What is a PhD?
A PhD stands for Doctorate of Philosophy. This title is given to those who have demonstrated a higher level of comprehension in conducting and producing research. Typically, most PhD programs in the U.S. expect that you will complete your Master’s in the first two years of work, teach some courses, complete a qualifying exam, and defend a dissertation. Some countries expect you to have completed a masters prior to the applying, so the actual PhD takes approximately 3 years. It all truly depends on where you are attending, the requirements of that institution, and what you are studying.
There are several different fields you could be pursing a PhD (you can find a comprehensive list here). Therefore, there are also several different journeys one may embark on to achieve this degree. However, there are also common milestones within this program. For this post, I will simply give you an overlook of my plan as a frame of reference:
Coursework: During graduate school, the majority of your coursework is completed in the first few years, typically as part of the Master’s degree. In my program, we are required to have a major and minor; we also have the option to mold our major into something we want. For instance, my major is social psychology and minor is statistics. However, I also have an interest in health, and there are some classes that would fit into my major under this topic. I am able to then combine those interests in my major; which I refer to as health and social psychology or social/health psychology. In the coursework, we are also required to take a few courses outside of our specific discipline but within the psychology department; like personality psychology, industrial/organizational psychology, developmental psychology, etc. After your second or sometimes third year, your course load can be reduced to 1 or no classes each semester. This is because as time goes on in the program, there is a greater emphasis on research.
Research: One main focus of many PhD programs is research. In order to get accepted to most programs, you have to demonstrate some sort of sufficiency in conducting research. In a typically program, you will be helping on lab research products, and also creating your own. The hope is that these projects result in conference posters, presentations, and publications. These accomplishments are crucial to your development as a doctoral student, especially if you plan on working in academia or research beyond your PhD. Two mandatory research projects you must conduct are for your master’s thesis and dissertation.
Master’s Thesis: In order to receive a Master’s degree, you must not only complete the appropriate coursework, but also submit and defend a Master’s thesis. A (Master’s) thesis is a research paper written on original academic research that is worthy of publication in a peer-reviewed journal. Some advisors already have projects running in their lab, or data collected, that students can analyze and use to write about in their thesis. Others will start their project from the ground up (like me!!) If people are interested, I can write another post about this whole process. This process typically takes students anywhere from 1-3 years to complete from start to finish. Most departments require you to also present and defend your thesis in front of your thesis committee. Students cannot move forward on achieving their other milestones (the qualifying exam, dissertation) until completing the milestone of defending your master’s thesis and earning your master’s degree.
Qualifying Exam: Many programs require a cumulative exam prior to conducting doctoral research to ensure that students are sufficiently knowledgeable about their chosen field of research. conduct this differently. Some institutions have a written exam, some have an oral exam. In my program, this is conducted as a lengthy novel theoretical research paper that is completed independently within a specific timeframe: “The goal is for students to demonstrate their ability to organize, integrate, and synthesize theoretical and empirical information in a manner that leads to novel, interesting implications. This is an essential skill for academic psychologists.” – per my student handbook. This milestone must be completed prior to your dissertation.
Dissertation: This is extremely similar to conducting a master’s thesis, but it is strictly your own project that you conduct from start to finish. As described in my handbook: “your dissertation is an independent research project that is conducted with guidance from your committee. It is distinguished from your Master’s by reflecting the more advanced conceptual and methodological skills that you should have developed at this point in your training. As before, it is difficult to be too specific because it depends on the area of inquiry. The research should be more challenging, but it should still be a study achievable in one to two years from conceptualization to final defense. The dissertation is meant to be the final example of the skills you have developed in graduate school. It should be a manageable, well thought-out and designed study that shows the world you have developed an area of expertise.” Defending your dissertation is the last milestone for completing your PhD! However, there are other important components that occur along the way that aren’t mandatory, but highly recommended.
Teaching: Typically, graduate students are in need of funding during their time in the program. There are ways to curb this; students who receive awards/ grants or have advisors with grants may not need funding. (Lucky them!!) Some institutions offer teaching assistant positions to graduate students in order to waive their school tuition and provide a monthly stipend. This is one of my favorite parts of my program because teaching is something I’ve always enjoyed doing, and being able to pay for my program and also cover my apartment, food, and other living expenses has been great! I feel extremely independent, and this is a valuable experience for the real world, whether you want to work in academia and be a professor, or at a company, research position, etc. No matter where you go, it is beneficial to have teaching experience because it makes you a better communicator, presenter, and leader. I plan on having another post on teaching in the near future! Be sure to check it out.
Service: Lastly, it is important to give back to the community! It is especially good to be active in your department, whether it’s attending meetings, or help planning them. It shows camaraderie and ability to balance your tasks. Many people will work on community service projects related to their career interests. For example, I study sexual assault and violence, and also have an interest in South Asian American health. One of the main reasons I started this blog is to engage with the general public about these issues and raise awareness! There are usually opportunities offered in your department, but you can find your own avenues of giving back if you just think outside the box 😃