The Life of a Doctoral Student

Doctoral student reading book in library

Becoming a doctoral student can be exhilarating and rewarding, as it allows you to explore an area of deep interest. You will be committing several years to the study of your chosen field and a specific topic within it. Earning a doctoral degree can also be a challenging time. Your dissertation, residency and research can require dedicated study time, possibly leaving you feeling disconnected from friends and family if you're not mindful about ensuring a balanced lifestyle. 

The life of a doctoral learner does not follow a uniform path. Each day may include different activities and tasks. However, much of your time will be spent researching and writing your dissertation along with class attendance and assignments. Before you enroll in a doctoral program, it is important to learn what your life might look like once you begin your studies.

Phases of Earning a Doctorate

The doctoral degree process includes two distinct phases. The first is the coursework phase, and the second is the dissertation phase. Your life as a doctoral student will look different in each of these two phases.

Coursework Phase of a Doctoral Degree

You will begin your doctoral program in the coursework phase. The initial doctoral courses will follow a structure similar to ones you are familiar with from your undergraduate and master’s degrees. There will be projects, readings, tests or papers and due dates. You will participate in classes with other students. These classes for doctoral degrees follow the semester, quarter or term schedule of the university. The coursework you complete during a doctoral program will be more intense than your undergraduate work and your master’s-level courses.

The classes that you take during your doctoral program will have fewer students than your undergraduate classes. The topics of many of the courses will be more nuanced. Discussions and analyzing research will dominate much of the class time. You will need to be prepared to participate actively in class.

Doctoral degree coursework may culminate in comprehensive exams. Once you complete these, you can move on to the dissertation phase of earning your doctorate.

Dissertation Phase

Generally, the dissertation phase begins after the coursework phase ends. This phase entails conducting research and reading related to your dissertation topic. You will also spend a significant amount of your dissertation phase actually writing your final project, which is your doctoral dissertation.

The dissertation phase is different from the coursework phase because there are no specific due dates. Doctoral students must be very organized and self-motivated during the dissertation phase in order to stay on track with their research. As you work with your advisor, you can set goals for when specific research tasks and section drafts should be complete.

Doctoral students in the dissertation phase work alone, although they have advisors. They no longer have classes with other students. At many universities, doctoral students are grouped into cohorts. Though you may not be working in the same field, the students in your cohort can be people you rely on for accountability and academic support.

What It Is Like to Be a Doctoral Student

Earning a doctoral degree takes years of dedicated study. This extended process can be challenging for some students who are surprised by the rigor of a doctoral program. Other students thrive on being given the time to dedicate to research and writing.

Doctoral study can yield many benefits. At the end of a doctoral program, you will graduate as an established researcher in your field. The knowledge you add to the body of existing work may influence others for years to come.

Before you begin your doctoral studies, know that there are many rewarding and challenging experiences ahead. The more you can prepare for what life will be like as a doctoral student, the easier it will be to transition into the role.

Personal Growth

You will grow academically in a doctoral program. You will also grow as a person. The rigor of doctoral programs requires you to reflect on what you learn and how you learn. You will have challenging conversations and must regularly defend your thinking and research. Going through this transformative process will help you deepen and broaden your approach to your field.

Cohort Connection

If you are fortunate enough to go through your doctoral program with a cohort of other students, make sure to nurture and build your relationships with them. All of you will experience intense academic and personal growth together. These colleagues will understand what you are going through as you pursue your doctoral degree.

Your doctoral cohort can be a strong support system, offering course recommendations and other practical suggestions and even helping you practice dissertation presentations. Those in your class will become your professional peers when you graduate and can strengthen your professional network. You can also form connections with people in residencies if your program has them.

New Organizational Strategies

The doctoral program structure requires strong organization. Undergraduate and master’s courses typically have a prescribed structure, including a syllabus and specific due dates. You have learned how to work within those parameters to achieve academic success. Once you are in a doctoral program, especially in the dissertation phase, you will have to organize yourself to achieve success.

There are many tools that doctoral students use to stay organized. These include:

  • Digital calendars
  • Whiteboards
  • Digital textbooks
  • Filing systems
  • Spreadsheets
  • Online folder organization such as Google Drive or SharePoint
  • Note taking apps like OneNote
  • Brainstorming apps like Miro

Intense Work

Doctoral students are held to high academic standards. The amount of reading and writing that you will do for your doctoral program may surprise you. When you feel overwhelmed by the intensity of your doctoral program, remember that the work you are doing is valuable. The rigorous courses and academic standards are designed to shape you into an expert in your field.

Assisting in Doctoral Classes

Many doctoral students become teaching assistants or even lecturers in classes in their academic field. Doctoral students may be assigned to work with undergraduate or master’s level courses. Their duties usually include:

  • Running student seminars or discussion groups
  • Arranging guest lectures
  • Holding office hours
  • Grading exams
  • Assisting professors and faculty

Graduate students may also become research assistants who help professors with their ongoing research projects. This work allows doctoral students to learn the processes and stages of research required for writing their own dissertations. In a research assistant role, a doctoral student may:

  • Collect research
  • Communicate with research subjects
  • Provide initial data analysis
  • Proofread articles for publications

The Dissertation

The final work in a doctoral program is the dissertation. You will complete your own research and share the results and the implications of your findings. When you move to the dissertation phase of your doctoral degree program, you will find that you spend time doing three things:

  • Data collection and analysis
  • Reading
  • Writing

You may also continue your teaching or research assistant duties. Once you are in the later stages of the dissertation phase, you may be able to take on an adjunct professor role. This means that, on top of completing your research and writing your dissertation, you may be teaching several classes on your own.

The dissertation is the final piece of a doctoral degree program. Once this is complete and you have submitted and defended your dissertation, you have completed life as a doctoral student.

Earning your doctoral degree is a major academic accomplishment. Many students are able to continue working while enrolled as an online doctoral student, thanks to the flexible programming at Grand Canyon University

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.