What Are Doctoral (PhD) Classes Like?


The PhD, or Doctor of Philosophy, is one of the most common doctorates completed today.

Many individuals that hold the PhD title will seek careers as professors and/or researchers, while some may also try to obtain a position in the private, public, or nonprofit sectors.

The work completed by PhD candidates will contribute greatly to the field of research and may lead to publications that will benefit future students.

How does one earn a doctoral degree? Lots of reading, research and classes. Ok, ok, you probably already knew all of that, but what you may not know are the particulars of the classes you are going to need to take.

You might want to know what doctoral classes are like.

This blog will answer some questions commonly asked by students when they are thinking about picking classes for their PhD program. This is especially suited for people that are interested in doing a PhD or doctorate in business, such as strategy, accounting, or marketing.

This post was written by a recent anonymous doctoral student on behalf of Dave Maslach to keep the discussion frank. This is part of the R3ciprocity project (Check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback software). R3ciprocity helps students, faculty, and research folk by providing a real and authentic look into doing research. It provides solutions and hope to researchers around the world. If you want to watch Dave’s thoughts on doctoral classes, you should watch this video:

Coursework: Where do I Start?

First, I will start off by disclosing that students’ experiences will be wide ranging depending on the institution that is attended and who they are as a person. Doing a doctorate is very much a personal journey. You read about the PhD journey and what it means with this post. The classes you take during the first one or two years of your PhD program will depend on the requirements of the school.

Most PhD and doctoral programs typically start with a good mixture of coursework and research. At most American and Canadian schools, during the first year of a program, students usually take courses that have been predetermined by the university.

This really takes all the guesswork out of picking which classes to attend.

It is pretty common for students to start by taking coursework that provides the foundational knowledge needed in order to conduct advanced levels of research.

As a doctorate student, you will take these first year required courses and exams and then the coursework for your second year will be more elective. This second-year coursework will allow you to focus more on your areas of interest.

After that, you are off to the races. You’ll go on to take advanced seminars and complete other requirements by researching, writing, and eventually defending your dissertation. Yippie!

Four to eight years is what it may take to earn a doctorate degree, depending on the school and program, and whether a master’s degree has already been completed. You can read this very detailed post about why a PhD will take that long to complete (It’s not what most people think). Now, this may also be a little different if you are living abroad or attending a University outside of the United States; you may only have one year or so of required courses before you begin your research and then more or less time to complete your degree.

How Long are the Classes During A PhD Program?

One of the first questions that students ask when considering a doctoral program is, “How long is a doctoral class?”

PhD classes typically last between three to five hours long. If it’s a seminar, your time is going to be spent sitting there nearly the whole time listening to a lecture. However, most doctoral classes tend to be discussion based, where you are in charge of your learning with your classmates. There is unusually about 4-8 people that each read articles and talk about the strengths and weaknesses of the articles.

Even though you are sitting, these classes can still be quite draining. Your seminar leader will likely provide some break time throughout to help keep you fresh and alert.

These seminar courses can be pretty intense. They usually require quite a bit of prerequisite reading and then you sort of jump right into some sort of discussion about the readings and research ideas.

How many sessions are typical for a PhD class?

Well, PhD courses are similar to an undergrad course where you meet once or twice a week, or 10 to 15 sessions, over the course of the semester. This session requirement will depend on the university and whether it is a quarter system or the traditional semester system.

When you are working through your classes and coursework in a cohort, you really get to know the different professors and start to build relationships with the other students in the cohort.

PhD seminars are usually comprised of around 2 to 25 people, but if varies a lot depending on the course. Specialized courses tend to have fewer people than more general courses, like research methods. It is becoming less common where seminars are made of large groups of people.

In a master’s level course, students are getting grouped together in no particular fashion where as a PhD seminar has students grouped together based on the discipline that they are interested in. This allows for more specialization of instruction and the groups are easier for professors to manage. It is usually just as intense for the professor to teach one of these courses as it is to be a student in one of these courses.

What Courses are Important? What Courses Should You Take?

Well, I will just say, there is no such thing as too many methods courses.

If given the choice, choosing a methods course will help you become familiar with the many methods of research and best prepare you for the dissertation process.

