What is a Ph.D., Really? And What Is It Good For?

I’ve gotten the impression that many people think a Ph.D. program is like a master’s program, but longer. That you just keep taking courses—like a million of them—and then eventually you write another really big paper, and you’re done. This is kind of accurate, but also wrong in all the most important ways. I’m sure these misconceptions are partly due to the fact that there aren’t really very many movies about people in Ph.D. programs, unlike, say, law school or med school. Unless you count the show Alias, in which Jennifer Garner pretended to be a Ph.D. student by walking around saying ridiculously unlikely things and never doing any work at all. But you can’t really blame Hollywood—people in Ph.D. programs aren’t really very exciting to watch, since they mostly hunch in front of computers for days and weeks on end.

John Hamilton Mortimer - Studies of Academics - Google Art Project

By John Hamilton Mortimer (1740 – 1779), via Wikimedia Commons

NOTE: Everything that follows is really about programs in the humanities and social sciences, because that’s what I know. I don’t know what programs in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields are like, but I picture a lot of labs. I’m probably mostly wrong about that. The only thing I’m sure of is that nothing about STEM Ph.D. education resembles anything seen on Numb3rs or Bones.

So, in the U.S., most Ph.D. programs are actually combined with MA programs (not so in Europe and Canada), though if you already have an MA when you enter the Ph.D. program they’ll usually grant you advanced standing, which usually allows you to skip a year of coursework.

But a standard U.S. MA/Ph.D. program in the humanities and social sciences generally begins with the MA portion. For the MA degree, you usually take 1 to 2 years of graduate courses (these are usually the only courses you will ever take in the whole program), and then write a thesis. In history, the MA thesis is usually envisioned as about the size, type, and quality of a publishable article. Ideally. But publishable articles usually max out at 30 pages, and most real MA thesis are actually about 50 to 150 pages. So the whole article model thing is a bit misleading. But the MA thesis should, like an article, incorporate original primary source research and original analysis (and, unlike undergraduate essays, it needs to be original not just to the writer but original in the sense that no one has published that argument before).

I should mention here that MA courses are not like undergraduate courses, and MA-level courses in a Ph.D.-granting institution usually vary quite a bit, too, from MA-level courses at an MA-only institution. MA courses involve more reading and writing than at the undergraduate level, and in history it’s often true that you’ll read mostly secondary sources in a grad class, where you would read mostly primary and tertiary sources in undergrad. But the main difference is in the kind of work you’re expected to produce. Graduate work assumes you have basic skills and knowledge in the field, and asks you to think critically about how knowledge is produced and to practice more advanced skills, like synthesizing larger amounts of material, and dealing with more difficult primary sources, often in foreign languages.

After the MA thesis, some people decide they don’t want to go farther, and they can leave the program with a “terminal MA.” At least they got something for their time, is the expectation. But most students continue on, sometimes after a review of their progress by their advisor or something like that.

The next stage is often, though not always, marked by the M.Phil. degree. I’ll confess right here that I didn’t know what the heck an M.Phil. degree was even after I got one, so it’s not at all surprising that most people who aren’t in Ph.D. programs have no idea. It’s sometimes referred to as a “research masters,” and I’ve been told that it derives from the British model, where you can (I believe—someone correct me if I’m wrong) get an MA through graduate coursework or an M.Phil. through independent research. Except this makes absolutely no sense in the U.S. context, where the M.A. signifies that you completed coursework and wrote an independent thesis, and the M.Phil. is, in the programs I’m familiar with, a prize you get for passing oral exams.

Oral exams, or comprehensive exams as they are often known (since they aren’t always oral) mark the transition between coursework and going out on your own as a sort of apprentice scholar. Comprehensive exams require the graduate student to demonstrate their comprehensive knowledge of their chosen field, and it’s usually described as preparation and qualification for teaching (as opposed to research, though having this broad background is essential to doing research, too). The format and style of these exams varies a lot, but usually you have from six months to a year to study, and then you are examined in written or oral form or some combination thereof.

As an example, as a specialist in Russian history, my oral exams had to cover four fields, three “major” and one “minor,” and at least one had to be “outside” (of Russia). For a major field you try to cover pretty much everything, and for a minor field you designate some set of themes you’ll cover, that are hopefully complementary to your major fields. My three major fields were Russian history to 1917, Russian history 1917 to the present, and East Central European history from 1750 to the present. My minor field covered a few themes in French and British history from 1750 to 1850, which I chose because it was helpful comparative background for the kind of research I planned to do on Russia in that period. The major fields were chosen to cover all the material I hoped to be expected to teach.

