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What You Need to Know Before Applying to a PhD Program

While earning a Ph.D. is a noble pursuit, it's important to consider all the angles before applying to a program. Read on to learn more about potential debt, online versus campus-based programs and career options after graduation.

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Consider School Expenses

It's important to consider how much a Ph.D. will ultimately cost you. According to FinAid.org, about 35% of students pursuing a Ph.D. borrow money to finance their education. The average cumulative debt for these students upon graduation is nearly $45,000, according to 2007-2008 data. Think about whether or not your intended career can generate a salary high enough to pay off debt in a reasonable amount of time.

Fellowships and Scholarships

The American Psychological Association urges potential psychology graduate students to look for schools with ample fellowship and scholarship opportunities. Teaching assistantships can also help offset the cost of a doctoral education. The same line of thought can be applied to other fields as well. Students who qualify for any of these opportunities do not have to pay the money back. Consider contacting schools you're interested in to find out how many doctoral students secure this type of funding while enrolled.

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Online and On-Campus Ph.D. Programs

There are perks to enrolling in both campus-based and online Ph.D. programs. While campus-based programs represent the more traditional route of earning a doctoral degree, online programs can offer convenience and flexibility for working professionals. Some Ph.D. programs are offered in a hybrid format - mandatory workshops or class conferences are held on campus, while didactic coursework is completed via distance learning. For any Ph.D. program with an extensive online component, there are a few important factors to consider.

Is it a scam?

If you've never heard about a program before, be sure to investigate the program's credentials. Find out if the school is nationally or regionally accredited. It doesn't hurt to call a particular school and make sure the doctoral program you're interested in isn't a scam.

Will it be easier?

Most online Ph.D. programs require the same amount of work as campus-based programs. Look into the curriculum or speak with a school's academic counselor to determine how many hours you should set aside each day or week to complete the necessary coursework. If you don't have excellent time management skills, it may be difficult to earn your Ph.D. online.

Will you have enough support?

If you're the type of student that likes meeting with teachers regularly to discuss assignments or class topics, online programs might not be suitable for you. While students and professors in online programs may communicate via online message boards or e-mail, some students need face time to feel confident about their work.

Academic Careers in Short Supply

In many fields, earning a Ph.D. traditionally leads to a postsecondary teaching career. However, it's not realistic anymore to assume you'll get a full-time professorship after earning your advanced degree. According to the American Association of University Professors, part-time and full-time non-tenure-track jobs in academia make up 76% of all teaching positions.

Instead of assuming you'll teach at the college level after earning your Ph.D., think carefully about all of your career options. The American Historical Association (AHA) published an article in 2011 arguing that careers previously seen as 'alternative' paths for history doctorates should be seen as standard, first-choice options. That same logic applies to other academic fields as well.

What's Out There?

There are plenty of 'alternative' careers that shouldn't be considered second-string. Get creative, do some research and network with students, graduates and successful professionals in your academic field.

Graduates of some Ph.D. programs can pursue administrative positions at the postsecondary level. Consider looking for opportunities in unexpected places, like business or government. For example, graduates of Ph.D. programs in liberal arts fields might look into federal careers with the State Department or the U.S. Treasury, according to Yale University's Graduate Career Services division.

For more tips, check out this article about the financial future of graduate students.

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