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Tips on How to Plan Your Progress through a PhD Program

written by: John Garger•edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch•updated: 6/23/2010

Planning your overall progress through a doctoral program ensures that you are on track and meeting all of the university’s requirements on time. Learn how and why to create an action plan for getting a PhD to reduce time spent in a doctoral program.

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    The doctoral program is unlike any other graduate course of study because it is longer and more complex. The need for a good plan is essential to keep on track and finish the program on time. Often, universities don’t provide you with an action plan template for getting a PhD. Follow these tips to learn why you need a PhD action plan and how to create one to ensure you have everything covered.

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    Why Create a PhD Action Plan?

    Undergraduate and Master’s degree programs typically initiate a solid structure for their students; requirements are clearly spelled out, classes are scheduled according to student needs, and professors are keenly aware of what each class needs to get through the program.

    This is not so with most PhD programs. Each program is individualized to the student so professors aren’t dealing with groups of student needs, they are dealing with doctoral students on a one to one basis. The result is a decreased urgency to fulfill doctoral student needs. Unless the PhD student takes an active role in getting through the program, he/she could linger as a student for years at the university until finally he/she hits the maximum number of years the university allows a doctoral student to be enrolled in the program and the student must leave.

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    Planning Progress through a PhD Program

    The PhD action plan is more than just a schedule. It is a tool to keep you on track over a very long and complicated program. To create a customized action plan, begin by making a list of the four major parts to most doctoral programs. These include coursework, comprehensive examinations, teaching/research assisting, and the dissertation.

    Now, break down each of these areas into smaller parts. For example, under coursework, make a list of all of the courses you need to complete as part of the PhD program. These courses should be clearly laid out in the university’s handbook. Then, look to see what the requirements are for each course. Start grouping the courses into the semesters in which you plan to take these courses. Some courses have prerequisites so make sure you organize the courses into groups not only based on when the university will offer them but in sequential order based on these prerequisites.

    The dissertation is the most important, most complicated, and most frustrating part of the doctoral program. Creating a dissertation action plan is essential to get through one. Begin by chronologically listing the different parts of the dissertation. Start by scheduling the proposal, the proposal defense, and the final dissertation chair approval you’ll need to move ahead with the project.

    The dissertation itself is typically divided into five chapters but completing the dissertation in order from chapter 1 to chapter 5 is a sure way to never finish. For example, you cannot wait until chapter 4 to collect your data; you should already have your data analyzed before you write chapter 1 so that you can be sure your dissertation will meet the requirements necessary for graduation.

    Imagine writing almost the entire dissertation and then finding out in chapter 4 that the data didn’t work out the way you predicted it would. You would then have to go back to the drawing board, rewrite most of the dissertation, and extend your program up to a year or more. A good PhD action plan that protects you from such mistakes can help you finish on time and keep you on track so you can avoid having to unnecessarily spend more time as a doctoral student than you have to.