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Steps of preparing graduate degree (Ph.D.) at the USA or Canada

Shall we begin?

This guide is for any graduate student who wants to pursue a graduate degree (Ph.D.) at the USA or Canada. It is mostly based on advice given to me by former grad students besides my own experience with the process. It is intended to be a guide to the process of admission to universities in US and Canada. The guide describes the process of preparing your materials and getting the hell out of here in two years. If you are not in a hurry for any reason, you can stretch the time span as you wish.

Welcome Vacation

After the exams are over, you are faced with the vacation. There are some things that should be done in this vacation.

  1. You should work on having a credit card to pay online for exams and admissions. This will save you lots of trouble.
  2. Decide on your name. Yes, decide what your name will be and how it is spelled. Your name should be consistent in ALL your documents and papers. Choose your last name, and keep it in ALL your documents. This name will stick to you after that for ever. It should be the same in: your transcripts, passport, GRE, TOEFL, recommendation letters, etc�..
  3. You should work on your GRE and TOEFL preparation. These exams should be taken no later than the end of September. We will detail them later.
  4. Define your specific interests, and look at universities. Look at the departments and decide on which departments you may apply. Define at least four universities (with specific departments inside) and get them ready on the day of TOEFL and GRE tests. On the day of the test, you are allowed up to FOUR destinations to where you can send the results. These are allowed ONLY on the day of the test. After that, every destination cost $15 for each the GRE and the TOEFL, so plan well ahead and choose wisely. Remember to choose the EXACT department inside the university you wish to apply to.
  5. Have a lot of photos ready!



The TOEFL is required in every university in US and Canada. It was Computer Based with maximum score of 300. The acceptable score ranged from 213 to 250. This was not hard to get, if you were familiar with English listening and writing.
Actually the problem now is that the TOEFL changed to the IBT (Internet Based Test), it became harder than the computer based because they replaced the structure (which was the easiest part) with the speaking section (which is the hardest part).

The sections of the TOEFL are as follows :

  • Listening: the most difficult if not familiar with the listening. You should keep practicing the listening from the CBT exams on CDs and IBT(there is a difference between the listening section from the CBT and the IBT, but u can use CBT for practice), until you get an acceptable result. Also, try listening to English radio channels or TV channels, this will help your listening ability. Also, read carefully the tips and tricks in the TOEFL book to know what kind of questions they ask about the listening scenario and what you are supposed to concentrate at when listening.
  • Writing: In the IBT, you will be asked to write two essays, where the question itself may contain reading and listening passages, and u are asked to integrate between the two passages and write an essay related to the passages, so prepare for some listening on the writing section.
  • Reading: the easiest, some reading comprehension passages with questions on them. Just needs some practice.
  • Speaking: This is the new section on the IBT, and they added it because a lot of Asians used to ACE the TOEFL, and after going to the states, they couldn’t speak English. It comes in the sequence of 6 questions, and you are asked to answer through a microphone, where your answers are recorded and sent to be scored. Some questions include reading and listening passages, so don’t panic. Give10-15 seconds to integrate few lines, and take care from the pronunciation and grammar while speaking.

You should prepare for the TOEFL for at least two weeks before the exam. Test your listening ability by trying some exams, if you need more practice then don’t spare anytime in practicing it. Practice all the sections, specially writing, to be confident on the day of the test.
The maximum score of the TOEFL IBT is 120, and the minimum is 80 which is equivalent to 550 on paper-based and 213 on computer-based. Your target is to score above 100, because most of the top universities require such a score.
TOEFL can be booked online at www.toefl.org, or at AMIDEAST, but the problem with AMIDEAST is that it will cost more than booking online, and u must book before the exam about 2 months earlier, while online it’s only a matter of days. You can book the day before the exam, but booking at least one week ahead is advisable. Amideast is in Dokki, 23 Mossada2 street, near Nokia. It contains the testing center that you will have the exam in. There are two times: 9am and 1pm, choose whichever you are comfortable with. The result appears in about 2 weeks, and u can get it online, because u will have a username and a password as an IBT test taker.

GRE sucks!!

