You've got questions. We've got answers.
Below you'll find a list of questions (and answers, of course) we often get when we visit with students interested in graduate education. If you find one not listed, let us know so we can add it.
As you browse the info below, keep in mind that graduate education is a complex topic. Undergraduate education is relatively consistent in its structure and requirements across universities and colleges. In contrast, graduate education is less consistent across institutions and even within colleges, departments and programs within a single institution. This makes it very important to research the specific programs you're interested in as some of the info below may not be applicable to your situation.
Do I need to get a Master's degree before I can get a PhD?
This is a common misconception, but in general you don't need to get a Master's degree before you can get a PhD. However, there are some disciplines that require master's degrees as a prerequisite for admission to a doctoral program. Requirements also vary by university and even between academic departments within institutions. Check the specific program you're interested in.
I've heard that sometimes you can get a masters degree while I'm working on a PhD. Is that true?
Some doctoral programs will award a masters degree while you're still pursuing a PhD. PhD programs typically consist of a block of courses you have to take and a block of credits that must be devoted to research. Usually the required courses equal the same amount of credits you would take in a masters program so it's understandable that you would be eligible to get a master's degree. This varies by university, college and academic department so check with the specific program you're interested in.
What does a PhD program consist of?
A PhD program is usually around 60 credit hours of coursework and research credits. About half of those credits will be dedicated to taking coursework (like seminar or lecture courses with different faculty) and the rest are research hours. You typically will enroll in research hours under the supervision of your faculty advisor. Sometimes you have to continue to enroll in a minimum number of those research hours each semester until you complete your research. It's important to keep this in mind when you plan your academic career because you will have to pay tuition for those hours.
Who will be guiding me through my PhD program?
In most cases you will have joined a particular PhD program because there is a faculty member at the university whose research work is closely related to your research interests/plans. This faculty member will usually be your main point of contact, your advisor, your mentor. In many cases that faculty member will chair a committee of other faculty members (sometimes referred to as your graduate committee) who will constitute a committee that will review your progress, guide you, and ultimately determine whether you should be awarded your degree.
What is a thesis/dissertation?
You've probably heard the term "thesis" in your undergraduate years. It's used a bit different in graduate education. A thesis (sometimes called a dissertation) is a body of writing that chronicles and communicates the research you've conducted over the course of your graduate education - basically a research paper, albeit a very long one.
What is defense?
A defense is what a doctoral student does to defend the research work they have done (particularly the writing of their thesis or dissertation). You literally sit in a room for a specified amount of time and could be asked to give a presentation about your work and/or asked questions about it by members of your graduate committee. It sounds intense but you will have had 5+ years to get ready for this. No problem.
How will I pay for my doctoral education?
Graduate education is typically more expensive per credit hour than undergraduate education, but don't let this scare you. Many PhD programs offer fellowships that can essentially cover most of your educational expenses. Fellowships can cover your tuition and fees, offer a salary in exchange for teaching or research work, and offer things like health benefits. These vary greatly and some have high academic standards so you have to research these opportunities. Fellowships are sometimes offered during or as a part of the admissions and recruiting process and some are awarded after you've been admitted so it is important to communicate your interest in fellowship opportunities when you visit with graduate school programs.
Some master's program offer fellowships but it is rare.
Federal (and sometimes state) financial aid are also available.