Preparation for the Research Doctoral Degree

By Helen K. Ezell (adapted for the Web from Guide to Success in Doctoral Study and Faculty Work (2002).

The Rigors of PhD Study

Universities within the United States are very similar in how they structure their doctoral programs in communication sciences and disorders (CSD). In fact, PhD programs in other disciplines follow basically the same format. The tradition of combining coursework, examinations, and original research is viewed as accepted practice for preparing scientists and scholars.

Doctoral study is viewed as a time to learn scientific principles and methods for conducting research. Such preparation puts you, the graduate, in a unique position to advance the knowledge of the discipline through basic and/or clinical research and to prepare the next generation of professionals.


Plan of study. When you first enter your doctoral program, you will be asked to develop a plan of study while beginning coursework during the first year.

  • The plan is developed in writing and usually requires the approval of a guidance committee that may be composed of your advisor and two or more faculty.
  • The plan may be based, in part, on results of a preliminary examination that assesses your strengths and needs.
  • The plan includes a year-by-year schedule of proposed classes and areas of study with a timeline for completion.

Comprehensive examination. On completion of your coursework, an evaluation takes place in the form of a comprehensive examination that determines the extent of your current knowledge and/or readiness for conducting a dissertation research project.

  • The comprehensive examination is often completed on a strict timeline and may include both written and oral phases, depending on the requirements of the program.
  • Passing the comprehensive examination is required before you may begin a dissertation research project.

Dissertation. The dissertation project is a research study that is designed, conducted, and written by you, the PhD student. Guidance is provided by your advisor and a dissertation committee. This committee is usually composed of several faculty from your program plus an outside representative from another department.

The process includes the following steps:

  • Conduct a thorough review of the relevant literature, pose appropriate research questions to be addressed, and develop a detailed plan for conducting the study.
  • Prepare a dissertation proposal and distribute this to your dissertation committee members for their review.
  • Convene the committee to present the research plan orally and to address any questions the committee has.
  • Revise the plan to incorporate any suggestions made by the committee during the oral presentation.
  • Get written approval of the plan and proceed with the study.
  • Upon completing the plan, prepare the final report for the committee to read and review.
  • Participate in an oral defense of the dissertation project. The oral defense may be held in an open forum or in a closed meeting with only your committee in attendance, depending on the custom of the university.
  • Final approval of the dissertation may be contingent on specified revisions in the written dissertation following the oral defense.
  • A majority vote of the dissertation committee is usually required for final approval of the project.

Timelines. The entire process from starting the PhD program to finishing the dissertation revisions after the oral defense usually takes students 3 to 5 years of full-time study.

  • The primary focus of doctoral work is learning the scientific method for conducting research.
  • In the best circumstances, you will become involved in research early in your program so that when the time comes to conduct the dissertation, you will be skilled and relatively practiced at conducting research.

Selecting a Doctoral Program

Programs do some "gate keeping" in the form of test scores, acceptable letters of recommendation, and submission of personal statements, but programs are seeking students. When selecting a doctoral program, consider the factors discussed below.

Standing of the program and/or university

The relative standing of a program or university with regard to research productivity can be an important factor in determining its potential for providing you with quality education and experience. Studying at a university that gives research a high priority is desirable when obtaining a doctorate because you will likely be surrounded by many faculty who are involved in research.

  • ASHA's list of Doctoral Programs in Communication Sciences and Disorders provides an overview of the universities that are currently accepting students into PhD education programs.
  • The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching provides a listing of universities for baccalaureate, master's and doctoral training according to published criteria. A Research University I is an institution that receives at least $40 million or more in federal support and awards at least 50 doctoral degrees annually. A Research University II receives $15.5 to $40 million in federal support and awards at least 50 doctoral degrees annually.
  • Researcher productivity within departments is another way to determine relative research standing. Checking university Web sites for faculty listings will allow you to determine where different researchers are located. By looking up these names in peer reviewed journals, you will see which individuals are productive researchers. When a program has several productive faculty, that program likely promotes research and may be a fertile environment in which to study.

