How Do PhD Programs Work?

If you are thinking about continuing your education, but you do not know what to expect from a PhD program, the information below will fill you in on coursework, residencies, research, and other elements that make up most PhD programs.

PhD Program Elements

PhD programs have common elements even though their specializations and concentrations may be very different. The first step is to be accepted into the program after passing the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) or an equivalent entrance examination, if required. After that, you can expect to spend a minimum of 3 years taking required and elective courses, conducting research, and writing your dissertation.

Taking Required Courses

Depending on the school and concentration you choose, you will be required to complete several required courses. These courses will be focused on your area of concentration. They will be much more detailed and have higher expectations for successful completion than the courses you took as an undergraduate or graduate student. Some of the courses may be offered online, on the weekends, or as independent study opportunities.

Taking Elective Courses

You will have an opportunity to select some courses to take as electives to fulfill the credit-hour requirements of the program. These electives are closely related to the concentration you have chosen. If you have a specific interest within your area of concentration, elective courses can be a good way to help you prepare for the research and dissertation segments of the program.

Residency or Colloquia

Residencies or colloquia (academic conferences/seminars) give students an opportunity to work closely with peers, faculty members, and researchers in their area of interest and can provide a platform for socializing within the community. Some may extend for a quarter, semester, or longer and take place while you are taking classes and living at home. Other residencies are more concentrated and may require that you travel for intensive instruction.

Getting Approval to Begin Your Dissertation

After you finish your coursework, you will be evaluated for your readiness to begin the research and dissertation portions of the program. Each school has a different method for evaluating doctoral candidates. You may need to submit detailed written answers to questions in the field you are studying and then 'defend' your answers before a panel of professors. Once approved, you can begin working on your research.

Having a Mentor or Advisor as a Guide

You will either be assigned or be allowed to select a mentor or advisor to guide you through the research and dissertation processes. Your mentor will help you narrow a topic for research, suggest research methodologies, read your work, and keep you focused and on track. Your mentor will also challenge you to do your best work.

Conducting Original Research

PhD research takes what you have learned through coursework, residencies, and personal experience and focuses it on answering a question about a specific topic. The goal of this research is to add to the body of knowledge related to your degree concentration. There are different research models, and your doctoral mentor will guide you through the research process to make sure your research is free from bias has been conducted ethically.

Dissertation

The doctoral dissertation is the written presentation of your research in which you will explain your research question and write about how you conducted your research. You will draw conclusions from your research, make suggestions about further research, and cite the many sources you used to support your work. You will 'defend' your research before a panel of professors who will question you before deciding whether to approve your dissertation or make suggestions for changes.

How Long Does a PhD Program Take to Complete?

The answer to this question depends on whether you start counting when you begin your undergraduate degree, Master's degree, or PhD program. We know from the National Center for Education Statistics that about 60% of students in Bachelor's programs earn their degree within 6 years. Master's degrees can take two years to complete unless you are enrolled in an accelerated program where you can earn a Master's degree in about a year. Full-time PhD students may take 3 or more years to complete the process.

Requirements to Be Accepted into a PhD Program

You may be required to take and pass the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) or an equivalent entrance exam if you have been out of school for a while. However, not all schools require this, and most schools will not require testing if you are immediately entering a PhD program after completing a Master's degree at the same school. Also, the requirements for acceptance into online PhD programs may be somewhat different since you will need to have a computer and online access as well as knowledge of email, word processing, and spreadsheet or statistical applications.

PhD programs give students an opportunity to take advanced courses in their areas of interest. Students are then able to conduct original research and add to the wealth of knowledge in their subject areas.

To continue researching, browse degree options below for course curriculum, prerequisites and financial aid information. Or, learn more about the subject by reading the related articles below:

The schools in the listing below are not free and may include sponsored content but are popular choices among our users. Tuition and costs will vary across programs and locations. Be sure to always request tuition information before starting a program.

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