What Are the Steps and Requirements to Get a PhD?

Jul 27, 2019

A Ph.D. is the highest level degree one can earn in most fields, representing a level of mastery in the subject matter. Find out how to get a doctorate degree, what Ph.D. research involves, and an answer to the question, 'Is a Ph.D. worth it?'

What is a Ph.D.?

The Doctor of Philosophy, or Ph.D., is the terminal degree in most academic fields, ranging from Ph.D.s in psychology to mathematics to literature. The doctoral degree is the highest level of academic credential commonly available, and stands in contrast to professional degrees, such as Juris Doctor (J.D.) or Doctor of Medicine (M.D.), earned by lawyers and doctors, respectively. The steps to earning a Ph.D. include:

  1. Obtain a bachelor's degree
  2. Take the GRE or other entrance exams
  3. Apply for graduate schools
  4. When accepted, work on either a master's or Ph.D.
  5. If in a master's program, complete master's and apply for doctoral programs
  6. Perform coursework in early years of Ph.D.
  7. Establish a dissertation topic and begin research
  8. Defend dissertation and publish research
  9. Receive Ph.D.

Do You Need a Master's to Get a Ph.D.?

This is a commonly asked question, caused by some degree of confusion over the fact that a Ph.D. is the highest degree level. Both a master's degree and a Ph.D. are considered graduate degrees, which exist in a capacity higher than the undergraduate bachelor's degree. It is possible to progress straight from a bachelor's to a Ph.D. in some instances, although students with a master's degree may be able to skip certain courses and accelerate their Ph.D. Generally speaking, earning a master's and then proceeding to a Ph.D. program will take roughly the same amount of time until graduation as going straight from bachelor's to Ph.D. A master's degree may, however, make a student look more appealing in applications, and that advantage is sometimes necessary for highly competitive spots in doctoral degree programs.

How to Obtain a Ph.D.

What do you need to get a doctorate degree? For those wondering how to earn a Ph.D., the basic process is simple enough, if rather lengthy. The first step is to attend a college and complete a bachelor's degree program relevant to the Ph.D. you hope to one day earn. With the bachelor's degree complete, students should consider carefully how best to proceed. Would a master's be advisable in this particular field, or can you head straight into a Ph.D. program? Either way, it will usually be necessary to take entrance exams such as the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) in order to apply for graduate schools.

In a Ph.D. program, the first year will mostly consist of coursework, similar to that for lower degrees, but concerning topics that are more complex or require advanced knowledge of the field. Coursework is likely to continue in some capacity until the third year. During the second year, students will typically begin to plan and work on their major research project, often referred to as the doctoral thesis. With the help of advisors, a student will devise an experiment or begin a study to answer a particular question, and then begin working on an extensive dissertation discussing their theory, experiments, and findings. This process can take years, depending on the particulars of a thesis, and dissertations are often as long as some books. Finally, students must defend their dissertation before a committee of professors, including their advisor, and prove its merit. Upon successful defense of the dissertation, a graduate student is ready to be awarded their Ph.D.

Why Get a Ph.D.?

While a student might pursue a master's degree to advance their career, one usually aims for a Ph.D. if they are interested in academic research. Ph.D. recipients often work as professors at universities when not performing research, so individuals interested in teaching college-age students might also want to look into the degree. Alternatively, Ph.D.s can also lead research projects for government organizations and corporations, act as consultants for media, and write books and articles related to their degree and research.

Other Options for a Ph.D.

While there may not be any 1-year online doctoral programs, it is possible to earn Ph.D.s online at an accelerated rate or part-time. Online Ph.D. programs are often very flexible with transfer credits, and while still exclusive, may not have the maximum seating restrictions that other Ph.D. programs must face. Online programs might rely on summer courses and independent study, so individuals considering this path may want to be highly motivated. Dissertations and their defense are still common among online Ph.D. programs.

Alternatively, there are other graduate degrees at the doctoral level that aren't Ph.D.s, such as Doctor of Education (Ed.D.). While Ph.D.s in education also exist, these programs may have differences in how they progress, and may be better suited to your needs. Always do research on the available possibilities before committing to a degree program.

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