How to Survive a PhD Program?

Whether they are online or offline, PhD programs require you to be organized, have good study habits and excellent time management skills.

Study Tips

If you gain admission to a PhD program, the chances are good that you are a pretty good student. However, it is always good to review good study habits.

Manage Your Time

While you are enrolled in your PhD program, you are responsible for managing your time wisely and making time to study. Although it is difficult to work outside of your program, you may be required to work as a teaching or research assistant, so it is important to recognize that you may have other responsibilities besides studying and completing assignments.

Once you know which classes you must teach and attend, try to create a schedule of every activity and assignment for which you are responsible. If you have a realistic idea of how long it takes to do these things, you will find it much easier to balance your various responsibilities.

Study Well and Study Wisely

It takes more than just willpower to study. You need to understand how you study best, including when and where you are most productive. In order to study well and study wisely, you must first know what works for you personally.

If you study better at 1 time of the day over another, you should try to arrange your schedule so that you are free to study during these hours. If you are most alert and focused during the morning hours, try scheduling your courses or teaching hours during the afternoon or evening.

Most people also find it helpful to study the most challenging topics first. Motivation is almost always higher when you begin to study, so you should tackle your toughest assignments or readings early in your study session.

Make sure that you study in an environment that is conducive to concentration. For most people, this means finding a place that is quiet and that has plenty of natural light. Small factors like these can have a large impact on your productivity.

Also remember to take regular breaks while you study. These help you to maintain focus and allow you to study longer because they provide your brain and eyes with rest. It is also wise to make time for personal interests, such as seeing movies, playing sports or spending time with friends. Enjoying free time activities allow you to relax and avoid burnout.

Read and Take Notes

Effective reading and to note-taking is not as simple as it may seem. In order to get the most out of a reading assignment, you should take the time to preview the text before you begin reading it. If you recognize that there are sections that you already know, you can simply skim over these. Pre-reading also helps your mind to develop an overview and a context for the more detailed information in the text.

You should also keep a dictionary handy. If you find that you read slowly, try moving your eyes across the page faster. Try to avoid highlighting large sections in books or articles. Instead, underline single words or phrases that are important to the central ideas of the text.

Also remember to be selective when you take notes. Trying to write everything down can be very time consuming and impractical. Use abbreviations and symbols to cut down on how much you write. And remember to review your notes once you are finished with the text. It is not enough to take them; you must also use them.

Oral or General Exams

Your oral exams are an important milestone on your path toward earning your PhD. Once you pass your oral exams, you are free to pursue your research and begin your dissertation.

Get to Know Your Committee

Regardless of whether you get to choose your own committee or whether it is selected by your department, you should get to know the members. Meetings with your committee members can be informal conversations, but the point is to get a better understanding of how they approach the exam and what they expect you to know. For example, it is acceptable to ask your committee members if there are any specific areas in your field in which they would like you to demonstrate knowledge. What they tell you will help you formulate a reading list and a study plan.

Read, Synthesize, Repeat

Once you have spoken to your oral exam committee, you should begin to develop a reading list that you will use to prepare for your exam. Some PhD programs allow you to choose your own field for the oral exam, while others provide you with specific guidelines.

Depending on your school, your PhD program and your committee, the guidelines and expectations for your reading list will vary widely. However, almost all schools require you to include the most important books and peer-reviewed journal articles in your field.

It is usually a good decision to make your reading list as short as possible. The point of an oral exam is to demonstrate your knowledge in a scholarly field, and the literature that you choose for your reading list is 1 indicator for how well you know your topic. Be sure to discuss your reading list with your dissertation advisor and members of your oral exam committee. They may have suggestions and valuable input regarding what you should study.

Although your oral exam may not require you to submit anything in writing, you should still be sure to write as much as possible about the books, journal articles and authors that you are studying. Many students use a system of notecards to identify the important points in each book and article. However, remember that oral exams are not meant to test how well you can memorize facts. Instead, your committee uses the oral exam to see how well you understand the field in which you work, including how the different ideas and theories relate to each other.


Be sure to practice for your oral exams with friends, family or other students. If you are enrolled in an on-campus PhD program, you will probably have fellow students who are also preparing for their oral exams. If you are in an online PhD program and are not near any other students, practice with your family and friends. Practicing your oral exams is a very important part of your preparation. Although you may have all of the knowledge and information in your head, you must also be able to discuss and explain it in a natural manner.

Once you have completed your first practice exam, make notes of what you did well and where you could use improvement. Repeat this process several times and be sure that you focus on improving the areas that you feel are weakest.