increasing order based on mid-career salaries. The degree in our #1 spot offers the highest salary potential based on ten or more years of experience working in the field.

most competitive phd fields

What Are the Highest Paying Doctorate Degree Jobs?

#10 – PhD in Statistics

Early Career Salary: $105,000
Mid-Career Salary: $131,000

Statisticians help solve problems in businesses, healthcare industries, and organizations by collecting and analyzing data through statistical methods. Careers as statisticians require a master’s degree and beyond. Earning a doctoral degree in statistics sets you above the competition and offers a high earning potential. Also, the job outlook for statisticians is extremely favorable. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates that the projected growth rate is expected to increase by 33%, which is well above the national average. Industries employing statisticians include the federal government, financial institutions, and scientific research and development services. A PhD is required for most research positions.

#9 – PhD in Biomedical Engineering

Early Career Salary: $88,100
Mid-Career Salary: $133,000

Biomedical engineering has become a popular field of interdisciplinary research. This field is constantly evolving and requires experts well versed in life sciences, computational methods, and theory. Earning a PhD in biomedical engineering opens the door to research opportunities in a wide range of fields. Most biomedical engineers work in hospitals, manufacturing, research facilities, and universities. A doctoral degree is required for most research opportunities, especially at university settings. The job outlook is favorable. According to the BLS, the projected growth rate will increase by as much as 5% over the next seven years. Both early and mid-career salaries are also on the rise.

#8 – PhD in Physics

Early Career Salary: $93,700
Mid-Career Salary: $135,000

Physicists usually require a PhD for careers in academia and research. This high-paying doctoral degree leads to jobs as research advisors, lead physicists, or physics professors. After receiving a PhD, many degree candidates begin their careers in academia as postdoctoral researchers. Employment of physicists is projected to increase 7% between now and the year 2024, about as fast as the national average for all occupations. The BLS reports approximately 1,500 new jobs added to the 20,000 existing jobs over the next several years. This specialized doctoral degree offers one of the highest mid-career salaries on our list.

#7 – PhD in Engineering

Early Career Salary: $93,600
Mid-Career Salary: $137,000

A PhD in engineering is the highest degree offered in the field. While a doctoral degree is not required in many areas of engineering, research opportunities are only awarded to doctoral candidates and graduates. The degree offers several areas for independent research, such as chemical engineering, computer engineering, materials science, and mechanics. Some schools offer a general degree track instead of focusing on a particular specialty. Jobs for PhD candidates include director of engineering roles, engineering technicians, and project managers. On average, the expected growth rate for engineering jobs over the next seven years is 3%, according to the BLS.

#6 – PhD in Physical Chemistry

Early Career Salary: $73,600
Mid-Career Salary: $138,000

According to the American Chemical Society, physical chemistry is the study of how matter behaves on both a molecular and atomic level. It is also the study of how chemical reactions occur. Most physical chemists work in laboratories and research facilities. These research opportunities require the highest degree possible in the field. Earning a PhD in physical chemistry provides ideal training for high-tech and materials science careers that pay extremely well. While the job growth is below average for physical chemists, the median annual wage puts this doctoral degree in the middle of our list of high-paying PhDs.

#5 – PhD in Pharmacology

Early Career Salary: $75,400
Mid-Career Salary: $141,000

A PhD in pharmacology lays the groundwork for a career as a researcher or pharmacist in various health organizations. PhD programs offer rigorous training in the study of drugs and chemicals on living organisms. These programs build on biochemistry, cell biology, molecular biology, neuroscience, and physiology disciplines, preparing degree candidates as experts in their research. While the mid-career salary is high, entry-level pay can be average depending on work location. For instance, grocery store pharmacists may earn a lower salary than an entry-level research pharmacist. According to the BLS, the job outlook for pharmacists is expected to be 3%, which is slower than the 7% average growth rate.

#4 – PhD Electrical Engineering

Early Career Salary: $103,000
Mid-Career Salary: $144,000

Advances in electrical engineering are seen in everyday life. One hundred years ago, the radio offered entertainment and fifty years later, the television replaced it. These innovations and advancements require electrical engineering. Earning a PhD in electrical engineering opens the door to research and invention career paths in fields that offer steady growth such as aviation, computing, manufacturing, and transportation. Career advancement often requires further education and training. Most team leaders holding supervisory positions have advanced degrees like a PhD in electrical engineering.

