A PhD is a research-based degree

Do a PhD in the USA
Doctoral degree Ph.D.

Unsurprisingly, the size and diversity of the US is also reflected in its higher education and doctoral systems. There is a wide range of postsecondary institutions, all of which can be counted as universities in the broadest sense. There are currently over 6,500 higher education institutions for the US’s 325 million population. Of these, only a fraction - 436 in 2016 - award research-based doctoral degrees, the research doctorate Ph.D. Thus, less than ten percent of the institutions train the researchers and professors for the entire large and heterogeneous group of all higher education institutions.

Among the universities offering doctorates, a distinction is made between public (public), private non-profit (private, not-for-profit) and private profit-oriented (private, for-profit) institutions. The amount of the scholarships for doctoral students is usually higher at private institutions and the scope of the teaching services required in return by the doctoral students is lower. Another difference is the selectivity of doctoral programs in terms of admission. An example from English studies: 30 doctoral candidates are selected from around 300 applicants for the doctoral program at the public City University of New York (CUNY), and 700 candidates apply for around 15 doctoral positions at the private Columbia University every year. The conditions for doctoral studies in the same subject at two universities in the same city can therefore be very different.

Ph.D. through structured doctoral programs

In total, over 50,000 research doctoral degrees are awarded annually in the USA, 100 percent of which are acquired in structured doctoral programs. The doctoral students, who usually apply to graduate schools after completing their bachelor's degree, only complete a two to three-year course phase (course work). This includes compulsory and elective seminars, colloquia, special literature seminars (journal clubs), laboratory rotations in the natural sciences, and several exams.

The transition to the dissertation phase is selective and usually includes an extensive written, sometimes also an oral exam, as well as other partial services such as a published article, reviews, presentations at conferences or passed homework (problem sets). If they fail the transition exam, candidates often leave the graduate school with a master’s degree.

"The long average duration of a doctorate is also a much discussed topic in the USA."

The long average duration of a doctorate is also a much discussed topic in the USA. Although it has decreased in all disciplines over the decades, it is six to 12 years, depending on the subject. One factor here is the start of doctoral training after completing the bachelor's degree with a mostly two-year course phase that roughly corresponds to the German master’s degree. Another factor is that there is no habilitation in the USA, so that the doctoral students must acquire at least in theory all the knowledge and qualifications for an academic career during the doctorate. In the engineering and natural sciences, this function is supported by a postdoc phase that is almost an integral part of the doctorate.

Inadequate funding for doctoral students and, related to this, the system-immanent research and teaching assistant positions, which have many advantages, but mostly not closely related to the dissertation topic, so that they tend to prolong the doctorate, are further causes. Possible solutions are a compression and shortening of the course phase as well as an even more binding monitoring of the progress of the doctorate.

Improvement of the quality of care through graduate schools

In contrast to Germany, where still only around 20 percent of all doctoral students are in a structured program, in the USA all doctoral students do their doctorate in a graduate school. This interdisciplinary umbrella structure maintains a number of measures that generate a higher amount of care and, as a rule, also improve the quality of care. An important aspect is the multiple supervision during the entire doctorate. There are always several supervisors, mentors and contact persons, both within the department (usually at least four members of the doctoral committee) and in the interdisciplinary graduate school. Partial achievements of the doctorate are usually determined in advance, given transparent deadlines and communicated to doctoral students and supervisors.

Members of the commission pay attention to the progress of the doctorate and the quality of the dissertation during regular meetings, some of which are documented in writing.
In many humanities programs, a quality assurance measure that is switched on prior to admission to the doctoral program is the submission of a 10-20 page work sample as a mandatory part of the generally formalized, selective admission procedure.

Another instrument is often the mandatory submission of the dissertation exposé after one year at the latest. The exposé must be approved by the committee members in a formalized procedure and defended by the doctoral students in some programs. A similarly time-consuming process is common in many places after the first chapter of the dissertation has been written and after other chapters. A common standard for the consistent quality of the work is set by specialist representatives in regular sections.

At the end of the day, the dissertation has to be defended (thesis defense) but not published in a mandatory manner - possibly a consequence of the highly diversified university landscape, in which a publicly communicated proof of research is not always essential for a further professional career.

Doctorate: Acquired competences must also prepare for non-academic professions

Too long, too expensive, and preparing for an idealized academic job market that hasn't existed for a long time: This is how the criticism of the doctoral culture in the USA is summarized in the "2018 Trends Report" of the Chronicle of Higher Education. But the report also gives constructive examples of how this criticism is countered. Professional societies such as the American Historical Association support programs in which doctoral students can gain insight into the non-academic job market and acquire the necessary qualifications. The traditional form of the dissertation as a monograph is also being rethought in many places and alternatives such as cumulative dissertation achievements are being tried out.

"The traditional function of the doctorate as preparation for a university career is shifting."

The goal is obvious - doctoral students should acquire skills during their doctorate that also prepare them for non-academic professions. At the same time, due to the lack of a habilitation and thus earlier independent work in research and teaching, all the necessary qualifications must be acquired during the doctorate. The function of the doctoral degree in the USA is currently changing in a direction that is familiar from the German doctoral culture: the traditional function of preparing for a university career is shifting as a result of a broad discussion about the need to adapt the content to the reality of later professional life Graduates' needs in the direction of the polyvalent position of the doctoral degree known from Germany.