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PhD - How to Get One

Updated on April 3, 2015
Dr Billy Kidd profile image

Dr. Billy Kidd was a psychotherapist and researcher for 20 years. He has also studied history, religion, and has been active in politics.

To get a doctorate (PhD) in your field of interest, you must first answer these questions. Some of them won’t apply to you, but I think they will help you understand that getting a PhD degree is a pretty serious project:

● Do I really have to have a PhD?

● Am I bored with some of the work I’m doing now because it just seems bland?

● Does my boss know less than I do about what we do in our department?

● Is a PhD something I’ve thought about getting, yet something I keep putting off?

● Am I willing to put getting a PhD degree before almost everything and everybody?

● Do I have enough money to get started?

● Can I work 12-hour shifts, several days a week, if I’m forced to by the demands of my research project?

● Have I ever enjoyed doing research and writing papers?

● Would my friends and family be onboard?

● Am I willing to bend enough to learn a new way of analyzing things in a very specific, scientific fashion?

● Can I stick it out through a writing project that might take up to two years?

● Do I want to learn how to focus very intensely and effectively from the experts in my field so that I can solve complex problems at work?

● Am I OK with learning more about statistics or math, should it be required in my field of study?

I bring up this list because I have seen people, who have not answered these questions, drop out of PhD programs. They were just not ready for the program, even though they qualified to get admitted.


So, when I ask, “Do you really have to have a PhD?” I’m quite serious. The process of working this hard on honing your research skills will change the way you think forever. And what you now know about your field of interest will probably seem totally outdated when you are a year or two into your program. What’s more, you probably won’t fit in with your current colleagues at work after you get the degree. That is because you’ll be the expert in the room, not just the data entry person or the one who is supposed to hold your tongue. So you've move up the food chain, so to speak, and have more job opportunities.

The important point, here, is that the PhD degree-earning process makes you an expert. And in order to get that expertise, you will have to sacrifice a lot of time. You might have to put off seeing most of your friends, too. If you’re married, and your spouse isn’t onboard, the marriage will probably end. But if you are single you might get married toward the end of the process. That is because you’ll be more confident in your abilities and surer of your future.

Another fundamental issue pertaining to getting a PhD has to do with your research question. This is something you need to start thinking about as soon as possible. Every PhD requires that a student ask a question in a scientific fashion and then answers it with the latest research tools. It’s kind of like asking, “Does E=MC2?” and then writing a short book about it. But instead of asking Einstein’s historic question, you’ll be asking a much simpler question that is relevant in your field of interest.

Coming up with a research question is not as hard as you might make it out to be. Just remember, a research question is a fairly narrow thing, not a big picture thing. This means that “What is Zen?” just won’t do. Rather, you’d have to narrow it off to something like, “How does meditation affect the set points on the human hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal [HPA] axis?” It doesn’t matter if you understand what I’m talking about, here. You can surely see why the first question, “What is Zen?” took Allan Watts almost ten books to answer. What you want instead for your PhD is to add one new chapter to the current body of research on a subject that interests you.

The next issue involved in getting a doctorate degree is trying to understand what kind of student you really are. If you think it is ridiculous to sit in a classroom, after fighting for a parking space, or standing in line at the registrar’s office (again!), when all that’s going to happen in class is the same idiot is going to tie the class down with an insipid question, then—you’re a candidate for an online PhD program.

I’d recommend Walden University and Capella University if you do an online degree. They’re fully accredited, and you’ll be able to get federally insured loans if you need them. But, if you need to have a lot of in-person interaction with the teacher and other students, and you need to hear and see the instructions, just so you get them right, then I’d recommend any PhD program that’s is regionally accredited, particularly those at state run universities.

Please note that before I send you off to Walden or Capella to spend 4 or 5 years, I want you to know something. Those schools are easy to get in but they have very rigorous programs. People get flunked out, and people drop out because they’re not willing to make a strong commitment toward finishing their dissertation. But those two schools will walk you through every step of your journey. There's no big hammer waiting to knock you down.

Also, beware: There are phony PhD programs out there by the dozen. And it doesn’t matter what they teach you because your degree will be considered to be a phony one if your institution is not regionally accredited. This is extremely important. If you do not know what regionally accredited means, click here and go to Wikipedia and look it up.

