Requirement for PhD and Doctoral Program Applications

TOEFL Waivers for Doctoral Students

Applicants to doctoral programs at universities in English-speaking countries have often earned their bachelor's and/or master's degrees at institutions that teach in English, and such students are usually allowed to waive the TOEFL. Some doctoral programs require written statements giving the reasons for TOEFL exemption requests or documentation of English proficiency, but academic transcripts are generally sufficient for the latter. TOEFL requirements are usually relevant only for prospective doctoral students whose entire previous undergraduate and graduate education was conducted in another language. However, some schools will expect degrees completed at universities in English-speaking countries to be at least somewhat recent, and international doctoral applicants who have been out of school for some time may have to present evidence that their English skills are currently sufficient for graduate study.

Required TOEFL Scores for Doctoral Programs

The TOEFL scores expected of doctoral students are often the same as those that apply to students on the master's level. The Stanford University Graduate School of Education will only consider applicants with total scores of 100 or higher, but this minimum score applies regardless of degree offering or degree level. Some programs, however, require higher scores from their doctoral students. The minimum TOEFL composite score necessary for admission to the Rackham Graduate School at the University of Michigan is 84, but PhD applicants in the Ross School of Business must receive a total score of at least 106 (with minimum subscores of 26 each in reading and listening and 27 each in speaking and writing). The general TOEFL requirement for all graduate degree programs at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government is a total score of 100, but international applicants to the PhD program in political economy and government must receive composite scores of at least 103-104.

International Students at Doctoral Programs

Doctoral programs at universities in the English-speaking world tend to include large populations of international students. Duke University is an example of an institution that reports detailed statistics on its PhD admissions. In the latest cycle, international students were nearly half of the applicant pool at Duke (48%). The overall PhD acceptance rate at Duke was about 13%. Although international applicants were offered admission at a lower rate of about 10%, these students constituted 38% of all admission offers. The population of new matriculants at Duke is currently 40% international, and doctoral students from overseas are now 36% of all PhD-seeking students.

The TOEFL and Teaching Assistantships

Prospective doctoral students who wish to finance their education through teaching assistantships must often meet higher TOEFL standards than those that are relevant to program acceptance only. The most common additional requirement is a higher score on the TOEFL's speaking section. At Ohio University, for example, the requirement for graduate admission is a total score of 80, with at least 17 on each of the four subscores. Candidates for teaching assistantships at this institution must receive a speaking section score no lower than 24 in order to be eligible. Though few institutions require above-benchmark TOEFL listening scores from their teaching assistants, some research has suggested the value of this skill to effective teaching. A 2016 ETS study found a correlation between high TOEFL listening scores and positive student evaluations of graduate teaching assistants. Although ETS research on the TOEFL can hardly be called objective or independent, the relationship between listening skills and teacher quality is worthy of further exploration.

Average TOEFL Scores for Doctoral Students

ETS does not track TOEFL scores for doctoral students as a distinct category. The only available graduate-level TOEFL statistics are for graduate students in business and non-business programs. The mean TOEFL composite score for all test-takers in both groups is 85. Sectional averages are very similar, and the respective mean scores for business and non-business students are as follows: 21.6 and 21.7 (reading), 21.0 and 21.0 (listening), 20.9 and 20.8 (speaking), and 21.3 and 21.3 (writing).

Funding Options for International Doctoral Students

At universities in the United States, citizens of other countries are not eligible for federal student loans. However, there are a number of available merit-based and need-based awards, for which international students may qualify. Additionally, doctoral students from overseas are allowed to apply for private loans, as long as they can find a U.S. citizen to cosign for those loans. University financial aid offices often have departments exclusively devoted to funding choices for international students, and employees of these departments are generally well informed on these issues.

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