GRE, as they say, measures the skills and information acquired during the undergraduate period. However, this is only a myth. One can prepare very well to the exam and get high scores, even if he had nothing in his undergraduate studies. The GRE is well known for its bad reputed Verbal section.GRE has a general test and some subject tests. The general test is required in ALL universities in the US, and in FEW universities in Canada (mainly McGill). The GRE  subject test  is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED in MOST universities, only a few require it as a must.
The general GRE costs $140(Variable) and so does the subject. They can also be booked online like the TOEFL, and are taken also in AMIDEAST. The results appear in 3 weeks and are sent directly to your home address.
You should prepare for the GRE at least 2 months before the exam, if you want to memorize some words for the verbal. We will describe briefly its three sections.

  • Quantitative: Maximum 800 points. Contains basic arithmetic, geometry and trigonometry. Very easy to get the 800 points, just need some practice and concentration. Review the basic rules and practice some tests in the material.
  • Verbal: Maximum 800, but can hardly get 600. Less than 400 lowers your chances, above 400 is acceptable, 500 is wonderful, above 600 is extraordinary, above 700 needs the help of an ANGEL, 800 is nearly impossible, unless you memorize the Webster. It mostly contains formal words that we can live without, but that are mostly used in news and formal writings. The most important thing in the GRE is solving exams, and studying alone will never give you what you want. Every GRE book also contains a word list of around 300 words. There are also word lists on the net containing around 1300 words. This is the section that requires long practicing time if you intend to do hard in that. You can spend well 1.5-2 months memorizing these words, and so you have to decide early. The final practicing can start around 2 weeks before the exam. Then, go on the other word lists in the books. If you have the patience and diligence, you can try the word list of 1300 words. Still on the test day you for sure will find new words, but these are used for helping and exclusion, besides giving you the sense of the right words.
  • Analytical: maximum 6. Contains two essays that you have to write, one to give your opinion on some issue (issue task) and the other to judge the credibility of some argument presented (argument task). These require some practice in writing few sample essays to gain the experience of writing quickly and correctly.

The final preparation for the GRE lasts around 3 weeks before the test for solving sample tests and practicing the different parts of the exam. This time excludes the time needed for memorizing the word lists, if you decided to do so. Don’t forget the GRE powerprep, you can download from www.gre.org, it contains good computer adaptive training exams, and solve it several times because each time you solve it in a different way the exam changes. Try to purchase GRE materials endorsed by the ETS, especially the BIG BOOK which has 27 solved exams and are extraordinary.


You will need many photos during the next couple of months. You should get A LOT of photos and prepare them in order not to get delayed and to be always ready. They are required for the transcripts (many of them), for your passport (if you don’t have one or want to renew it).

Papers, Papers, Papers��.


The next step is to prepare the papers required for your admission. These papers contain at least the following:

  1. Transcripts for graduate (master preliminary courses) if any, and undergraduate (bachelor courses).
  2. GRE and TOEFL scores.
  3. Recommendation letters
  4. Statement of purpose
  5. Resume
  6. Undergraduate and graduate GPA.

These papers should be ready no later than the middle of November, to catch the admissions that start early December. To help organize yourself, create an excel sheet to gather all the information for all the universities that you intend to apply to. Visit the admission pages for these universities, and for those exact departments, and extract all the required information: deadline, application fee, number and language of required transcripts, number of recommendation letters, etc.� This file will help you so much when preparing what’s needed for each university and when to start shipping out the goods.

Universities, how many? How much?!

By now you must have decided on the list of universities or at least the number of universities you will apply to. The normal choice is around 8-10 universities: 4 of your level, 3 of higher level and 3 of lower level. If you have some more money, you can apply to more universities. The more you apply, the better your chance will be. However, the more you get acceptances, the more confused you will be when choosing among them J. Some people apply to more than 15 universities, and others apply to 1-2 universities.
ALL universities in US and Canada have application fees, except a few programs that may come on your way. The application fee ranges from $50 to $100 in the US, and from $50 CAN to $150 CAN in Canada. In addition, some universities permit applying to more than one department with the same application fee e.g. University of California San Diego and University of Southern California.