I had an advisor in each field who was a specialist, and those people helped me to create a list of about 100 books for each major field and 50 books for the minor field that represented a comprehensive survey of the scholarship to date (you examine a far greater number of books to start with, and then narrow it down to the final list that you study closely). Then I spent a year reading them all, and taking detailed notes about the major analytical questions, themes, and problems that I saw in each field. This process was a way of synthesizing how each field as a whole has developed.

The exam itself was oral in my case, meaning I met with my four advisors for 2 hours while they quizzed me. These kinds of exams generally aren’t so much about the specific material covered in each book, but about the student’s ability to synthesize these major arguments and see how the individual pieces fit into the whole.

Once you pass your comprehensive exams, you get the M.Phil. degree.

At some point before this time, you probably also have to pass some language exams. Historians tend to need to pass several, though those studying American history may need only one language. For a Europeanist historian, you usually need to pass at least three language exams, and in some fields you may need as many as five. These exams are usually written translation only, with a dictionary, because those are the skills you will need to handle foreign sources in your research. In my case I needed to pass exams in Russian, German and French. At the exam we were given passages in the language at hand that represented the kind of source a historian would read—often an analytical piece written in, say, the early nineteenth century. We had to translate them into English in a way that was both scrupulously accurate and readable.

After you’ve passed all your exams, the next step is the dissertation prospectus. This is a proposal outlining what your final, independent research project will be. The dissertation is meant to be comparable to a publishable book, and in this case it usually really is that, because in order to get a teaching and research job, in many fields you’ll have to publish a book within the first few years, and the dissertation is often the first draft, in a way, of this book. It must be based on original research and make an original argument, and it must be a significant contribution to your field of study (more so than an MA thesis).

So, for the proposal, you need to of course have some idea of what you want to research, and then you spend some time doing the necessary background reading and finding out what you will need to do to complete the thesis, in very practical terms.

For a Europeanist historian like me, this mainly means finding out what kind of archival sources exist, where they are, roughly what they might be able to tell you, etc. When your archives are located outside the U.S., you need to start applying for funding that will pay for your travel overseas, as well. Other social scientists need to plan and organize different kinds of research models, exploring possible methodologies, preparing interview questions and so on. Some other social scientists also travel, for “field work,” where they observe or interview subjects in a given location, but others work with computer modeling or published sources, etc.

In any event, all this planning and then writing up a detailed proposal about what your research and the dissertation will look like often takes about a year. Then you defend your proposal before a faculty committee of specialists in the appropriate fields, both from within your own university and from outside it. They ask you lots of pointed questions to try to make sure your plans are realistic and your thinking is coherent and reasonable.

Once you pass your proposal defense, you are “ABD.” ABD is not an official designation, but it is very commonly used—it stands for “all but dissertation.” It means you’ve completed all the requirements of the program except for writing and defending the dissertation. ABD is a somewhat ironic designation, because it sounds like you’re practically done, except that the dissertation is really the heart and soul of any Ph.D. program, and all the rest is, in a way, just a lead-up to the Real Show.

This is also the stage where the time taken to complete it can vary incredibly widely, which is why when you ask “how long does your program take?” or “when will you finish?” most Ph.D. students can’t answer, and many will squirm miserably at the very question.

The dissertation stage takes as long as it takes.

In some fields, if you don’t have to travel and all your sources are readily available, you can go straight from the prospectus defense to “writing up” and be done in about 2 years, usually. Since coursework is often 2 years, plus 6 months to 1 year for the exams and another 6 months to 1 year for the prospectus, the shortest Ph.D. program is generally about 5 to 6 years of post-graduate work (again, this can vary significantly in the STEM fields).

But, if your research requires significant travel, that part alone can take at least one full year before you can even begin to “write up.” That typically makes 6 to 7 years a bare minimum for anyone studying the history of a place that is not local to their university, for example. For those of us who travel abroad for extensive periods, often to multiple countries and/or dealing with sources in multiple languages, we often also need extra time for all the translation, sometimes for language study for those who are taking on sources in a less commonly taught language, like, say, Turkish or Georgian, where you often have to go abroad to study it at all. And once you’ve got all your sources (and, if necessary, translated them and/or used computer modeling or database software to manipulate or analyze your data), then you can finally begin to write all this information into something coherent. This last phase can take any amount of time depending on how you write.

