Considering and Pursuing a PhD in Communication Sciences and Disorders

When thinking about pursuing a PhD, you're likely to have many questions. How difficult is it? Will it put me further into debt? What are my career options when I graduate? Earning a PhD may seem daunting, but it's more achievable than you think.

A PhD program focuses on developing an area of research expertise and prepares a person for a career as a professor, researcher, or administrator—often in an academic setting. The job outlook for faculty in communication sciences and disorders (CSD) is positive, with a high demand for both new and experienced faculty in the discipline.

On this page:

The Benefits of a PhD

With a PhD, you can have a significant impact on the CSD discipline by doing the following:

  • Conducting research to increase our understanding of communication disorders
  • Training the next generation of clinicians and researchers; and
  • Contributing your subject matter expertise as an advocate, leader, and/or consultant.

Individuals with a PhD have a multitude of career opportunities, including the following:

  • Teaching and carrying out research at a university;
  • Writing scholarly articles and presenting research at conferences;
  • Developing clinical research programs; and
  • Directing rehabilitation programs.

The majority of people who earn a PhD in CSD pursue faculty-researcher careers within a college or university. CSD programs often prefer to hire faculty with PhDs because of their research expertise in a specific area and their ability to teach and mentor students. The job market is excellent for individuals with PhDs: Findings from the annual CSD Education Survey consistently demonstrate strong demand for new academic faculty.

Myths About the PhD

Myth #1: I can't afford a PhD.

REALITY: A much higher percentage of PhD applicants are offered admission with funding support compared to master's speech-language pathology and AuD applicants. These funding opportunities can include the following:

  • Scholarships, which generally don't require work in exchange for funding;
  • Fellowships, which may or may not require work; and
  • Assistantships, which require research and teaching work that often directly relates to the skills you need to succeed as a faculty-researcher.

Myth #2: The PhD program is much harder than a clinical graduate program.

REALITY: PhD coursework covers many of the same topics as a clinical master's or clinical doctorate program—but at an advanced level. PhD students also must take statistics and research courses as well as do independent research. But, don't worry! Many students enter a PhD program without statistics or research training. You'll work with your advisor to develop your program based on your research interests, previous education, and experiences.

Myth #3: Admission is too competitive.

REALITY: Although the pool of applicants for PhD programs is often quite competitive, it's a much smaller group compared with clinical graduate programs. Acceptance into a PhD program may depend more on finding a good match between the interest areas of an applicant and a mentor's research area than competition between applicants.

Myth #4: I can't complete clinical hours for certification during the PhD program.

REALITY: Yes, you can! Many programs are flexible and offer options for doing a Clinical Fellowship (CF) or completing Audiology clinical hours during the PhD program. Be sure to check with potential programs to see if this is a possibility.

Myth #5: I'll have no life as a professor because of the workload.

REALITY: Faculty members can achieve a good work–life balance and enjoy the following benefits:

  • A flexible schedule, within the confines of teaching and lab responsibilities
  • Optional summers off, depending on the job requirements
  • Freedom to pursue other teaching, research, and service interests within the structure of the university or college guidelines

Key Considerations

Is a PhD right for me?

Part of knowing if a PhD is the right fit for you means knowing how it differs from other CSD graduate degrees.

  • The research doctorate (e.g., PhD) degree focuses on developing an area of research expertise and prepares a person for a career as a professor, researcher, or administrator.
  • Entry-level clinical degrees prepare you for a clinical career as follows:
    • The master's degree in speech-language pathology (e.g., MA, MS) is the degree required for you to practice as a speech-language pathologist.
    • The clinical doctorate in audiology (AuD) is the degree required for you to practice as an audiologist.
  • The clinical doctorate in speech-language pathology(e.g., SLPD, CScD) prepares you for a career as a master clinician, supervisor, or administrator, with a focus on one specific area of clinical expertise.
  • The doctor of education (EdD) degree prepares you for either an administrative career or a research career, depending on the program's training focus.

Do I need a PhD in CSD to obtain a faculty position in a CSD department? No. People with PhDs in other fields may teach CSD courses that are specific to their area of expertise, such as phonetics, psycholinguistics, psychoacoustics, speech and hearing science, and other nonclinical courses. However, these people typically aren't qualified to teach disorders courses or graduate-level clinical courses—those are typically taught by professionals with a CSD background.