Ranking? Huh?

www.usnews.com maintains a yearly ranking of universities. The name of the university is of course an important aspect to consider, but not the only one. Other important factors are: the power of the research group you are interested in, the reputation of some professors you want to work with, the size of the university (large, small) and the number of students.

The name of the university may affect your career afterwards, but that depends on what you will do after you finish your PhD. If you are coming back to Egypt as soon as you finish, then Honolulu State University will be the same as HARVARD University, what matters is that your degree is from the US. However, if you plan to stay abroad for some while, or even for good, then the ranking and reputation of the university does matter.
Below are the rankings of Top Medical Schools � Research :

Top 50 Medical Schools 2008
 1. Harvard University (MA)
 2. Johns Hopkins University (MD)
 3. University of Pennsylvania
 4. Washington University in St. Louis
 5. University of California-San Francisco
 6. University of Washington
 7. Stanford University (CA)
 8. Duke University (NC)
 8. Yale University (CT)
 10. Baylor College of Medicine (TX)
 10. Columbia U. College of Physicians and Surgeons (NY)
 10. University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
 13. University of California-Los Angeles (Geffen)
 14. University of California-San Diego
 15. Cornell University (weill) (NY)
 15. University of  Chicago (Pritzker)
 15. University of Pittsburgh
 18. Vanderbilt University (TN)
 19. U. of Texas Southwestern Medical Center-Dallas
 20. University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill
 21. Case Western Reserve University (OH)
 21. Northwestern University (Feinberg) (IL)
 23. Emory University (GA)
 23. Mayo Medical School (MN)
 23. University of Colorado-Denver and Health Sciences Center
 23. University of Virginia
 27. Mount Sinai School of Medicine (NY)
 27. University of Alabama-Birmingham
 27. University of Wisconsin-Madison
 30. University of Iowa (Carver)
 31. Ohio State University
 32. Dartmouth Medical School (NH)
 32. Oregon Health and Science University
 34. Boston University
 34. Brown University (RI)
 34. New York University
 34. University of Rochester (NY)
 38. University of Southern California (Keck)
 39. University of Minnesota Medical School
 39. Yeshiva University (Einstein) (NY)
 41. University of California-Irvine
 41. University of Cincinnati (OH)
 41. University of Maryland
 44. Georgetown University (DC)
 44. Indiana University-Indianapolis
 44. Wake Forest University (NC)
 47. Tufts University (MA)
 48. University of Florida
 49. University of California-Davis
 49. University of Massachusetts-Worcester
 49. University of Utah
Other Top Universities to Consider
1.  Purdue University-West Lafayette (IN)
2.  University of California-Berkley
3.  Massachusetts Institute of Technology
4.  California Institute of Technology
5.  University of Illinois�Urbana-Champaign 
6.  University of Illinois-Chicago
7.  University of Georgia-Athens
8.  University of Missouri-Columbia
9.  Pennsylvania State University
10. Princeton University (NJ)
11. University of Kentucky-Lexington
12. Oregon state University
13. Temple University
14. Carnegie Mellon University
15. Georgia Institute of Technology

Transcripts�� Too many!

The transcripts are Kashf Daragat as we call it. It shows all the courses taken, your grade, and how much hours they are assigned. We need both graduate (If Any), and undergraduate, in both Arabic and English. The graduate transcripts are required exactly like the undergraduate, the same language and the same number.
Basically, you need one English transcript for each university. Some universities require the Arabic beside the English one, and some even require two copies.

  • Undergraduate: they are issued from Sho2oon Elkheregeen. Get an application from the worker, prepare many Dam3’as, photos, and present them. Each transcript take One stamp of the university for 5LE, and 2LE of red and blue stamps. They take around 1-2 weeks to get out, depending on the number you require. Be sure to write your English name exactly as you require it to appear.
  • Graduate: they are issued from Sho2oon Elderasat El3olia. Again, prepare stamps, photos and present them. Be sure of your name. And, tell them to write the TOTAL percentage grade and that English and Numerical Analysis are not counted in the final grade. They will not write these if you don’t tell them. Each one also has a stamp of 5LE of the university, and 1LE blue and red stamps.

