Unlike doctoral degrees in most other countries, a US PhD is almost never a pure research degree. Original research is still a key requirement for an American doctorate, and you’ll still present and defend a substantial thesis. It’s just that you’ll do a lot more along the way and quite a few other things first.
Whereas PhD students in countries like the UK normally start researching for their thesis right away, US doctorates begin with of taught classes and assessments, culminating in a comprehensive exam. It’s only after passing this stage that a student confirms their final dissertation topic and gets to work researching it.
In total the length of a PhD in the USA is usually 4-6 years (full time). Students spend 1-4 years on the coursework stage of their programme and 2-4 years working on their dissertation.
The academic year in the USA consists of two teaching semesters: August-December and January-May. These will be when your classes and assessments take place. Most graduate programmes admit students in the autumn (or ‘fall’) semester.
US graduate study looks very different to postgraduate study in the UK and other countries, but it may actually seem quite similar to the undergraduate study you’re probably used to.
You’ll enrol in a specific graduate programme, usually within a graduate school attached to your university. This programme determines the courses available (and required) for your PhD - a lot like a taught Bachelors or Masters degree.
Most universities will have separate graduate schools and / or programmes for different subjects, but smaller or more specialised institutions may only run one or two programmes, with students selecting classes appropriate to their intended research area.
Larger graduate programmes may also offer more specific degree concentrations in particular subjects. For example, an Arts and Humanities graduate programme might offer separate pathways for Literature or History, determining which core classes a student is expected to pass.
The coursework stage
The first part of a US PhD is a lot like a taught Masters (in fact, a distinction between PhD candidates and Masters students may not actually be made at this point).
You will complete a series of taught classes or coursework modules:
- Core classes are an essential requirement for your programme. They will cover key concepts and research techniques as well as other required subject knowledge.
- Elective classes are optional. You will still need to complete enough of these to satisfy the credit requirements for your programme, but the options you select will be up to you. This allows you to pick up more specific training or pursue interests that might help develop your own research project later in the degree.
The freedom you have to choose classes will depend on the design of your programme and, to some extent, the amount of essential technical knowledge required for your subject.
Some programmes require doctoral candidates to undertake other personal and professional development activities, such as completing work or volunteering placements or even learning a foreign language. These reflect the holistic attitude to university education in the USA and its focus on producing well-rounded, adaptable graduates.
Once you’ve completed all the classes and other requirements for your programme you will face a comprehensive examination (sometimes referred to as a ‘field exam’ or ‘dissertation qualifying exam’). This checks that you have acquired sufficient mastery of existing knowledge in your field to conduct your own original research. Students who reach this point in a graduate programme are sometimes referred to as being ABD (‘all but dissertation’).
Some students are allowed to exit a graduate programme with a Masters degree at this point. Others may be awarded a Masters en route to their PhD.