PhD Degree Program Requirements

In order to earn a Ph.D. candidates must fulfill a number of requirements including extensive coursework, experiential learning, passing grades on exams and a successful dissertation.

Here, common requirements for doctoral degree programs will be discussed, including coursework, exams, and dissertations.

Ph.D. Program Requirements -- Overview

Most academic disciplines require a Ph.D. candidate to complete extensive coursework beyond a bachelor's degree, along with an experiential learning experience, several exams, and a dissertation. The kind of coursework expected may depend on the discipline. In addition to core topics discussed in the field, specializations or concentrations are commonplace at this degree level. Along with the academic work, experiential learning may be required, including internships. Exam formats vary, but many have the goal of testing broad knowledge, such as a comprehensive exam as well as specialization specifics. Ph.D. programs culminate with a dissertation that allow students to perform in-depth research on a particular topic, which they may later have the opportunity to publish.


Ph.D. programs can require anywhere from 30-90 credits beyond a bachelor's degree, including course credits granted for researching and writing the doctoral dissertation. Course content is determined by the field of doctoral study and is usually more narrow in scope than undergraduate courses. For example, required courses for a Ph.D. in Linguistics typically include semantics and phonetics. A student pursuing a Ph.D. in Philosophy, on the other hand, may concentrate on epistemology and take focused elective courses in metaphysics and logic. Doctoral degree programs rarely require any general education classes.

Experiential Learning Experiences

Nearly every Ph.D. program calls on candidates to know at least one foreign language and pass a competency exam to prove their fluency. Requirements for a Ph.D. may also include teaching and research assistantships, in addition to preparing portfolios to demonstrate skills in certain arts and science fields.


All Ph.D. programs include a series of tests. During their first year of study, Ph.D. students take a comprehensive exam to assess their knowledge in a discipline. Depending on the school and field of study, candidates may take other tests that include a:

  • General exam
  • Qualifying exam
  • Ph.D. candidacy exam
  • Special field exam


After Ph.D. students finish coursework, they must write a dissertation. This multi-chapter, research-backed document demonstrates a candidate's mastery of subject matter in a discipline and their ability to contribute original research to a field of study. Dissertations are usually written under the guidance of a faculty advisor over a year or more. Students must defend their Ph.D. dissertations during a question-and-answer session before a faculty committee. Most Ph.D. graduates publish their final dissertations.

To graduate from a doctoral program, students must make sure they meet the requirements. Having credits for specific courses, foreign language competency, certain test scores and a completed dissertation are common prerequisites in obtaining a Ph.D.

Next: View Schools

Popular Schools

The listings below may include sponsored content but are popular choices among our users.

Find your perfect school

What is your highest level of education?