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Going back to school
Congratulations! After thinking long and hard about it - or maybe on the spur of the moment - you've decided to go back to school for an advanced degree. PhD requirements can be surprising to some people; what do you need to know?
Exact requirements will vary from school to school and from subject to subject, so don't take a generic article as absolute truth; always check with the appropriate department at the school you plan to attend. That said, the overall structure will be fairly consistent. Let's take a look at what you should expect.
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Minimum requirements for the PhD
There are many advantages to getting a postgraduate degree, but be aware that it will be lots of work; in most fields, the PhD represents the pinnacle of achievement. We can break the requirements into three types: classwork, research, and "other".
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The number of required classes depends on a number of factors, including whether the student already has a master's degree before attempting the PhD. Generally the exact classes to be taken will be agreed upon by you and your advisor, then signed off on by the graduate school. A typical expectation would be eight graduate-level classes that encompass some number of subfields in your discipline; this is usually known as the breadth requirement.
In general, only grades of B or higher count towards the requirements for a graduate degree; a C or lower will necessitate either retaking the class or filing a change of plan form to select a different class to meet the requirements. However, since postgraduate school is only appropriate for people with a strong interest in their subject, low grades in these classes are rare. Chances are that by this point in your academic career, you know what interests you; this is your chance to study it in depth.
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The main aspect of postgraduate study, and the one most likely to cause people to fail to obtain the degree, is the dissertation. The dissertation (or thesis) is an original body of work at the level to be expected from a researcher working in your field; it demonstrates your ability to independently create high-quality work. Choosing the PhD thesis topic is one of the most important decisions you will make as a grad student; it can make the difference between finishing on time and ended up ABD (All But Dissertation).
The standard a thesis is judged by is that it must make "a significant contribution to the literature"; in other words, you found, discovered, or proved something new that people will be interested in. What is significant can be difficult to define exactly. One of the things that either you or your advisor will do after your first year is form a committee, consisting of your advisor and at least three other people, that will judge your work and determine whether it merits the degree. Obtaining feedback from your committee as soon as possible is thus very important, as they should be able to tell you whether your work would be considered significant. Your advisor will be the most important vote; note only is he likely to be the committee member most familiar with your particular subarea, but it's also his job to "go to bat" for you and help you get through the exam. That said, any member of the committee can block your degree, so take any concerns seriously!
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Every doctoral degree requires classwork and research, but schools may impose additional requirements. Generally these will fall into the areas of teaching or service; you may be required to teach an undergraduate class or perform additional duties. Aside from saving the school money, these tend to be chosen to give students experience that would be relevant if they choose to teach after obtaining the degree.
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The amount of time a PhD takes can vary widely; this is largely dependent on how long your research takes. Four years is the average, but it can be done in as few as three and some people take over a decade. If you expect your research to take a while, be sure to check with your school; generally there is a certain time period after which classes may no longer be counted towards the degree. Completing a doctoral program requires the equivalent of four years of full-time work; be sure you're willing and able to make that commitment and soon enough, we'll be calling you doctor!