The Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) and the Doctor of Education (D.Ed.) are the highest academic degrees conferred by universities in the United States. Capped by your doctoral thesis at the end of a rigorous doctoral program, your doctoral degree represents mastery of your field of study and your personal contribution to academia, whether it is a Ph.D. degree or the equally prestigious Ed.D.
The role of the graduate school in doctoral programs
When students begin doctoral programs at an American university, they face two sets of requirements: those set by the graduate school and those set by the individual department or the specific Ed.D. or Ph.D. program that they are enrolled in within the school.
Graduate schools set broad policies and practices that ensure quality degree/doctoral programs. You'll probably only deal directly with the graduate school when you are admitted and when you submit your work to be approved for completion and subsequent graduation. Apart from that, you'll interact directly with faculty members from your degree program throughout most of your graduate school experience.
The program you enroll in will maintain its own set of departmental requirements, within the framework of the graduate school's requirements. Most of the time, individual departments have a great deal of latitude in setting the content and rigor of their degree programs, and often, their requirements often exceed the minimum set by the graduate schools.
The first step toward your doctoral program thesis
In most programs, the first two years of your doctoral studies provide you with a solid foundation of advanced knowledge of your field. This may consist of a core of material that you and all of your fellow students are expected to master. However, in large fields like history or chemistry, you may only need to take a few courses in specific fields or areas of concentration.
Whatever your requirements may be, you'll probably finish this portion of your studies with a general qualifying exam which, if you pass, formalizes your candidacy for a doctoral degree. Often, these exams happen early on and sometimes serve as good indicators of your readiness to continue toward your thesis.
Gaining expertise as you progress through your Ed.D./Ph.D. program
As a doctoral candidate, you are expected to become an expert in a specialized field within your discipline. In the natural sciences, this knowledge is acquired chiefly through extensive laboratory work; in other disciplines, it may occur through advanced seminars and independent study.
When you've completed the necessary work toward your specialization, your knowledge will be tested via either a comprehensive test or an oral examination. Passing this test and meeting all your other program requirements marks the formal end of class work and the beginning of your work on your doctoral thesis.
Proposing a thesis topic on the way to your Ed.D. or Ph.D. degree
The thesis stage of your doctoral studies is the final step toward completion. The expertise you acquire through original research or scholarship will define your proficiency as a learned professional.
The process begins with the selection of a thesis adviser, who is usually the chair of the doctoral committee. Often, this is also the faculty member most knowledgeable about the topic you plan to cover in your dissertation. You'll work closely with your adviser to devise a researchable topic and develop it into a dissertation proposal.
Your dissertation proposal is an important intermediate step. It describes the general problem you'll be addressing, discusses the relevant scholarly literature, describes and justifies the methodology you'll be using, and formulates specific research questions. You will need to defend your proposal before the full doctoral committee. This will ideally be a constructive meeting, since the collective expertise of the committee should help strengthen your proposed research.
Preparing your doctoral program thesis can be a long process in a doctoral program
Thesis research and preparation is a highly personal process, throughout which you will work closely with your adviser. In some cases, this process might take several years. It is your adviser who will largely determine when your thesis is complete and ready to present to the full committee.
It is not uncommon today for some programs to allow your thesis to take a less-traditional form. Some departments now accept several article-length studies or publications. Regardless of what form your thesis takes, the most important thing is that it upholds its original purpose.
Defending your thesis is the final step in your Ed.D./Ph.D. program
Defending your completed thesis is the culmination of this process. Unlike in earlier examinations, you will now be considered an expert on your topic and will need to defend your findings against the questioning of the committee members. Each member of the committee will evaluate your work independently, but a consensus is what will determine if your thesis is accepted. When it is, your completed work will be added to the university library. In most cases, it will also be published by University Microfilms International.
By the end of their Ed.D. and Ph.D. programs, every student has put in a lot of hard work and effort. When you are one of these special people, you should feel a great sense of accomplishment. Your Ed.D. or Ph.D. degree will also earn you the respect of many people if they understand what it took to earn those initials that now belong behind your name.