For normal use, 15 English and 10 arabic (for each graduate and undergraduate) should be sufficient. However, this depends on how many universities you wish to apply.

GRE and TOEFL scores�� Again?

All the universities that require TOEFL and GRE require that the scores be sent directly through ETS for $15 each. On the day of the test you can send your scores to four universities, so do not waste this chance. Some universities can accept copies of the official scores until the admission decision is taken and they can then require you to send the official score through ETS. Of course this is a chance you should not miss. In addition, you can issue TRUE copies from AMIDEAST for these scores. These are just photocopies of the original score report sent to you (cost 10 piasters) that are stamped with two signs and a signature, and cost only 25LE!! However, beware that you should ASK the universities if they accept these copies or even normal copies. If they don’t accept either, you will have to send the official ETS copies.                                                       The best way to send official scores is through the phone system, the details are found on the website of both the TOEFL and GRE, and you must have a valid credit card. This way is much easier and a lot faster for the official reports to reach their destination.

Recommendation Letters, go ask them?

These are an extremely important part of the admission application. All universities require at least 2 recommendation letters (mostly 3) from professors at your institution, including your Masters supervisor. Some recommenders will ask you for a prototype of the letter to modify, and some will write a unique personalized letter for you.
The universities normally have a predefined form that must be filled by the recommender, in addition to the recommendation letter, that is normally attached to this form. Most universities now require online recommendation letters; some can accept paper forms but recommend online ones. So, make sure to ask your recommender for an email address that he/she uses regularly.
Below is a sample recommendation letter just to give you the feeling.


To Whom It May Concern
I have known X for the past five years during his undergraduate and postgraduate studies in our department. Currently, he works as a teaching assistant in the department.
I taught him x undergraduate courses on y in which he acquired outstanding ratings and showed strong intellectual and analytical thinking abilities. He also carried out two projects in these courses in which he proved having solid understanding of the subject at hand and strong desire for research.
As a teaching assistant in the department, he proved being a diligent instructor and a hard worker. He also showed his ability to interact positively with his colleagues and his motivation to work in the academic field.
 x is a very reliable and independent character. He is eager to learn and can easily join any research team as he has an attractive personality and excellent interpersonal relations with his supervisors, peers, and subordinates.
We were very proud to have an excellent student like x in our department. For all the above reasons, and without any hesitation, I do highly recommend giving him the opportunity to continue his postgraduate studies towards a Ph.D. degree in your university
                                                            Prof. Y Z
The Recommender’s Name
The Recommender’s Title
The Recommender’s Contact Info

Statement of Purpose: take PhD and go home!

This is another important part you should take care of. It is mainly about you and what you want to do with your PhD. They say it should cover the following:

  • Why are you pursuing the PhD? What will you do with it? Work in the academia, work in the industry, improve your knowledge, for fun, or just for killing time?
  • What are you experiences that show that you can work in research and can succeed in your PhD? State any research projects you have worked on, papers you have published J, patents you have filed, training experiences you have had �etc.
  • What are you interested in anyway? State clearly your research interests and what you like working on in your PhD. State any experience you have with these fields or areas.
  • Personalize your SOP as much as you can to each university. Talk about specific research groups or mention specific labs or professors.
  • Conclude the SOP with saying that your university is the perfect place to go and I am the perfect guy for going there.

Take your time in writing your SOP. It may take 10-15 versions to come at the final edition. Show it to your supervisor, colleagues, and professors and take their opinions about it. Make sure it is completely bug free, with ABSOLUTELY no grammatical or spelling mistakes. There are many guides and sample SOP’s online.

Showy Resume

You will need a professional resume to be submitted along with the application. It should focus on your academic achievements. Include your education starting secondary school through undergraduate and graduate studies. Highlight your rank and appreciation if they are impressive e.g. you were the 3rd among 100 students in the bachelor degree, or you got Distinction with Honors. Speak about any work, training, or research experiences you have. List any extracurricular activities you may have participated in.

GPA, what’s that?

