Here’s a confession: For the first year or two of my studies at CSU, I had no real idea what completing a PhD entailed. No one told me. It’s sort of like an exclusive club where no one really tells you the rules before you join.
Let me give you the quick and dirty on what my program (and I believe many others in the US) looked like.
The degree is 90 semester hours. That sounds intimidating until you learn that 30 hours usually come from your masters program and 15 hours are dissertation credits. That leaves you with about 45 semester hours of coursework to tackle. No small feat, granted. But if you’re going to do this you need to know what lies ahead.
Your 45 hours of coursework will be made up of a few different kinds of classes. Some of them will be research methods classes. These classes essentially teach you how to do valid research. In my program, I was required to take courses in both quantitative and qualitative methods. Some are very general and provide an overview of the methodological approach. In my opinion, these are good classes to take while you’re relatively new to the program because they will help you get your head around the kind of research you may want to do.
Other methods classes are more specific and deal specifically with a particular flavor of one of the methodological approaches. For instance, I took a class that specifically focused on narrative inquiry Still others focus on quantitative strategies, including one course at CSU in which you can spend an entire semester learning the ins and outs of the ANOVA procedure.
Bonus Tip: Methods classes, especially quantitative methods classes, tend to involve less writing. The ones I took rarely involved a substantial paper at the end of the term. If you’re going to take two classes in a semester, I suggest balancing a content-focused class with a methods class.
Another subset of the classes you’ll be expected to take will focus on your major. In my program, these included courses with names like “Leadership,” “Teaching, Learning, and Professional Growth,” and “Educational Policy.” These are often very heavy on the reading and writing and you should think twice before taking two of them at a time while trying to work and actually spend time with your family.
As you approach the end of your coursework, you will eventually transition from being a “grad student” or “doctoral student” to being a “doctoral candidate.” I liked this. It made me feel like I was actually getting somewhere. I was frequently reminded in my program that about 50% of PhD students never receive their degree. Some portion of those “drop outs” end up ABD because they make it as far as the candidate stage but can’t close the deal.
In order to become a candidate, you need to have completed most of your coursework and take what is commonly called a “preliminary exam.” These are different from school to school. I’ve also heard them called “comps.” Essentially, it is an opportunity to show your committee that you are ready to take on your own research. In my program, I had four weeks to write a research article from start to finish and then defend it. This basically meant that I had to field questions about what I did, why I did it, and how I could have done it better. For me, this was scarier than the dissertation phase because you have zero guidance and come into the meeting cold. At least with the dissertation, your committee will have seen drafts along the way and you can reasonably predict what they’re going to ask or tell you.
Once you’re a “candidate,” all that stands between you and your PhD is that pesky little paper called a “dissertation” or “thesis.” Here’s the rub: You are paying for the privilege of writing your paper at this point. You are no longer attending classes regularly, yet you are enrolled in those 15 credit hours I told you about at the beginning of this article. I have a hunch that this is where many ABDs lose their momentum since they are no longer accountable on weekly basis and are essentially on their own timeline.
Although there are always exceptions, the general rule of thumb is that your dissertation will have five chapters: Intro, Lit Review, Methods, Analysis, Conclusion. Before you will be allowed to actually do the dissertation, however, you have to “propose” your dissertation. My proposal consisted of the first three chapters of my dissertation basically outlining the problem, presenting a review of the literature, and describing how I plan to conduct my research. Once my proposal has been successfully defended, I can go about collecting my data and writing chapters four and five.
Once all of that is finished, it’s time for the “Dissertation Defense.” This is a lengthier, two-hour-ish meeting in which you present your study to your committee (and, at CSU, anyone else who happens to want to come as they are open to the public). Once you’ve done your bit, the committee can ask you questions. After that, they send you out of the room and talk about you behind your back. At that point, the next thing you want to hear is your adviser coming to get you and calling you, “Dr. Such-and-Such.”
So that’s a pretty thorough description of roughly what to expect if you decide to take the plunge and start a PhD program. More to follow!