Courses that focus on theory development are great as well. Theory is going to be the bread and butter of what you do in your career, especially if you become a professor. However, it may be more useful to take classes that help you develop the skills to critically evaluate the work of other researchers and learn other various essential elements of academic research. Often, it is more challenging to understand research methods after, if you do not develop a solid base for the methods in a class. However, many people develop very distinguished careers and never do any methods.

Choosing courses is more a personal preference. Yet, you should know that research methods are becoming an increasingly larger component of research papers in virtually all academic fields.

What do you do in a PhD or doctoral seminar?

What you end up doing in a doctoral seminar is analyzing papers and research that are relevant to the particular class that you’re taking. You’ll look at different papers that present research based on the topic of the class and critique them based on certain criteria.

You’ll analyze research and the different works for their strengths and weaknesses and look to see if you can identify any gaps in the research. Then the class will have a discussion about the findings and think about different lenses in order to take the work even further.

So, in Dave’s class on strategy innovation and research methods, we might talk about specific subtopics having to do with innovation. However, if you are taking a data management course, then you will look at different pieces of research from around the world that cover various aspects of data management.

During seminars, you will have a chance to view the research that people around the world have done and try to make sense of the different findings and research methods that have been used.

As a PhD student you are also going to be given more responsibility to create the discussion within the seminar which makes it a lot more fun but just a lot more exhausting.

You’re going to be tired at the end of the day after doing five hours of sitting there and listening and thinking on your own… oh, so much thinking. But it really can be fun.

A PhD seminar course is not meant to be all-inclusive in any sort of way because research topics are really big and broad. It is, however, a great time to get ideas for your future work and research.

Is a PhD seminar easier than undergrad courses?

Generally, I would say no. Doctoral seminars are quite a bit harder than the courses that you took during undergrad. In terms of the demands that are put on you during a PhD course, it’s equivalent to about two undergrad courses at once. While earning your undergrad degree you may have taken four to six classes a semester.

Some students find that they feel more overwhelmed in a PhD course than any other level of course in terms of the amount of readings that are required or the number of essays that must be written. It is very common for PhD students to doubt their abilities and who they are as a person. If this is you, you should read this post on the impostor syndrome in academia. You will routinely get rejected and your ideas sharpened, but such is the life of an academic.

Reading is an essential part of any doctoral program, and with as much reading that you are assigned during your coursework, it is vital that you try to allocate time each day to read, take notes and analyze and synthesize the material.

For one class per week, you may have to read and critique 4-10 manuscripts that are 20 to 40 pages long and then be prepared to present your findings during the next class. The number of articles you read really is just the preference and style of the professor who is teaching the course.

The time and level of commitment required is also greater when taking a PhD course than when taking an undergrad course. You know, just a lot of work is involved in a PhD class.

In undergraduate education much of what is required of the student is organized for them. It may not have seemed easy while you were going through it but as you think back now, you may recall that the professors did a considerable amount of the work. They designed the format of each class, provided you with syllabuses and outlines, specified exactly what needed to be read, prepared you for each exam, helped organize collaborative groups, and lead discussions.

However, in doctoral education, courses are not laid out for you as they were before. A doctoral student must be much more responsible and motivated, as you are expected to develop your own guidelines and initiate your own discussions. Now, there will be people around you like your professors and supervisors that will guide you but the you are solely responsible for managing your learning.

Things can get pretty intense, especially with also being in thick of things in your personal life as well. Here is a blog post about maintain a healthy sleep schedule during your PhD – this is very important to do!

But as most of the previous answers stated, your experience will greatly depend on a variety of factors.

Before advancing to Ph.D. candidate status, they may be required to pass a comprehensive examination and/or qualifying examination, depending on the program. What this video if you are interested in the steps of a dissertation:

In the later years of the program, students typically focus on conducting research in a particular subtopic of interest, under the supervision of a faculty mentor with similar interests. They may also be required to fulfill teaching requirements alongside this work. Based on their research, Ph.D. candidates write a doctoral dissertation. Prior to graduation, students must defend their dissertation before a panel of faculty members. 

In total, Ph.D. programs can take as few as three years to complete (this is becoming rarer), but it is normal to five to seven years. During this time, the candidate’s work is typically supported by a fellowship, so they earn a stipend rather than paying tuition for their education.

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