Do CSD faculty members need to have a clinical degree and ASHA certification?

Most CSD faculty members have a clinical degree and an ASHA Certificate of Clinical Competence (CCC). However, you do not need clinical certification to be a faculty-researcher in a CSD program. Here are some advantages to obtaining a clinical degree and certification:

  • Makes you eligible for academic positions that include clinical supervision and teaching
  • Enables you to direct a clinical program.
  • Gives you greater insight if you plan to pursue clinical practice research
  • Enables you to supervise graduate students so that they can receive clinical hours while working and completing research in your lab

Some academic positions, particularly at research extensive institutions, do not require clinical certification.

This table [PDF] presents the different pathways for integrating clinical training into research training—and the pros/cons of each.

Choosing a PhD Program

When choosing a PhD degree program, your primary goal is to find a faculty mentor who conducts research in your area of interest.

Task 1: Identify your research topic.

Start by identifying a topic that fascinates and inspires you. You may spend years or your entire career exploring the topic, so it's important to choose something that will continue to challenge and interest you:

  • Select topics that are timely and relevant—such as those topics that you anticipate will receive increased funding and interest in the coming years. Avoid topics with too many current researchers competing for limited funds.
  • Many topics offer the possibility of interdisciplinary work, which could expand your choices for jobs and funding opportunities.
  • Keep in mind that the topic doesn’t have to be specific; it can change as long as it makes sense for your academic goals.

Task 2: Identify potential mentors.

You can take several steps to identify potential mentors:

  • Conduct a literature search to identify researchers who frequently publish on the topic. Look for a person with an established line of research and a solid history of publications.
  • Attend presentations on your topic at the ASHA Convention and at smaller conferences. Poster sessions offer you the opportunity to talk directly with researchers. Ask questions about the research and show your enthusiasm about the topic. Explore whether the researcher has space to take on a new student. If one of their mentored students is presenting, get the student's perspective on opportunities for working with the faculty member.
  • Explore faculty webpages to review their research areas, grant funding, recent publications, research labs they run, courses they teach, and their curriculum vitae (CV) to evaluate whether they're actively pursuing research and teaching in your area of interest.
  • Talk to your professors and supervisors. Faculty members working on similar research topics often know about their colleagues' current work. You can also ask them about the faculty member's personality and mentoring style.

Task 3: Contact potential mentors.

After identifying potential mentors, you should contact each person before applying to the doctoral programs at their institution. You don't want to find the perfect mentor and then find out, after applying to their program, that they are not accepting new students. When reaching out, keep in mind that you're not just looking for someone who will guide your research. A good mentor needs to be someone who works well with you and who will guide your doctoral program in many ways, including building skills in teaching, grant writing, and manuscript writing.

Make initial contact by telephone or email. You can also network with faculty in person at the annual ASHA Convention. Before you contact a faculty member, remember to visit the faculty member's web page and read some of their research publications. Introduce yourself by saying that you're in the initial stages of gathering information about doctoral programs, and you're particularly interested in the faculty member's line of research. It may be helpful to ask for an informational interview either by phone or video conference to get a better understanding of the faculty member’s communication style, responsiveness, and future directions in research.

Task 4: Explore the doctoral program offerings.

First, identify the requirements of the doctoral program, including the following aspects:

  • Coursework
  • Research
  • Teaching
  • Testing (e.g., comprehensive exams after completing coursework)
  • The dissertation process

Second, identify available opportunities, which may include the following:

  • Courses offered within the department as well as courses in related fields.
  • Research resources, such as labs and access to possible participants.
  • Opportunities for developing your own research interests.
  • Teaching, which may be required as part of an assistantship (if this isn't the case, you might want to pursue whether teaching opportunities are available).
  • Strong doctoral preparation in multiple areas—this gives you more flexibility if you change your focus or hope to collaborate.
  • Collaborative and interdisciplinary programs across different departments, such as cognitive science, neuroscience, and applied linguistics.

Third, reach out to current doctoral students in the program to learn more about the following:

  • Program requirements and expectations
  • Department culture
  • Levels of faculty support
  • Funding experiences
  • Overall program satisfaction

Task 5: Determine funding sources.

Most doctoral students finance their doctoral education through funding from the university that they attend, often resulting in far less debt than students in clinical graduate programs. Students may receive funding through different sources, including those listed below:

  • Fellowships from the university (with or without work requirements).
  • Research or teaching assistantships that require work.
  • Training grants funded by external sources (e.g., National Institutes of Health, U. S. Department of Education).
  • Funding from private foundations (e.g., American Speech-Language-Hearing Foundation).

