The average amount of time invested in earning a Ph.D. is five to six years, but it varies considerably by field. Students begin their advanced study with course work which serves as the foundation for their specific area of interest and also prepares them for their qualifying examination. Passing the qualifying exam admits the provisional candidate to full degree candidacy and a greater effort dedicated toward the doctoral research, a period culminating in writing and defending the thesis.

Course work

In the first several years of graduate study, students take courses and prepare for their qualifying examinations. The department may have a limited set of core requirements or students may choose from grouped selectives to study in subdisciplines. If the student's faculty advisor or committee has identified specific gaps in undergraduate training, they may require the student to take an upper level undergraduate course in that area. Reading and research tutorials will also be a part of the academic program for a Ph.D. In the natural sciences, there may be opportunity for research rotations so that students come to know the faculty in the department and their research emphasis. Students in certain areas of the humanities will need to demonstrate foreign language competency or take courses to satisfy the departmental requirement. If a graduate student has been awarded a teaching assistantship, he or she will also participate in teaching and grading undergraduates, most commonly in sections of large lecture courses.

Defining the thesis topic

As a result of focused study, especially in writing seminar papers or conducting individual research projects, graduate students identify one or more specific questions or themes that are either unanswered or unaddressed in the existing literature or that the student thinks may be improved by a different approach of research or way of thinking. When it sparks a keen interest and is approved by the thesis advisor, such an idea may be selected as the topic for the doctoral dissertation. Thesis topics are decided before qualifying examinations.

Qualifying examinations

One achieves full degree candidacy by passing the qualifying examination, usually in the second or third year of graduate study. In preparation for this exam, also known as the preliminary exam, students are usually required to submit a significant piece of writing, typically a proposal for the doctoral research. The document may serve as a focus for all or part of the examination itself, but the exact format of the exam is determined by a department. It is usually an oral exam but may have one or more written components as well. An oral examination is conducted with the student's faculty committee, composed of three or four members from within the department and one or two members from an outside department. It is conducted in the manner of a spirited discussion of the proposed dissertation subject within the context of that field and also covers fundamental issues in the field of inquiry. The examinee is called upon to defend his or her arguments developed in the written proposal or stated within the exam itself, to answer detailed questions and to discuss broad issues.

Research and dissertation

Passing the qualifying examination admits one to full candidacy for the doctoral degree with a greater effort on thesis research in the library, museum, field, or laboratory, and preparation of the doctoral dissertation. Students learn by experience to apply accepted methods of investigation, analysis, and interpretation — or, in some cases, to question those accepted procedures--as part of their original research. Through this focused investigation, a graduate student develops expertise on a well defined subject. Upon its completion, the thesis is defended before the same faculty committee that conducted the earlier preliminary examination. Each committee member reads the printed thesis and formulates questions to explore the candidate's assumptions, methodology, interpretation of results, and to make comparisons with the work of others in the field.

Awarding of the Ph.D.

The Ph.D. degree is conferred by the President at the institution's commencement ceremony, and schools may also have hooding ceremonies for their graduate candidates. To these celebrations, recipients of Ph.D.s wear the doctoral cap and gown, often in the colors of the university and distinguished by velvet front panels, velvet cross bars on the sleeves and an elaborate hood. You will see a wide array of Ph.D. regalia in the faculty processions of formal ceremonies at Duke. 

Postdoctoral life

While working on the later stages of the thesis, most graduate students are also involved in a job search for placement in one of the many settings for which their graduate training has prepared them. The Career Center staff at the Ph.D. institution will normally provide services to graduate students as they do to undergraduates, and the professional society of the discipline may publish job openings in many settings. If seeking an academic career in a research intensive university, new doctoral recipients in the natural sciences will first apply for postdoctoral positions and grants since this is the norm in these disciplines; postdoctoral positions in writing programs are increasing in number for students in the humanities and social sciences. Graduate students who have planned their careers toward primarily undergraduate institutions often apply directly to smaller colleges.