I talk about regionally accredited universities because you won’t be the expert when you walk into the room—even after 5 years of work—if your degree is not from one of them. That’s because you won’t be walking into the room. You’ll still be back at your work station doing what you’re doing now. This is to say that if it’s not regionally accredited it will not make much difference on your job applications and will not apply to any certifications that you seek. Actually, some states have laws against falsely representing yourself as having an accredited degree. And, of course, if there is state licensing involved in your field, you won't get one unless your degree is from a regionally accredited university.

Also, keep this in mind: The doctorate degree is about enhancing your capabilities in a field that interests you. It is not about the prestige of the university that you go to. The only time that makes a difference is if you’re bafflingly brilliant and you can get into one of the top 10 universities in your field. Even so, chances are that no one will ever ask where you went to school because no one cares (accept state boards considering licensing). Employers just want you to solve the problem at hand that your PhD program taught you to solve. If you can do it, no questions will ever be asked as long as your degree is from a regionally accredited university--where you've done valid research..

What is frustrating is that the application process for many PhD programs is really intense. It’s done that way for a reason. It’s a test to see if you have perseverance. That’s because it takes perseverance to get a doctorate degree. If you’re in school now, get some help with the application process from one of your professors. Or get on the phone and call an enrollment counselor.

Now that it’s all clear about how to get going on a PhD (!), let’s look at some terms and issues. This will help you so you can talk the lingo and won’t make a fool of yourself like most of us have done:

Dr is a title that goes before your name if you have earned any PhD degree or if you have earned a degree in medicine, dentistry, or chiropractic medicine.

● the letters PhD go behind your name and represent the fact that you have earned a doctorate by writing a research paper

● M.D. goes after your name and represents the fact that you’ve earned a degree in medicine after attending a 4-year medical school

● an M.D. degree does not involve a dissertation

● people can earn both a PhD and an MD degree and use both behind their names, as in Todd Q. Miller, PhD, M.D.

● a doctorate, also called a PhD, is a research degree where a person researches and writes a dissertation

● a dissertation is a short book between 50 and 200 pages where you discuss your research project

● the research project is watched over by a dissertation chairperson

● there are 2 to 3 other professors who will work with you, and together with the chairperson, they are called the dissertation committee

● your research project will start when you come up with an acceptable research question

● you will then write a short 5 to 10 page proposal stating exactly how you intend to do the research

● you will take classes for 1 or 2 years before you’re asked to state your research question

● those classes will make everything clear on how to do your dissertation

● it is helpful to know ahead of time what computer programs you will be required to use at the universities that interest you. It's best to take a local college course where you master those programs--especially for science degrees--before you start

● for social science PhDs you'll need to have taken prior courses in statistics. This can be done at a community college

There are of course a lot of other issues involved in getting a doctorate degree. The most important ingredient, however, is chutzpa—the gall to just get in there and do it— and do it—until it’s done. The next most important ingredient is to be humble, and just listen when the professor tells you what you need to know to get through this thing.

And lastly, the most important thing that you can get out of graduate school, once you are there, is to get out of graduate school alive and with a degree!


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    • Dr Billy Kidd profile image

      Dr Billy Kidd 20 months ago from Sydney, Australia

      Hi Vocalcoach. You can go straight into the Walden psychology PhD program with a BS or BA. You can enter any quarter of the year, even summer or winter. By the way, they walk you through your dissertation with plenty of advice. You'll need two courses in statistics. It's often best to start with a brush up course on that.

      Yet, if you take the Masters in Psychology from Walden, it will apply credits to the PhD. There are 12 specialties you could study.

      Give them a call. 888-990-6771

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 20 months ago from Nashville Tn.

      You've cleared up some of my un-answered questions about getting a PHD. Thank you. I received my B.A. from Walden long before they offered on line classes. A Master's degree must be attained before applying for a PHD right?

    • Dr Billy Kidd profile image

      Dr Billy Kidd 5 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      I hear you loud and clear, Virginia. I should have been more clear about the idea that a person needs to be practical when pursuing a PhD. A degree in history would be a tough go.

    • VirginiaLynne profile image

      Virginia Kearney 5 years ago from United States

      You have a good list of questions and I like the fact that you really take this from the perspective of someone who is interested but doesn't know much about it. I would add that you need to research how many people who do get a PhD in your area of interest get a job in that area. Teaching jobs at Universities are sometimes tough to get. However, teaching at Junior college or part-time teaching is easier, although the pay can be low.