The stages that grad students go through in order to earn their PhDs is somewhat of a black box for people looking from the outside. This is partially because everyone’s timeline is different; people may take longer to complete one part of their program over another. For example, my comprehensive exams took longer to complete because I was figuring out exactly what I wanted to research. My dissertation proposal stage, however, took only a few months to complete because my comprehensive exams gave me a very strong foundation. In fact, my comprehensive exams provided the backbone for the two chapters of my proposal! For those who are curious, here is a rough outline of my own journey through my PhD program:
First 2 years – PhD classes, along with an assistantship that paid my tuition and a stipend. I also took a research apprenticeship, which helped me understand the research process in social science.
Years 3-5 – Comprehensive exams. The comprehensive exams helped me specialize in my field and gave me a very firm background in online learning theories. To me, these exams were very tough, because after I took my coursework, I moved away from my university and my academic community. In doing so, I was rather isolated from having conversations that could have really helped with my thinking. I had three professors on my exam committee who read and graded my exams.
Years 5-6 – Thesis proposal and proposal defense. The thesis proposal took me five months to write and rewrite (Aug-Dec), about and three months afterward (Jan-Mar) to go through the actual proposal process. When a PhD student finishes their exams, they immediately begin forming their thesis committee, which is made (at a minimum) of their academic advisor, one external professor (who is either outside of your department, or outside of your university), and two other professors who have some expertise in your field.
For me, I have four advisors: my academic advisor, who is an expert on virtual research and digital ethnography; a professor who is an expert on learning theory; a professor who is an expert on theory and virtual research (my external committee member); and a professor who is an expert on qualitative research design. Once you complete the thesis proposal, your committee reads it, and decides on whether there needs to be changes to it, or whether it is good enough to defend. Sometimes (like in my case), the committee provides suggestions or questions that you must read and address — these questions strengthen your research framework. If you get the green light to defend (which I received in January, after the committee had a month to read the proposal), the university assigns an independent chair to your proposal. The independent chair is someone in the university outside your department who reads the proposal, and determines whether it is fit to defend. They are there to ensure that the proposal was graded fairly, and they oversee the proposal defense.
The proposal defense itself consisted of a 15 minute presentation where you address any questions or suggestions that your committee had. Then, everyone discusses the methodology and helps you finalize everything before you start your study. So in a way, your written thesis proposal may not quite look like your actual research study once it’s been discussed by the committee (as in my case).
After the proposal defense (if you get approved), you go on to the next stage, which is to submit your research proposal to the review board for ethical review!