How to Get a Ph.D.

Ph.D.s are needed to work in academia and the upper levels of science, but where do you start if you want to earn one? Learn about the application requirements, the exams, and graduation requirements to earn a Ph.D. below.

What Goes Into Earning a Ph.D.?

As the highest degrees commonly offered at universities, the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) is the standard for those who wish to teach, engage in research within their field, or work on cutting-edge technology projects in the private sector. Ph.D.s are available in a large number of fields, from math and physics to history and language, but programs can tend to be fairly exclusive, typically limited to only a few dozen students per program in each field offered. If accepted, Ph.D. students will take courses for the first few years of the program, often teaching undergraduate courses along the way. Towards the end of the 3-5 years, students will work on a thesis or dissertation, which they will have to successfully defend before their professors in order to graduate and finally earn the degree.

Program Length 3-5 years
Application Requirements Bachelor's degree, passage of GRE or GMAT, letters of recommendation, essays
Typical Workload 2-3 graduate level courses per semester, up to 20 hours of teaching courses each week, time on research projects or dissertation work
Graduation Requirements Must meet curriculum requirements, complete and successfully defend a dissertation consisting of original research

What Is Required to Get Into a Ph.D. Program?

Ph.D. programs are, like master's degrees, considered graduate degrees, and as such require students hold a bachelor's degree, often in a related field, before they can apply. A student interested in a Ph.D. in physics would likely need to have a bachelor's in physics, mathematics, or a closely related discipline in science, for example. Degrees do not always need to be in a related field; Ph.D. programs in education or business are likely to be more flexible than those in sciences. Letters of recommendation from people in the field and essays explaining why you are interested in a Ph.D. are commonly required in the application process. Entrance exams, such as the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) or Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT), are required. Test materials typically focus on general competencies needed for all fields, such as verbal reasoning or analytic writing ability.

What Do Students Do While Studying for a Ph.D.?

After being accepted, students will begin the course of study for their Ph.D., taking high level courses with professors on advanced topics. They are also often tasked with teaching undergraduate courses as Teacher's Assistants (TAs), particularly classes with workshops or labs. They can help demonstrate their competency with the subject matter, and will be compensated with a teaching stipend if they are expected to do so. Teaching is often limited to about twenty hours per week, though, so as to give TAs time to attend their own classes and studies. As graduate students enter their third year, they will often have to choose a subject for their thesis or dissertation, and defend their choice. From there, they will be responsible for performing the research, devising experiments or studies, and writing a defense of their findings for the remainder of their time as a student.

What Is Required to Graduate From a Ph.D. Program?

The thesis or dissertation is the key to finishing a Ph.D. program, and is often a daunting and difficult challenge. Quality dissertations are even sometimes later published as books, to give an idea of the amount of work you might be expected to produce. As such, a significant amount of a student's final years will be dedicated to perfecting this project. They will need to gather data, analyze that data, and draw conclusions from it that support their ideas. The dissertation will often be presented to a panel of professors or other professionals of the field, many times the same staff that monitored the student's progress, who will attempt to identify areas of weakness with the claims which the student must be able to defend against. Aside from successful defense of the dissertation, Ph.D. students must also have completed the required number of classes or credit hours, maintained the appropriate GPA, and performed any other tasks expected of their program, such as teaching, research, or internships.

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