Doctoral Degree Requirements and Policies

Each doctoral program and university has its own set of requirements that students must meet in order earn their PhDs.


Depending on your program and school, you will have to meet a minimum number of credits of coursework in your area of study. In general, the majority of these credits must come from graduate-level courses. If you are enrolled in a PhD program that does not grant a masters degree while you are in the process of earning your doctorate, then a previous masters degree can often count towards part of your degree requirement.


Most PhD programs do not allow you to move on to the dissertation or research aspect of your degree program if you do not have a certain minimum GPA in your coursework. This is typically a 3.0, but it can vary from school to school.

Foreign Language

Some disciplines like history or comparative literature require PhD students to meet a foreign language requirement. Some may simply require you to have completed a certain number of undergraduate courses while others may ask you to sit for an exam to demonstrate fluency.

Oral or General Exam

Another requirement that you must meet before you are allowed to begin your independent research and dissertation is to pass an oral or general exam. Depending on your area of study and the way in which your program is set up, your oral exam will either test your knowledge of a field or ask you to present your dissertation topic, your research plans and how this idea will contribute to scholarship in your field.

If your department's oral exam tests your knowledge of the existing literature in your area of study, you will probably have to spend a lot of time preparing. Preparation for this kind of oral exam usually includes reading and synthesizing the important theories and ideas that other academics have written in your area of study. The actual oral exam will require you to answer questions from professors about this literature and how you plan to enrich or challenge it. After you pass the oral exam, will you be allowed to begin the research and writing portion of your PhD program.

Candidate Certificate

Once you pass the oral exam, you may receive a candidate certificate. This certificate indicates that you have successfully completed the oral exam portion of your doctorate program. It also gives you permission to begin work on your dissertation. If you decide not to write and defend your dissertation, you are still able to keep your candidate certificate.


Most universities have their own formats and guidelines for PhD dissertations. These rules often cover everything from font size and line spacing to how to write an abstract. Depending on your department, your dissertation may also have a minimum and maximum page length or word count.

Your dissertation must demonstrate your ability to use research techniques as well as show that you can choose a relevant problem or issue within scholarship and discuss it knowledgeably.

Doctoral Reading Committee

When you complete your dissertation, you must submit it to a group of scholars known as a reading committee. This committee is responsible for evaluating your dissertation project. Some schools allow doctoral candidates to choose the members of their own reading committees, while other schools appoint the members.

Once your reading committee has been assembled, they will determine whether your dissertation represents a significant contribution to scholarship in your field as well as whether your research and writing follows academic standards.

Leave of Absence

PhD students are eligible to take a temporary leave of absence from their studies if they need to. If you decide to take a leave of absence for 1 or more semesters and follow all of your university’s regulations, you probably will not have to go through a reinstatement process when you return.

Although every school has different policies, a leave of absence usually excludes you from certain student benefits but allows you to keep others. For instance, many schools allow PhD candidates who are on a leave of absence to continue using their school e-mail accounts and university libraries. However, you probably will not be eligible for university student housing, student insurance discounts or financial aid.


PhD students who have taken a leave of absence and wish to return may have to apply to be reinstated as an active graduate student. This process is usually straightforward and involves discussing your reinstatement with your department and your advisor, submitting an application and paying a fee.

Most schools require their graduate students to finish their PhD program and dissertation within a certain amount of time. In some instances, a leave of absence may count towards your maximum allowed study time. Therefore, you should consider how a leave of absence will affect your overall plan for the completion of your PhD.

Final Exam or Defense

Once you submit your dissertation to the reading committee, which will read, comment on and ultimately approve of your dissertation, you will have what is called a final exam or dissertation defense.

Guidelines and Format

The specific guidelines for your dissertation defense will vary by school and department, but most defenses follow the same basic procedure. Once your dissertation is complete, you must submit it to your doctoral reading committee. When the reading committee has examined your dissertation and your supervisory committee has agreed that you are prepared to sit for your final exam, you will then be allowed to register for the final exam.

Video Conferencing

In some cases, members of the reading or supervisory committee or the PhD candidate may participate in the dissertation defense via video conference. Each school and academic department has its own guidelines for using video conferencing during a defense. If you think that you might need to use this technology for your dissertation defense, be sure to ask your department about its rules.


Once your dissertation has gained the approval of the reading and supervisory committees, you may be required by your school to publish it. Some schools cover the cost of publication while others require you to pay for it.