Ph.D. programs—for that matter, any doctoral program—will take years to complete. Depending on what you’re studying and how much time you can put into your studies and dissertation, doctoral programs can consume anywhere from 3 to 6 to 9 years or more. Earning a Ph.D. degree can be so time-consuming that many candidates cannot work full-time, and they often live on stipends and fellowships to help make ends meet while they haunt the research labs and libraries. These graduate programs are perhaps the most rigorous educational experience people can have, but when they are complete, the recipients are considered to be individuals who add intellectual and scholarly value to their fields.

The First Doctoral Program Milestone: Comprehensive Exams

By the time you decide to enter a doctoral program, you may have managed to collect a master’s degree—if you’re not applying to a Ph.D. program straight out of college. Earning your Ph.D. may bear some resemblance to earning your master’s, although you’ll find the bar has risen in every area. During the first year of your program, you will likely discover that 2 or 3 courses coupled with teaching classes barely leaves you time to breathe and eat, because your spare hours will probably be spent reading and catching up on sleep when you can.

You can expect to keep up that pace for a few years at which point you will be rewarded with the opportunity to take your comprehensive exams. Often called “orals,” they are graded by a small group of faculty members from your department. Needless to say, you’ll probably dread these exams just as much as all the graduate students who came before you. However, their inevitable occurrence should keep you motivated to dive into your studies and work closely with your professors. You’ll probably need to spend anywhere from a few months to a couple of years preparing for your comprehensive exams.

On a side note, statistically speaking, many, many graduate students in Ph.D. programs never make it to this stage of the game. While you may start out with the best of intentions and work your fingers to the bone, some statistics suggest that, depending on their course of study, as many as 5 out of 6 students will drop out of their Ph.D. program before reaching their orals.

A Doctoral Dissertation is a Huge Part of Doctoral Programs

If you make it through your orals, it’s time to move on to your dissertation. With all those years of courses behind you, you’ve had ample opportunity to identify an area of interest that needs further defining or solving and this may serve as the theme for your thesis. But this won’t be the 30-page research report you’re familiar with! Unlike a master’s thesis, a Ph.D. dissertation involves original research and is usually much, much longer. It will be judged for its originality and the value (and accuracy) of the contribution it makes to the body of knowledge in your field.

Researching and writing your dissertation will probably require several years. A faculty committee will help guide your process and keep you on the right track. You may end up knowing your area of specialization better than any of them, but they will provide general, if not specific, advice when they’re able to do so. One of these professors will be your primary adviser and will hopefully become your mentor, offering you the benefit of years of experience and the opportunity to meet other professionals in the field. Your adviser will be your advocate and can mediate amongst the other members of the committee, if necessary. Your relationship with your adviser can, and will, play a vital role in your success in your Ph.D. program.

Even with your adviser to serve in the role of mentor, you’ll be on your own most of the time, thinking, studying, and working independently. Self-discipline is absolutely necessary. This is another stage, unfortunately, where many students falter. A number of graduate students never complete their dissertations, thus leaving behind years of work with a big “A.B.D” (All But Dissertation) to put by their name. Unfortunately, this acronym is generally seen as having no academic value.

The Climax of a Doctoral Program: Defending Your Dissertation

Finally, if you have remained energized throughout your doctoral program and have kept the gears of your inner motivation machine well-oiled, you’ll be ready to present your dissertation, in draft form, to your committee. It will be reviewed and suggestions will be offered. After submitting your final draft, it will be time to defend it before your committee. A thesis defense is an interactive process during which you’ll respond to questions and comments about your research, thesis, arguments, and conclusions. This is a moment where a panic attack may feel inevitable. However, failure is rare at this point since the professors who have been supervising all your work are the same people who will critique it. They want you to succeed.

When all is said and done, you will have accomplished a monumental task. Earning a  Ph.D. degree is something that very few people manage to do. It’s estimated that only about 1% of the U.S. population has a Ph.D. Is that any wonder, given the amount of work—and brains—that must go into Ph.D. programs?

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