What Are the Steps and Requirements to Get a PhD?

A Ph.D. is the terminal degree for some fields, and it prepares graduates for faculty and research positions at universities. Earning a Ph.D. requires advanced coursework, examinations and a dissertation analyzing original research. This article discusses what must be done to obtain a Ph.D.

How to Earn a Ph.D.

Earning a Ph.D. means that a graduate has mastered a subject completely. A Ph.D. program can be summarized in a word as research. Less than one percent of the general population earn a doctoral degree, according to Purdue University. The program typically takes 3-8 years to complete.

Applying to a Program

Students interested in a Ph.D. program must first earn a bachelor's degree and usually a master's degree in a field related to their doctoral subject of study. In some cases, a student can enter a doctoral degree program with only a bachelor's degree and earn a master's degree midway through the program.

A Ph.D. program applicant must typically supply a statement of purpose, transcripts from previous post-secondary schools and letters of recommendation from professional references to enter graduate school. Many schools require a candidate to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) test. Other examinations and writing samples may be also required.

Taking Courses

Unlike an undergraduate or a master's degree program, which have clearly defined coursework requirements, Ph.D. programs are much less structured, and grades are generally not given for assignments or classes. Students must pass qualifying exams at selected times in their program.

The pace of a Ph.D. program is dictated by the dissertation research, leading to highly variable completion times of usually 3-8 years. Graduation requirements are generally determined by the Ph.D. advisor, who also assesses progress toward those requirements. Many Ph.D. students take a teaching assistantship to instruct undergraduate students during a doctoral degree program.

Performing Research Work

In addition to teaching and coursework, a Ph.D. program also includes conducting original research, often in the faculty advisor's lab. Doctoral students select an advisor or team of advisors at the outset of the program to guide them through Ph.D. studies. Each year, Ph.D. students meet with their advisor to assess the progress of the degree program. Regular written or oral examinations also track progress through a Ph.D. program.

Writing Your Dissertation

The doctoral dissertation is a central feature of Ph.D. programs. Students must conduct original research and write a dissertation, which is generally a book-length scholarly work. A Ph.D. program concludes with the successful defense of the dissertation findings before a faculty committee that includes the advisor.


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