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Student Selection and Admissions

For most universities, the opportunity to increase the rate of student success in PhD programs begins with the selection and admissions process, which encompasses recruitment. Recruiting for success means drawing in talented students from diverse backgrounds who have the potential to succeed in a program of their chosen discipline. But it also means identifying and attracting those who are likely to thrive within a specific departmental culture, university environment, and surrounding locale.

One important aspect of selecting the right students is admitting those whose prior experience suggests an ability to succeed in academic coursework, which typically constitutes the first years of doctoral study. Common admissions materials (including test scores and transcripts of undergraduate performance) tend to be good predictors of early success in graduate school. But selecting students for doctoral programs often also depends upon identifying those who have demonstrated the potential to succeed in the later years of a PhD, when what is required may be comfort in collaborative research settings and/or perseverance in pursuing independent lines of inquiry. Early predictors of success in the later stages of doctoral work, particularly in the dissertation stage, are more difficult to define, and may require careful review and deliberation by the admissions committee.

Universities participating in the PhD Completion Project have developed a variety of mechanisms for integrating into the doctoral admissions process a greater attention to the “fit” or “match” between a particular student and a specific program, alongside considerations of traditional measures of student quality. These mechanisms may include the provision of greater transparency about expectations and outcomes, more opportunities for students to visit campus before admission or enrollment, and more intensive orientation once students arrive on campus. A consistent theme across each of these areas of intervention in selection and admissions is the recruitment, retention and success of underrepresented students.

Promising Practices

Promising practices identified by participating universities in the area of selection and admissions include:


  • Pre-admission and pre-enrollment campus visits:
    • Expand the opportunities for departments to bring prospective students to campus for recruitment visits, with emphasis on those students from underrepresented populations
    • Reimburse direct expenses related to group campus visits
  • Underrepresented student recruiting efforts:
    • Appoint new Diversity Coordinator to devote year-round efforts to minority recruiting
    • Increase departmental participation in the Diversity Outreach Collaboration and the Diversity Coordinators Project to produce a diverse applicant pool for each department/program
    • Send staff, faculty, and/or student teams to recruitment fairs across the country, as well as to HBCU’s and other top universities
    • Attend national conferences that feature undergraduate research, and provide professional development and mentoring activities for underrepresented students
    • Publish email directory of summer research programs, and build strong working relationships with faculty across the country
    • Create pipelines to the university through the Ronald McNair Scholars Program, McNair Summer Research Conference, multicultural directors from the three colleges, and the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Program, and other sources
    • Incorporate alumni into program recruitment strategies, in particular women and members of underrepresented groups who graduated after 1975
    • Develop comprehensive university-wide plan for recruiting and retaining students from underrepresented populations and/or women
  • Early research (as a recruiting practice):
    • Identify top undergraduates and invite them to participate in a research institute late in their sophomore year to prepare and recruit these students to pursue doctoral studies [See also ‘Research Experience’]
    • Enhance an intensive 8-week summer research institute experience for recipients of the university Merit Fellow Awards (underrepresented students). [See also ‘Research Experience’]
    • Summer Pre-Doctoral Institute for underrepresented students


  • Improve department websites to ensure that each includes additional data, information, and resources necessary for prospective students to make informed decisions
  • Increase transparency in the selection processes and clarify expectations for students in their doctoral programs, including assessment milestones


  • Develop workshops for admissions committees and program chairs and informational workshops on diversity for faculty involved in graduate admissions
  • Create protocol, through data gathered in exit survey, to help identify candidates who are committed to the PhD career path
  • Survey applicants to determine why admissions offers are accepted or declined; compare with exit data