Universities typically provide tuition as a benefit from fellowships or assistantships, such as tuition remission or in-state tuition for courses.

Universities may guarantee funding for the entire doctoral program or determine funding yearly.

Applying to a PhD Program

Basic Requirements for Applications

Application requirements typically include the following:

  • A bachelor's degree in CSD or a related field, although some programs may prefer a graduate clinical degree.
  • A minimum grade point average (GPA) of 3.00, although the average GPA for admission is likely much higher.
  • An official copy of Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores.
  • A writing sample or essay.
  • Letters of recommendation.

Other possible requirements include a CV or résumé and/or a personal interview.

Competitive Applicants

Applicants for PhD programs tend to be top-performing students and, as such, have competitive GPA and GRE scores. Aside from top scores, however, you can find other ways to be a competitive applicant, especially with regard to the writing sample or essay.

  • If the institution provides explicit guidelines for the writing sample on the application, follow these guidelines carefully.
  • When less guidance is provided, consider focusing on the following questions:
    • Why are you interested in entering a PhD program? That is, are you interested in an academic-research career?
    • What are your areas of interest?
    • What background do you have in research? 
    • What academic and personal skills will help you succeed in a research doctoral program?
  • Show that you've researched your area of interest and have a general command of the topic.
  • Describe what makes you a strong candidate, and state your long-term career goals.
  • Proofread grammar and spelling carefully. Your writing mechanics will be evaluated because of the importance of writing skills in your career. If English is your second language, take advantage of resources for ensuring that your writing follows proper English grammar and accepted spelling rules.

Having prior research experience is an advantage, but it is typically not required when applying to a PhD program. It's a plus if you completed a thesis in your clinical master's or AuD program because it will be good preparation for the dissertation, and it shows your potential mentor that you can successfully complete a long-term research project. Having authored or co-authored a peer-reviewed journal article is a definite advantage for preparing you to write scholarly articles.

Don't let your lack of experience in research discourage you from pursuing the PhD. Most research doctoral programs have well-delineated research experiences that prepare the doctoral student for the dissertation phase of their program.

Acceptance Into a PhD Program

The CSD Education Survey reports yearly data on the number of applications and number of applicants offered admission to PhD programs. Realize that if you don't get accepted into a program, it may have less to do with your qualifications and more to do with other factors. For example:

  • You may be an excellent candidate, but the university or the department doesn't have sufficient funds to support you.
  • The advisor you wish to work with doesn't have the availability to mentor another student.
  • The advisor's research focus may differ from your proposed area of interest, or another applicant may have more experience in that area.

Completing a PhD Program

Program Structure

Most students finish the PhD program in 4–6 years, depending on an individual's rate of progress through the program (based on factors such as previous coursework, family considerations, or combined degree programs). In general, the academic plan for the PhD allows for more choice and creativity in coursework selection than clinical graduate programs. The four main components to the PhD program include the following:

  • Coursework
  • Research training experiences
  • Comprehensive exams
  • The dissertation

Your advisor will guide you in forming a committee that will evaluate your comprehensive exam(s) and oversee the dissertation process.

Coursework

Coursework requirements for the PhD can range from 50 to 90 credits (typically taking 2-3 years) but vary depending on specific credit requirements (e.g., academic vs. research credits, transfer credits).

Research Training Experiences

Research training experiences typically involve working in the mentor's research lab along with other graduate students. Work progresses from the mentor's established research projects to independent research projects expanding on the mentor's research.

Comprehensive Examination

Students take the comprehensive examination once they complete the required coursework and research experiences. The examination is designed to establish the student's proficiency and expertise in their selected area of study. The specific nature of the examination process, however, varies across institutions:

  • Comprehensive exams may be written, oral, or both.
  • Students usually work with their dissertation committee to develop topics and content.

After successfully completing the comprehensive exam, the student advances to doctoral candidacy.

Dissertation

The dissertation is an independent, original research study focused on a critical question within the discipline. Students typically take at least 1 year to complete it under the mentor's guidance. Satisfactory completion includes an oral defense to a committee of typically five faculty members.

Contact us at AcademicAffairs@asha.org with further questions about pursuing the PhD degree.

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