A Guide to PhD Candidacy

A Guide to PhD Candidacy
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PhD Candidacy - Doctoral Hood and Gown from Harvard UniversityThere are as many ways to complete a PhD program as there are PhD programs. Each university has its own quirks, requirements, and phases that you must complete on your way to becoming a PhD candidate. However, most universities do follow a common pedagogical pattern that includes four steps on the way to PhD candidacy. Before we discuss the particulars of these four steps, we must define a PhD candidate. Some universities consider a PhD candidate to be any student matriculated as PhD student. Traditionally, however, the candidacy title is reserved for students who have completed all of the program except for the dissertation. Candidates, therefore, are only those students who have an All But Dissertation (ABD) status.


The first milestone in most PhD programs is the completion of two years of intense coursework study. Unlike coursework in other graduate programs, coursework in a PhD program usually takes the form of reviewing relevant past and present literature. It isn’t uncommon for a doctoral program to require its students to read up to 20 articles (30-40 pages each) a week from scholarly journals. Rarely incorporating textbooks, PhD coursework is intense, overwhelming, and often downright impossible to complete in the time given. This is all part of the process to PhD candidacy.

Teaching/Research Assisting

As part of the usual assistantship under which most doctoral students do a PhD, students are required to complete a series of teaching and research assisting activities that often last from the beginning to the end of a program. In this assistantship, students are required to assist professors with a combination of teaching and research. This portion of the program provides students with some practical experience in both of these areas. Unlike coursework that is a formal pedagogical evaluation of the PhD student, teaching and research assisting is often an informal evaluation of whether the student has what it takes to transition from a student to an independent teacher and scholar.

Comprehensive Examinations

Once the PhD student has completed the coursework phase of the program, he/she must complete a series of comprehensive examinations. These examinations usually take the form of written essays that can last up to 8 hours a day for several consecutive days. These examinations demonstrate to the program’s faculty that the PhD student has the raw knowledge to move on to the dissertation stage. Often scored by multiple professors within the school, the comprehensive examinations stage is a stressful time for students.

Dissertation Proposal Defense

Once coursework, teaching/research assisting, and comprehensive examinations are successfully completed, the student has one more important hurdle to traverse on the way to becoming a PhD candidate. The proposal defense is a formal presentation and justification of a research study that is the beginning of the dissertation. The dissertation is proof to the professors of a PhD program that the candidate is capable of transitioning from a student to an independent researcher. The defense, therefore, is proof that the student is capable of developing a sound research program that is grounded in current theories and literature. The defense further proves that the student can successfully defend his/her future research plans.


Passing through four stages on the way to PhD candidacy, doctoral students must play a number of roles on their journey from student to independent scholar. PhD candidacy is normally reserved for those students who have achieved All but Dissertation (ABD) status and are in the midst of completing the dissertation. Taking anywhere from a year to several years to complete, the dissertation is the last stage of the process before a PhD degree is conferred upon a PhD candidate.