What do you actually do in a PhD program?

One of the most common questions I’ve been asked is, “What do you actually do in a PhD program?”  Well, here it is. First, I’ll run through some generalities about Humanities or Social Sciences PhD programs.  At the end of this post, you will see an outline of what my own program structure looked like (History Track in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, UChicago)

General Outline of Academic Programs in Humanities/Social Sciences (this will differ from program to program, university to university, but many of the same components will be present)

Years 1-3: Scholastic Residence

For the first two or three years of your program, you will have coursework, language exams, and an MA thesis requirement. Courses are fairly straightforward. You take the required number of courses and achieve a certain GPA to continue through each year’s review process. Depending on your department, you will have to take a certain number of content courses relating to your field and a certain number of language or methodology courses.

Language exams are also fairly common in PhD programs. Some programs require one test; others require two tests.

Usually at the end of your second or third year, you will be required to submit a substantial “thesis.” This is framed as an MA project. “I already have an MA, so I’ll just skip that bit,” you say? Good luck!  The MA you have is a terminal MA, meaning you were accepted to a Master’s program, fulfilled their requirements, and graduated. Yay. Now that you’ve been accepted to a PhD program, BAM! They got ya! Your first two years are a non-terminal MA degree, and once you’ve completed the requirements, the department will “allow” you to move forward in your PhD career. In most departments, this goes almost unnoticed by students. For some departments, though, it’s an actual review process and, if you haven’t fulfilled the necessary requirements, the department may ask you to take the MA and leave. *Read the fine print of the program.* So the upshot: many PhD programs are actually MA/PhD programs, but they’ll want you to have a terminal MA before you even apply. Sure, I’ve seen students get accepted to PhD [read: MA/PhD] programs straight from their BA, but that doesn’t happen too often. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, but don’t be surprised if you’re asked to complete a terminal MA first and reapply to the PhD [MA/PhD] program later.

Years 3-5: Residence

From about year three to year five, you’ll complete a series of requirements that are more PhD-ish than simply taking courses. Some programs will have you begin teaching while you’re also doing coursework. Others will wait until you finish your coursework before having you teach. Either way, you’ll most likely end up as a course assistant, teaching assistant, or instructor of record for any given course.

After your courses, you will begin preparing for your qualifying or comprehensive exams. Each department is different, but you will be tasked with completing a series of exams that show what you have learned about your subject/field. 

Once you’ve finished exams, you begin the “real” PhDing. You know, your own research. The thing you thought you would do in year one.  No, no. You’ll most likely start in year three or four. During this period, you might go away to do research. You might lock yourself in an archive or library to find materials. And you write. You write until you’ve come up with a project (dissertation proposal) that you can defend to a dissertation committee (3-5 faculty who will oversee your dissertation project from its inception to completion).  Once you propose your dissertation, you go from being a doctoral student to being a doctoral candidate (i.e. you’ve reached candidacy or All But Dissertation [ABD] status).   

Advanced Residence (years 5+)

From here on out, as a candidate, you’re mostly done with your departmental/university requirements. If you have lingering teaching requirements, you’ll get those done. Otherwise, you will mostly focus on writing your dissertation and interacting with your dissertation committee. Some people find that they need to do more research, so they take more time to find sources. But once you have a defensible dissertation draft, you defend. And then revise. And then submit the dissertation. And then breathe, Doctor. 

My PhD Timeline at UChicago:

Year 1:

  • 9 courses over 3 academic quarters
  • 1 Modern Language Exam (Russian)

Year 2:

  • 9 courses over 3 academic quarters
  • 1 Modern Language Exam (French)

Year 3:

  • 9 courses over 3 academic quarters
  • Taught 2 courses

Year 4:

  • Comprehensive exams (1 90-minute oral exam, 1 4-hour written exam, 2 8-hour written exams)
  • Taught 1 course
  • Dissertation proposal, reached candidacy

Year 5:

  • Taught 1 course
  • Dissertation research and writing

Year 6:

  • Dissertation research and writing

Year 7:

  • Dissertation defense

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