Ph.D. Programs in the U.S.

PhD Programs

PhD Programs

What is a Ph.D.?

Ph.D. in the U.S. stands for “Doctor of Philosophy”, also known as a “Doctorate” or “Doctoral program”. It doesn’t mean you’re a medical doctor, or that you have studied philosophy: you can obtain a Ph.D. in a variety of subjects in both the humanities and sciences. It’s an advanced degree obtainable after you complete your bachelor’s degree, and sometimes, your master’s. Depending upon the program, it can take anywhere from three to eight years to complete your Ph.D.

Ph.D. Requirements in the U.S.

To gain acceptance to a Ph.D. program in the U.S., you must either major, or demonstrate significant coursework and life experience in, the area you are planning to study. For example, if you’d like to get a Ph.D. in English literature but you were a biochemistry major, you’d need to take a certain amount of classes in English literature and possibly demonstrate your dedication in additional ways such as independent blogging and writing, jobs involving English literature, and so on. Having published scholarly research in your area of interest also works in your favor.

Ph.D. programs have a variety of requirements, such as coursework in other areas related to your field of study. For example, using the above scenario, proficiency in at least one foreign language is usually required in order to gain acceptance at a Ph.D. program in English literature. Schools may require your scores from the GRE, or Graduate Record Examination, in order to rank your performance against that of other students. You’ll need several recommendations from those who know your work well – usually professors or employers can write these for you – and you will be asked to write a career statement that indicates the area of research you intend to pursue during your program. You’re certainly not bound to this statement, and if a different interest arises during your course of study, you may end up switching gears. Nevertheless you are expected to have a very clear vision of your academic path before you matriculate.

What to Expect

A Ph.D. program in the U.S. involves far more than simply sitting in a classroom absorbing material. In addition to coursework, you will probably also work in a lab setting, as a teaching or research assistant, or in a practicum. These opportunities help you defray the cost of tuition – they usually pay a stipend – in addition to helping you deepen your understanding of your chosen field. After several years of coursework, you will focus on writing your dissertation, which will consist of your original research. Dissertation lengths vary according to the discipline but they can range anywhere from 50-500 pages. Also, in order to prove competence in your field, you will take oral and written examinations.

Why Earn Your Ph.D.?

Why would you pursue a Ph.D.? Perhaps you are interested in a field – teaching at the undergraduate or graduate level, for instance – that requires a Ph.D. You might also be motivated by your passion for the subject you’re studying. Or maybe you’re most comfortable in an academic setting, where the constant pursuit of knowledge, research, and enlightened discussion is commonplace. Whatever the reason, remember it’s a significant investment of both time and money. You should have some really solid reasons for wanting to acquire those three initials following your name. If you do, great – pursuing your doctorate will probably be a life-changing experience.


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Dr. Don Martin, Ph.D., is a higher education admissions expert, author, former admissions dean and a current education columnist for U.S. News and World Report. For more information visit