In this series on pursing a Ph.D., this article will take an in depth look at the meat and potatoes of what a doctoral program entails. Admittedly, there is a lot of variability from program to program in terms of format and the amount of time required for graduation. In the sciences for example, where students perform experiments every day in a research lab, the duration is four to six years. In the humanities, the amount of time can be as long as seven to eight years or more.
As always, there are exceptions to the rule. Variables include the difficulty/ complexity of the project, the personal drive of the student, the mentoring style/ experience of the principal investigator, and the working relationship between the student and the principal investigator.
In most doctoral programs there are four phases; the coursework, the qualifying exam, the dissertation, and finally, the thesis defense.
The coursework typically consists of the core curriculum for the chosen program. In the University of Michigan’s department of Pharmacology for example, courses include Cell Biology and Protein Structure and Function, as well as the various Pharmacology courses (Neuro, Autonomic, Cardiovascular, and General Principles). In the sciences, students typically participate in 2 or 3 lab rotations during the coursework phase in the attempt to find a lab and a project for their dissertation.
The qualifying or comprehensive exams mark the transition from student to doctoral candidate. Again this differs for every program. In some programs, students are asked any number of questions relating to their major by a committee of professors and are expected answer questions on the fly. In other cases, the student works with an advisor to write a research proposal which is then defended in front of a committee.
In most programs students have to maintain a minimum grade point average (GPA) to be eligible for their qualifying exams. The inability to maintain this GPA usually results in dismissal from the program.
Doctoral candidacy is without a doubt the hardest phase of the process, and there is no set amount of time for its completion. This is one of the unique aspects of pursuing a Ph.D. During this phase, the student works on a project in an attempt to generate and publish new and novel data in his or her field. Here the student and mentor’s fates become intertwined. The student needs publishable data. The professor likewise needs the student’s quality data not only for publications, but also for the renewal of his or her research grants, which allow them to secure tenure and remain at their institution.
It is during this phase where the above mentioned variables come into play more than ever. A problem with any one of them can result in a painfully long thesis candidacy and in the worst case, the student not finishing. In some programs, students may leave with their master’s degrees while others may leave with nothing. This will be discussed in greater detail in the next article.
No matter how much quality data a student has generated or how much work they think they have done, ultimately their advisor and the thesis committee must agree that he or she has done enough work on their project and is ready for their thesis defense. As a postdoc at the University of Michigan once said, “You’re not given your Ph.D. by right, it is conferred upon you.”