Earning a PhD

The process of earning is a PhD varies from school to school. And from discipline to discipline.

In a Business program, the process generally unfolds in three stages. In this post I will discuss what each stage entails, what faculty expect of you, and most importantly what YOUR agenda should be as a student and future scholar.

Updated August 2016.

The Coursework

What is this stage supposed to be?

During this stage, you are supposed to be taking a number of seminars and methods courses. This should serve as a general introduction to the field and the accepted methods. It generally takes two years. At the end of this time, you will likely be required to take your comprehensive exams.

What do faculty expect of you?

In one word: Engagement. They want to see that you are connecting with the material and with their research.

What should I be doing?

This is the most important point. First and foremost (I cannot stress how important this is), make sure you are meeting all of your program’s requirements. This can include a minimum GPA, attending extra seminars and lectures, participating in research. If it is for your program, you should do it (unless is unethical, of course).

But once those requirements are taken care of, there are other things you should focus on. These were not clear to me at the time, but in hindsight, I wish someone would have told me.

  • Fit. Figure out which members of the tenured faculty are a good fit for you. You should consider their research interests and methods, supervision style, and feedback style. Also consider their history with other students. So make sure to ask your classmates about their experiences.
  • Synthesize. Make sure that as you learn something new, you are fitting it to a larger picture of how the field works.
  • Models and Figures. Make models of the theories and ideas that you are learning. This is useful when thinking about gaps and contributions to the literature.
  • Methods. You will never again have as much time as you do now to learn methods and statistical packages. These take a lot of time to learn. It is very likely that you will use these as your methodological staple for a good portion of your career.
  • Research. Learn from faculty how to do research. Ideally, they will include you in projects. If not, volunteer to help out with various aspects. To do this, you need to have a good understanding of your skills and limitations.
  • Conferences. Attend the major conferences in your field. Learn how to make connections in academic and personal terms. Find the people who are in your cohort (or close to your cohort). They will be the ones you attend conferences with (and possibly work with) for the rest of your academic career.

The Pre-Proposal

What is this stage supposed to be?

To begin this stage, your school likely requires that you pass your comprehensive exams. This means that you have shown the faculty that you know the field.

Most people think that you go from passing your exams directly to proposal. Those are LIES! You need to first find your research question. One that is good enough to develop into your dissertation proposal.

What do faculty expect of you?

At this point, you have a dissertation chair. They will expect engagement and progress towards finding an idea that can be developed to a dissertation.

What should I be doing?

Please make sure that you meet your program requirements. Also, make sure that you are in good academic standing in your committee chair’s perspective.

In addition, you should:

  • Read – a lot. Learn about the academic conversations you are interested in. This will require a lot of reading.
  • Write – a lot. Learn how to write about the theoretical gap you think you want to address. Like they say, “I know what I think when I read what I write.” You need to find your academic voice and style – and you can only do that by reading the top journals in your field, and writing like them.
  • Relationships. At this time, you should be developing a collegial relationship with your dissertation chair first and foremost, and with other faculty members as well.
  • Manage up. Learn how to discuss ideas with your chair, what they need from you, and how you can get time and attention for your research. Some expect you to show up with agendas during a pre-arranged time, others are fine with you dropping in and asking questions. Find out what works best for your chair and do that.
  • Conferences. Continue attending relevant conferences, network with junior and senior faculty. And most importantly, meet PhD students in other universities.
  • Collaborations. This is a long career, and you will not be the only one interested in your topic. Find peers (PhD students) who are interested in similar questions and start forging collaborations. These may be a bit time consuming now, but in the future you will need people to publish with beyond your dissertation committee.

The Proposal

What is this stage supposed to be?

To begin this stage, your school likely requires that you pass your comprehensive exams. This means that you have shown the faculty that you know the field. 

During this stage, you use your knowledge of the field and craft a dissertation proposal. Depending on your chair and your department, this can be a traditional dissertation (5 chapters) or three papers.

What do faculty expect of you?

At this point, the most important faculty members are those that are in your committee. Your boss is your chair and your department chair. They expect you to put forth an idea that will contribute to the field.

What should I be doing?

Again, make sure that you meet your program requirements. Also, make sure that you are in good academic standing in your committee chair’s perspective.

In addition, you have a few things to focus on:

  • Conferences.  By now, you should have a few ideas in progress from your seminar papers. See if you can send them to conferences. This will help your CV in addition to getting feedback.
  • Publications. If you have been able to work with faculty, some papers might be getting to the reviewing stage. If not, seek out faculty and bring them ideas.
  • Collaborations. Learning how to be a collaborator is one of the most important skills you need to focus on at this stage. Work with faculty and other students developing ideas and projects.
  • Teaching. A key aspect of your future profession is teaching. At this point, you might begin to teach (if you have not done so already). The most important thing to learn is how to keep up with research even when you are teaching.
  • Pipeline. As you begin your proposal, think about your research pipeline and how you can build it. When you begin to look for a job, having a pipeline will be very important.

The Dissertation

What is this stage supposed to be?

By this point, you have successfully defended your proposal. This means that you have a plan, and all you have to do is execute it. Research, however, is messy. Things might not work out as you planned. So this stage requires both a lot of independent thinking and a lot of communication with your chair.

What do faculty expect of you?

Unlike any other degree, a PhD is earned, not conferred. A small group of faculty members need to agree that you are ready to be an independent researcher and teacher. You should again, meet all of your program requirements.

What should I be doing?

At this point, you are almost done with your time as a PhD student. That means you need to set yourself up for success as a professor.

  • Publications. Ideally, you have sent one or two papers for publications and have learned how to deal with reviewers under your chair’s wing.
  • Teaching. By now, you should know how to prep new courses and teach them in a way that does not take over your professional life.
  • Pipeline. You should have a clear idea of how you will meet tenure requirements at your potential new institutions.
  • Network. By now you should know a lot of people in your field. Use your network to find out about jobs, and the culture of the places you are sending applications.

If I missed something, please comment!


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