By this stage, any graduate student will have written many scholarly papers, but the dissertation is really fundamentally different because of its scale. A book-length academic project requires extraordinary information management just to keep all the data straight and accurate, and then the bigger scope of the arguments also requires a more complex engagement with larger numbers of secondary works, and more complex thinking, to communicate clearly about something so comprehensive, without skimping on any of the nuances. It’s bloody hard work. I’ve never seen anyone do it in less than a year, and I’m very impressed by 2 years. Many people take more like 3 or 4, especially if they’re teaching at the same time. Add in the fact that most graduate students at this stage are in their late 20s or early 30s, so that many are getting married and starting families (if they can manage it financially on a scant grad student stipend) and all that can add further delay.

I should also mention that your guide through this final stage of dissertation researching and writing is your advisor, someone who has probably guided your progress from the beginning of the program, but who now takes on primary responsibility for keeping you on track and, hopefully, catching you before you make any really awful mistakes. Over the course of the whole Ph.D. program you are moving farther and farther away from the student-teacher model of education. At first you take courses, but then with the MA thesis, the exams, the proposal, and finally the dissertation you work more and more on your own at each stage, until by the time you finish your dissertation you are most likely the world’s foremost expert on your topic (since it was chosen to be an original contribution to the field), and you have gradually—sometimes somewhat uncomfortably—transitioned from being a student to being an independent scholar and a colleague to the other scholars in your discipline.

So far I’ve only briefly mentioned teaching, but that’s the one other common part of a Ph.D. program. Some programs require no teaching at all, but that is becoming downright rare these days. My program required, as part of its funding package, three years of being a teaching assistant. TAs in history led discussion sections, gave guest lectures occasionally, and did most of the grading. This is a fairly common scenario. Often, after the TA requirement is fulfilled (usually in the second, third, and fourth years of the program), advanced-stage graduate students will apply to teach as instructors, where they lead their own courses. Sometimes a lucky grad student can create the course of their choice, but more often they teach the freshman survey courses, or required writing courses, and that sort of thing.

When I started my program, there was no formal guidance whatsoever given to grad students on how to teach. We were just thrown into classrooms to figure it out. From the university’s point of view, we were just cheap instructors, and it was up to the individual faculty members we worked with as TAs to give us guidance, advice, or instruction—or not—entirely at their discretion. In my experience some faculty members took this responsibility very seriously, others less so. While I was in my program, however, I was part of a collective effort on the part of grad students to create our own teaching training program, and our program was eventually adopted by the whole graduate school. Right around that time, in the early 2000s, there was a general consensus that teacher training needed to be integrated into graduate programs, and that is increasingly becoming the norm today, thankfully.

Right now, because of the miserable state of the academic job market (with the exception of a very few fields, there are many times more qualified candidates than there are jobs available), it’s more difficult than ever to get any kind of academic employment with a Ph.D. from anything but a top-tier school (which schools are top-tier varies by field). There has been criticism from the American Historical Association in the last decade of programs that either offer too many doctoral degrees, or programs that are third or fourth-tier yet still offer doctoral degrees to paying students, knowing that they will very likely never be employed in their fields. Basically, if you have to pay to go to a Ph.D. program, you probably shouldn’t go, because the reputable ones are now under considerable pressure not to admit students without funding (there are occasional exceptions—sometimes you are expected to pay tuition the first year with the expectation that if you perform satisfactorily funding will be granted for subsequent years, but this can sometimes be fishy, too—do your research).

Most recently, the AHA is recommending that programs incorporate training in so-called public history, and other alternative career paths for Ph.D.s, into their programs. Public history includes museum work, community outreach, documentary filmmaking, etc. Other alternative career paths include mainly government and corporate research or think thanks. There is some resistance to this pressure—many programs argue that they are not equipped to train students in these directions, and others point out that the job market is little better in any of these alternative fields. But the overall trend is for fewer, more elite programs to offer degrees to fewer people (with better funding), and to diversify the training as much as possible.

On the whole, I think you can see that a Ph.D. is a unique education, encompassing tremendous breadth and depth, and is more like a professional apprenticeship than the model of being a student forever that many people imagine. It probably requires more drive and stubbornness and dogged work than it does pure brain power, and anyone who completes the process very likely has an extraordinary ability to process information (because at bottom that’s what it’s all about). There are plenty of things a Ph.D. is not remotely useful for, but what it does, it does well.


Further Reading: On Being Miserable in Grad School

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