College Advice Blog

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Jun 1, 2012

The Top Three Misconceptions about Ph.D. Programs


Your mother always said she wanted you to be a doctor . . . but she never specified that you had to be a medical doctor! Why not consider earning a Ph.D., or doctorate, degree in your field of study? Before you dismiss the notion of getting a terminal degree as way too difficult or daunting, learn the truth about some of the most common myths that surround Ph.D. candidates.

Myth #1: You have to be brilliant to get a Ph.D.

Sure, many super smart people – geniuses, even – carry those three letters after their names. And universities don’t just hand out doctoral degrees to anyone who simply asks for one. Don’t think, though, that only the best and brightest students qualify for a Ph.D. 

The truth? If you complete graduate school with any level of success, you can work toward a Ph.D. Doctoral programs aren’t about knowing everything there is to know about your field (although a good deal of basic knowledge is generally required.) It’s about critical thinking, research, problem-solving and developing new solutions. 

For Ph. D candidates, perseverance, tenacity and a curious mind are just as important as intelligence, if not more so. Doctoral programs are academically rigorous, and unless you have a solid foundation in the subject, you should put off applying until you do. If you’re confident in your skills and academic record thus far, though, there’s no reason to be intimidated by a doctoral program.

Myth #2: Doctoral programs are just an extension of graduate school.

When you enter graduate school after getting your bachelor’s degree, the general set-up is essentially the same. The courses may be somewhat more challenging, but for two to four years (or longer) you take courses, write papers, complete projects and in most cases, finish with a capstone or thesis project tying your coursework together. 

Ph.D. programs are a slightly different beast altogether. For one, you’ll take far fewer formal courses. The bulk of the Ph.D. program is the development of your dissertation, or an original research project – with emphasis on original. Unlike undergrad and graduate programs, where research often meant analysis of existing work, without adding much to the base of knowledge, doctoral programs require that you expand the base of human knowledge. In other words, not only do you have to identify an existing problem or question that does not have an answer, but you also have to find the answer yourself.

The good news is that in every field, there are always unanswered questions. It might take several years to answer your particular question, but it’s not an impossible endeavor. As you study, learn and experiment, you’ll develop answers and solutions that you didn’t know that you were capable of – increasing your own skills and knowledge while stretching the boundaries of human knowledge.

Myth #3: Doctoral programs are structured, with a defined path and ending point.

The number one question that those considering Ph.D. programs ask is “how long will it all take?” The truth is that there’s no universal, one-size-fits-all answer to that question. How long it takes to get your doctorate depends on your school, area of study and your research. 

Every Ph.D. takes his or her own path. While most programs have minimum requirements for coursework, how you structure that coursework depends on your interests and what your research focus will be. For example, when seeking an economics doctorate, you could structure your studies either ideologically or technically, choosing elective courses that relate to your desired focus.
The bulk of your Ph.D. studies, though, will be in research. It can take several years to identify the right problem to study, perform the necessary research and complete the peer reviews that are required for a successful dissertation. 

Earning a Ph.D. is not easy; it will require years of hard work, commitment and yes, rejection and failure at some points. However, when you can finally call yourself “doctor,” it will be well worth it; earning a Ph.D. is one of life’s greatest accomplishments.

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About the Author 
This article was written by Jason Evans.  Jason is currently taking graduate tax courses in school and is looking forward to getting his master of laws degree next year.  Jason then plans to pursue his PH.D.
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