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A woman poses with her PhD at a graduation ceremony

Getting Your Doctorate: What Does the Average PhD Program Involve?

What to Expect as a PhD Student

The idea of earning a doctoral degree is a glamorous one. Many students aspire to reach that academic pinnacle. A PhD garners great respect and may be the credentials needed to move on to your desired career goals. However, often times, students are unsure of what to expect as a PhD student. Let’s take a look at an overview of a general PhD program, noting that each program will have its own unique requirements. Then, you will have a better idea about how to get a PhD.

Researching and Teaching While Earning Your Degree

Most PhD candidates will work for their institutions in some capacity in order to earn a stipend, or living expenses, while pursuing their degree. You will likely be either a research assistant or a teaching assistant. Teaching assistants will either take on full responsibilities for an undergrad class or partial duties. Most classes would be introductory level, and you would rarely be given a graduate course. You could also be hired as a research assistant to help faculty collect data, conduct studies, gather information, work in laboratories or even co-author papers.

Coursework Study

During the coursework phase of a PhD program, you’ll find life to be much like that of your undergrad or Master’s programs. You’ll be expected to attend class, take notes, study and demonstrate your knowledge through papers and exams. However, you should expect that the classes will be more demanding than previous academic pursuits, and there will likely be fewer students in your program.

Comprehensive Exam or Thesis

Once you’ve completed your required coursework, you’ll be ready to take your comprehensive exam. This is sometimes known as a thesis, and its goal is to determine that you have a practical understanding of everything you’ve learned in your coursework and that you are prepared to begin to utilize that information in conducting your own academic pursuits. The exam is usually quite extensive and may be given in various formats. You will likely learn whether you’ve passed soon after completing the exam.

Dissertation Phase

The dissertation is the final portion of obtaining your PhD, but it is also likely to be the most stressful. You will need to identify an area of study and to choose a faculty member to serve as your chair or mentor during this process. You will determine a question within your field to answer and then spend significant time pursuing that answer. Your findings will be written in an extensive report, or dissertation, and you will be responsible for defending those findings in order to receive your PhD.

Entering a PhD program is not a decision to be taken lightly. It’s a large commitment that can take your career to new heights.