GPA is the Grade Point Average. It is the standard system of grading used abroad. For every course, you receive a letter grade: A, B, C, D, or F. This is roughly equivalent to our grades: Distinction, Very Good, Good, Accepted, and Fail. To calculate the GPA, each grade is assigned a numeric value e.g. A=4, B=3 �etc. The numeric value of each course is multiplied by the number of hours assigned to that course. Then the sum of this is scaled by the total number of hours, to give a GPA out of 4.0.
For use, we don’t have these grades, as we have exact marks for each course, and we already have a total percentage. However, some universities do require that you calculate your GPA. So, each grade is assigned a numeric value: Distinction=4, Very Good=3 �etc. For each course, multiply this value by the total hours of this course (as indicated on the transcripts). Normalize this sum by the total number of hours for all courses. If you got Distinction in ALL courses during your studies, then you definitely have a GPA of 4.0 J.

Envelopes, lots of envelopes

Now, you should have prepared all the papers required for your admission and chosen all the universities and departments you are going to apply to. The deadlines for most US universities ranges from December 15 till February 15, with few exceptions before or after this period. For Canada, this also ranges from January 15 till March 30, with few exceptions around December 15 e.g. universities in British Columbia (don’t know why?).
There is a trick about some deadlines. Some universities say that the deadline is a postmark deadline. This means that the package need not RECEIVED by this deadline, it rather states that they must be SENT by this deadline. For example, if the postmark deadline is January 1st, then you must send your package before January 1st but they can be received after that date.
Now, you need to get everything packed in envelopes prepared for the long journey to their destinations. You will need three sizes for envelopes:

  • Letter head envelopes: these are normal envelopes to put the recommendation letters in. Each recommender should put his letter in a separate envelope, seal it, and put his signature across the seal.
  • A5 envelopes: these are best suited for the transcripts. Each kind of transcript is placed in its own envelope. Put the undergraduate transcripts in an envelope, go to Sho2oon ElKherregeen, and they will check it, seal the envelope, and sign and stamp across the seal. The same applies to the graduate transcripts, except that this is done in Sho2oon Elderasat El3olia.
  • A4 envelopes: these will contain the whole package addressed to each university. Put everything needed by the university: transcripts, recommendation letters, copies of GRE and TOEFL scores, resumes, statement of purpose, and anything else required into an envelope get it ready for the trip.

Online Applications, Fill up

Now almost all the universities in US and Canada, with very few exceptions, have online application forms. Some universities can accept paper applications, but of course the online ones are much cozy. Beware that some universities have earlier deadlines for the online applications before the deadline for the supporting material (transcripts, recommendations, etc…). Also, some universities require a pre-application before you can fill in the real application form. This pre-application is just some kind of filter to get rid of unqualified candidates early enough. Its deadline may be even earlier, so watch out.

Run Package, Run!!

Everything is now ready to go to its destination. Now, you should consider what courier service to use for sending them off. You have either to use regular snail mail, which is completely unreliable and untraceable, or you can use a courier service like Fedex or DHL. What we did is that we used Aramex. It is much cheaper than Fedex, and if you buy 10 tickets at once you get discount on them. We bought packets of 10 tickets of 145LE each, while if using Fedex we would have paid around 250LE for the package. Another alternative is using the Egypt Post. They have a new service, called Net Courier, that is executed in cooperation with Fedex. It costs around 130LE per package, and is supposed to be reliable and traceable.
The courier service normally takes around 3-4 days to arrive. But, they take the week end as a vacation i.e. Saturday and Sunday are off. This means that if you sent your package on Friday for example, and it is supposed to be delivered by Sunday, it will not be delivered before Tuesday due to the delay of the week end. This means you should send your package at least 5 days before the deadline, to be in the safe side, unless it is a postmark deadline.


Personal contacts play a vital role in your applications. If your supervisor, or any of your professors, personally know some professor there and can recommend you this would be great. Out there they don’t have Wasta. These contacts just focus their attention on your application so that it doesn’t get hidden in the piles of applications they already have. If you are not that good, don’t expect to get accepted just because of good contacts, but if you are really good, good contacts can greatly help you.
In addition, you should try to contact professors that you may be interested to work with. Send them emails, briefing your strong credentials: GPA, GRE score, past research experience �etc. This is most important in Canadian universities, where you must go directly to a professor. However, don’t expect all of them to respond back to you, they are so busy and they already receive hundreds of such messages. So try to put your most impressive values in the front of your message to attract their attention to continue reading your email. After sending your applications, you will have sometime to do this contacting process, before you start receiving their responses.

