I realise that the answer to this question varies greatly between department and universities but I would like to get some estimates from somebody within the field since I myself has absolutely no idea. When I apply for a PhD position, can I expect to compete with a handful of other persons or can there be hundreds of applications sent?


There was over 80 for the position I applied for a few years ago, at a Dutch neuroscience institute with a good reputation. I imagine there would be more at world famous universities in the US. I hear that most of the time, most applicants aren't that good, even the top 10% who make it to the interview. In my case the best candidate got the position, and the one ranked second (me) got an offer for a position later on... so in the end it was one out of 40.

  • "most applicants aren't that good" - I'm having some trouble understanding exactly what this means. Is it people missing the necessary qualifications (e.g. not having a masters degree in the first place)?
    – Speldosa
    Jun 22 '12 at 10:32
  • 6
    @Speldosa - Partly. What I've heard more about (and seen some) are the candidates who come to present some of their data for the interview. A lot of the time they have trouble expressing a clear motivation for the experiments they did for their masters thesis (this is the most common problem), often they skip over their data too quickly (some don't show graphs at all - huge mistake), and many tend to then draw conclusions that are not related to the data in a clear-cut way. These are of course very high-level mistakes, but still, it takes more to give an impression of a strong candidate.
    – Ana
    Jun 22 '12 at 11:45
  • @Speldosa: There's more to a good candidate than having a masters degree. There's more to a good candidate than having good grades. Jun 22 '12 at 12:01

I wonder if the OP is asking a more Euro-specific question ? In the US you don't apply for a single position - rather there's a large pool of applications for a small set of "slots". In contrast to the answer by @scientifics above, in CS it's not uncommon to see over 500 applications for around 15-20 slots.


I'm located in Belgium in a computer science department. Recent positions that I've advertised have had between 3 and 30 applicants, depending on the topic. Most applicants were poor or hard to assess (from countries we have little experience with).

We currently have 8 positions open and are not expecting to get 8 good candidates.

  • "Most applicants were poor or hard to assess" - Are we talking about the equivalent to nigerian letters? Don't they even have the necessary qualifications or do they just have crappy grades and poor writing skills?
    – Speldosa
    Jun 22 '12 at 10:23
  • 4
    By that I mean they come from Universities we've never heard of in countries where it is difficult to get accurate information about quality. Achieving reasonable grades at a crappy university is no guarantee of quality. Achieving reasonable grades at an unknown university says very little about the student. Jun 22 '12 at 10:42
  • Interesting. I started out at a crappy university in a country that was going through some very crappy times. My impression is that good students are quite comparable in quality to good students elsewhere. The ones receiving mediocre grades, on the other hand, would probably have been failing at better universities.
    – Ana
    Jun 22 '12 at 11:51
  • 2
    @Ana: My point is more that "it is difficult to assess the quality" not that "the quality is poor". Jun 22 '12 at 11:58
  • 1
    "Poor" often also means that the candidates do not really fit the topic very well and there is no sign that they are really interested to do something completely new except as the safety option.
    – user781
    Jun 22 '12 at 12:12

The University of Minnesota is one of few institutions that makes their admissions statistics publicly available https://apps.grad.umn.edu/programs/select_program.aspx?l=t (choose a field and press the "Program Statistics" radio button)

I pulled the info from my field (Ecology and Evolutionary Biology) and you can see that it varies from year to year but the mean is around 80. Here is the site for the EEB program: http://gradpub.grad.umn.edu/data/stats/ad/1124400.html

In general, at least in the US, more and more people are applying to grad school since it is viewed as a viable alternative to the weak job market.

  • These are fantastic stats. I wonder if other schools have those as well. If anybody knows I would like to know. Dec 4 '12 at 17:30
  • Note that this is not 80 applications for one position. As is common in US universities, applications are department-wide. If you scroll down that page, you can see that for 2013-14, 87 applications were received, of which 11 students were accepted, and all of them actually enrolled (matriculated). So the ratio of applications to seats is more like 8:1. Apr 12 '15 at 16:40

It really depends on the school and the program. For example, most big US universities that have chemistry PhD programs take ~50 new graduate students every year, so I can't imagine there are too many applications for each spot...


The PhD market in CS in Austria is very much a buyers market. I know from at least two professors (both are very well known in their respective fields; one of them is a real "big name" in algorithms) that they have problems finding (reasonable good and motivated) PhD students. As a well doing Master's student (not a genius, they tend to go to the US or UK), I was offered several PhD positions.


For Physics (and some Astronomy) PhD programs, you can find out a lot of the information about acceptance rates and total # of applicants from the AIP graduate handbook.

Much of the same information is found at www.­gradschoolshoppe­r.­com, which is somehow down today...

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.