#3 – PhD in Computer Science

Early Career Salary: $118,000
Mid-Career Salary: $145,000

PhD in computer science allows students to become experts within a technical subfield of computer science. Applicants to this type of doctoral degree program should have obtained a bachelor’s or master’s degree in computer science or show evidence of preparation in related subjects. Most computer research scientist roles require a PhD. The BLS reports the job outlook for computer scientists is expected to increase by 15% through the year 2024 (8% faster than the national average). Both academic and non-academic careers are accessible to PhD graduates of computer science. Non-academic jobs include computer hardware engineers, information research scientists, or other specialists on multidisciplinary projects like data mining, programming, or robotics.

#2 – PhD in Organic Chemistry

Early Career Salary: $83,400
Mid-Career Salary: $146,000

The mid-career salary for a PhD in organic chemistry is tied with chemical engineering, although the early career salary is lower. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment change is steady, but the job outlook through 2024 is only 4% (slower than the 7% average). Most organic chemistry doctoral candidates pursue jobs in research and find themselves leading research teams, while some find teaching jobs in colleges and universities. Advanced research jobs require PhDs in organic chemistry from accredited institutions with programs approved by the American Chemical Society.

#1 – PhD in Chemical Engineering

Early Career Salary: $96,100
Mid-Career Salary: $146,000

Chemical engineering is a branch of engineering that combines physical sciences like chemistry and physics, life sciences like biochemistry and microbiology, and mathematics to solve problems in the use of chemicals, drugs, food, or fuel. Chemical engineering PhD programs are designed to equip engineering professionals with expert knowledge of the field’s core fundamentals and current research practices and findings. In recent years, chemical engineering has been recognized as the best doctoral degree by salary-offering steady job growth and high early career and mid-career salaries. Chemical engineers often work in biotechnology and business services as researchers.

The PhD Degrees That Pay Off With The Highest Salaries [Infographic]

Everything You Should Know About the Highest Paying Doctorates

As you research and navigate which doctoral path will best direct you toward your chosen field, your decision process will involve other important factors for consideration. Doctoral programs differ tremendously from each other, one key difference being research versus professional doctoral programs. As you begin to review the programs you’re interested in, do your best to find out how well the program will fit with your lifestyle, learning style, and long-term goals. 

When is a good time to earn a Ph.D? 

Since there is no such thing as the perfect time to earn a doctorate degree, you’ll have to find the time frame that works best for you. Finding the right time for you to pursue your Ph.D. is important because it takes a long time to earn it — anywhere from 4-8 years. Some people choose to complete their higher education degrees all at once, however, this doesn’t work for everyone. Life’s circumstances get in the way or perhaps you wish to get some career experience first before you seek a Ph.D. 

How can I pay for my Ph.D? 

There are three common ways to pay for your Ph.D.

  • Pay for it yourself through federal financial aid, scholarships, loans, or out of pocket: This method can be a challenge to meet financially for many but, for some, it is doable. If you’re looking for financial assistance, you can apply for loans, scholarships, and federal financial aid in order to make that price tag a bit more affordable.
  • Teach at the university you’re attending: A common way for students to earn the financial support they need to earn their Ph.D. is to teach at the school they are attending. This can cut down on their costs for their education as well as put money toward it. Many graduate students land teaching assistant jobs that provide flexibility for their students, as enough compensation to cover a portion of their tuition.  
  • Ask your employer to pay for it: Many companies and organizations will offer financial support to their employees to pursue their higher education and offer tuition assistance. Whether you qualify for tuition assistance, however, may depend on the type of degree you are pursuing.

Can I do my Ph.D. online? 

There are not many Ph.D. programs that are offered online, but this depends on the type of degree you are pursuing. Creating an online Ph.D. program isn’t impossible, however, doctorate degrees are contoured to individual students and often require taking in-person exams or labs in-person at some point.

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