Choose me, please

The universities are expected to reply no earlier than the start of March. Most of them send acceptances or rejections before April 15, but some can send after this date, specially if you are on the waiting list. The deadline of April 15 is an agreed upon date between all US universities, and you are not required to send your response on any acceptance before this deadline.
When the letters or emails start arriving, don’t get depressed or get carried away. Wait until you get all the responses, either acceptances or rejections. Don’t accept the first offer you receive, you can have a better offer later on. If you find that some universities are delayed to send their responses, start bugging them with emails telling them that you already received responses and want to know what their decision is. Most universities send their rejections using normal mail without sending an email, so this bugging mechanism will let you know about the rejection at least one week before you actually receive your very polite rejection letter.
In fact, rejection letters are kind of funny, they say “You are very good. You are awesome. You are outstanding. However, we got many people who are also awesome and outstanding, and due to space limitations, we are sorry we will not accept you. Find yourself some place other than here J”.

Show me the money

In some cases, you may get admission into a university without any financial aid. Of course it is impossible for normal people to accept this, as the year in the US costs around $40,000==250,000LE!! Therefore, we can only accept admission offers containing financial support. There are three kinds of financial support:

  • Fellowships: the best of financial support. You are guaranteed a monthly salary and they also pay off the tuition fees. You just have to study hard to get A’s.
  • Research Assistantships: the middle type. You are also guaranteed a monthly salary plus the tuition fees. However, you have to work in return. You normally work in research with your supervisor on your PhD. So, you are doing your PhD and getting back money.
  • Teaching Assistantships: the last type. Again, they pay a monthly salary and the tuition. However, you should work as a TA: instruct sessions, labs, or grade assignments and exams.

The fellowships are the best of these types. You get money and are not required to work anywhere. The comparison between RAship and TAship depends on your situation. If you are satisfied with your research group and comfortable with your supervisor, then RAships are great. However, if you are still not assigned to a research group or don’t like your supervisor and want to switch, you can easily do that while having a TAship. With the TAship, you are not assigned to any professor and so you can switch groups easier than an RAship.

Go get the Visa

When you have received all the responses, you will send your acceptance to one university and declination to the others. The winning university will then send you a package about the financial situation, housing options, health care, visa official papers �etc. The visa issues are different between US and Canada, I will tell what I know about the US case.
There are two kinds of student visas in the US: F-1 and J-1. The F-1 visa is the normal student visa that is issued according to your period of study in the target university. You are not allowed to work off-campus, and you can work on-campus only for a maximum of 20 hours/week during the academic year. You can work on-campus full time during the summer and academic breaks. Any dependent of yours (wife and children) will get an F-2 visa, which doesn’t allow working under any circumstance.
The J-1 visa is an exchange visa. You must be supported by some institution or organization e.g. your home university. You also can’t work on-campus for more 20 hours/week during the academic year, and can work full-time during the summer. J-1 students can work off-campus if this is related to their indicated program of study. Any dependent of a J-1 student gets a J-2 visa, which can allow them to work after getting permission.
The US embassy now has a phone service from which you can schedule an appointment to get the Visa. From any Vodafone you can call 2100. Dial these numbers directly to go instantly to the human operator: 1, 1, 2, 1, 0. Be prepared with your passport and I-20 paper. The papers required for the Visa are:

  • The I-20 papers issued by your target university and sent to you along with the formal package
  • A valid passport
  • The application form bought from any CIB branch for 600LE, along with the payment receipt
  • One 5×5 photo with white background with direct facing
  • Official offer letter from the university together with the financial support letters
  • SEVIS fee payment receipt of $100. This may be paid off by the university, or you may be required to pay it.
  • The process of getting the Visa can be real fast. You can receive your passport on the day after your appointment. However, it can also be lengthy. It can take up to 6 weeks to get issued the Visa. It all depends on your security history J.

Hope this brief guide can answer most of the questions that you have regarding the admission process.

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