As of late, I’ve been thinking a lot about what a PhD program constitutes, and how best to explain that to those outside of academia, but also to folks who are not sure if they should embark on a doctoral degree.
For the record, if you are planning on doing a PhD, somewhere between 25% and 50% of students do not complete their PhD in six years according to a study from a decade ago. A more recent study claims it takes an average of 5 years to complete a PhD in the sciences and engineering while the average is 6.25 years in arts-based disciplines. An important thing to also note is that the number of students enrolled in each program and the cost of tuition has been steadily increasing while available funding has been on the decline. In short, more students have to seek employment in order to pay for their degree, which increases the time to completion. A PhD also does not guarantee a job in academia or any other field. It’s also really, really hard work.
As much as bachelors and Masters degrees are stepping stones to the PhD, they aren’t really all that similar because the level of academic rigor and the resulting expectations that separate them require rather large leaps from program to program. To analogize, a bachelor’s degree is like walking a 5K, a Master’s degree is like finishing a mud run, and a PhD is like competing on American Ninja Warrior. The higher your climb on the academic mountain, the more difficult the elements you need to finish become.
My PhD program requires eight ‘tasks,’ some of which require more than one step. Not all PhD programs are set up in the same way, however; some Social Sciences/Humanities/Arts programs require comprehensive exams and a research proposal instead of a candidacy proposal. This is true of North American schools, at least: the UK is a whole different kind of animal. To use another analogy (because hi, it’s me), you can think of the tasks needed to finish a PhD as similar to Scott Pilgrim needing to defeat Ramona’s Seven Evil Exes.
Task One: Course Work. My program required that I complete eight courses. Completion of each course meant finishing a number of other sub-sub tasks as per the syllabus (presentations, essays, etc).
Task Two: Candidacy Proposal. In my program, you write (and re-write and re-write some more) a 75-100 page paper that requires you to a) analyze and synthesize the work of other academics (a review of the literature), b) explain your theoretical approach (which academic theories will be used to explain your work), c) an explanation of your proposed research (what you want to examine and why). My proposal was longer than 100 pages. This should not be a surprise to anyone.
Task Three: Candidacy Defense. Once your candidacy proposal is to the standards of your committee (your supervisor and other academics whose work is in your field of study) you go through an oral exam process where you defend your choices of theory and methods to your committee. In essence, the committee is making sure you are ready to go do original research, meaning, you go out into the world rather than relying on work by other scholars.
Task Four: Ethics Approval. In my program, this was composed of two parts. In order to pass one of my courses I needed to complete a series of ethics modules created by the Tri-Councils Agencies (Canadian Institutes of Health Research [CIHR], the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada [NSERC] and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council [SSHRC]). In the second part, a body of scholars not connected to your work assess your proposed research for possible ethical issues. Again, here you are explaining what you plan to do, and how you will keep those involved safe (emotionally, physically, socially etc). Depending on the nature of the research–especially if you are involving human subjects–this can be an extremely involved process.
Task Five: Data Collection. Here, you are collecting data that you will use to develop theories and ideas that you proposed in your candidacy proposal. I used a combination of survey data (to get a broad understanding of teachers in Alberta) and interviews (to get a more ‘in depth’ understanding). If you are conducting interviews, you often have to transcribe them and verify them with your participants (this is part of conducting ethical research).
Task Six: Data Analysis: Once you are finished collecting data, you have to analyze it. By this I mean you are looking for certain trends in your data. For example, if your study examines how teachers feel about changes to curriculum, you will want to see if newer teachers are more likely to be ‘for’ these changes while teachers who have been working for over 11 years are ‘not.’ You can do similar analyses with gender orientations, racial identifiers etc depending on the data you collect.
Task Seven: Dissertation Draft. Here you are building off of your candidacy proposal (provided your work hasn’t changed significantly!) and writing about what you did versus what you propose to do. After a significant amount of writing and re-writing, you will end up with a document that’s 250-300 pages or so.
Task Eight: Dissertation Defense. In the final task, you go through another oral exam from your committee (which has grown in size since your candidacy exam) who ask you to defend the conclusions you make from the research you conducted. So long as you pass, you will get the fancy shmancy piece of paper that allows you to be called a doctor (but not that kind of doctor [M.D.].
And there you have it: the eight tasks of a PhD . Or, at least, my PhD degree. With my committee’s approval I hope to be given the go-ahead to move on to the sixth task, as I have collected what I believe is a sufficient amount of data. I shall find out soon…