Suitability of the program to meet your needs

  • Sufficient support to study your research topic. For example, if your research interest is in voice disorders, then you need to be sure that there is someone on the faculty who conducts research on that topic and is available to mentor you. If no one conducts research on that topic, or if the faculty member is unavailable for mentoring, then it would be wise to look elsewhere.
  • Knowledge of program and program requirements. Review the description of the doctoral program in the university's graduate catalog. Also, programs often publish doctoral guidelines that are to be followed once students are admitted. Request a copy of these guidelines when applying so that you become informed of all program requirements ahead of time.
  • Need or desire to be a part-time student during a portion of your training. Some programs require that you study as a full-time student only; others will permit some part-time study. Graduate catalogs usually provide this information under "residency requirement."

Academic climate

The academic climate of a program depends on the attitude of the faculty and its leadership. As an incoming PhD student, you should seek a program that actively promotes scholarly activity for both faculty and students.

  • How many grant awards have students sought and received?
  • How many doctoral student publications and presentations are typical in a year?
  • Are master's students and undergraduates also involved in research?
  • How often do faculty and students meet for regularly scheduled research discussions, and do these discussions include individuals from other disciplines?

Financial support and opportunities for varied work experiences

PhD programs will differ in the amount of financial support provided and in the number and variety of work opportunities that are offered through stipends. If financial assistance is provided for incoming students, it is typically offered to full-time students only, and it may be offered in three forms:

  • Stipend. This usually includes a payment plus a tuition waiver. Stipends are typically earned, which means that you will be required to work in some capacity for a certain number of hours each week. Sometimes a tuition waiver may be offered without a stipend. In that case, your tuition will be covered but you will not receive any payment.
  • Research assistantship. This is referred to as "soft money support." Soft money positions are not long-term; their funding ends when the research grant closes unless the grant is renewed or a new grant is awarded. Typically these positions also include a tuition waiver or reduced tuition benefit.
  • Scholarships or fellowships that are awarded by the university. The office of graduate studies is a good place to ask about such awards when you begin your program.

Other considerations

  • Handbook of Research Education in Communication Sciences and Disorders (Research and Scientific Affairs Committee, ASHA, 1994) suggests questions to ask that relate to resources and facilities, financial considerations, mentorship, research-relevant training experiences offered, your expected peer group at the program, and the program's track record in producing scientists.
  • Pannbacker, Lass, and Middleton (1996) article that presents several potential factors to consider when comparing doctoral programs.
  • ASHA-sponsored workshops or presentations about PhD study. Check the published schedule of educational programs to learn when sessions are offered, see a description of their content, and obtain registration information.

Selecting a Doctoral Mentor

As a PhD student, you will work very closely with your mentor throughout your program to learn about research. Considering the influence that your mentor will have over your learning experiences for the next several years, it is important to be selective when choosing this person.

  • Consider names of individuals who have written research articles or books on your topic of interest.
  • Determine which ones are working at universities you are considering.
  • Select two or three names of possible mentors and make contact with them in person or via telephone or electronic mail. Be prepared to discuss the mentor's research and your interest in doctoral study.
  • If the conversation goes well, plan to visit the mentor's university.

Ultimately, your goal should be to find both an excellent program and an excellent mentor (in the same place!). If you are unable to do so, then in many cases going with the excellent mentor may be the best choice. If you make your decision based on attending a specific program rather than working with a particular mentor, it is likely that a mentor will be assigned to you.

It is recommended that you visit the schools and talk to your prospective mentor and other doctoral students before making a final decision. It is advisable to get information about the following:

  • Mentor's ongoing and future research projects and the number of PhD students under his/her direction.
  • Mentor's research laboratory and available workspace.
  • Opinions and experiences of other PhD students. You should be observant, listen carefully, and be subtle in any inquiries about the mentor or program.

After your visit, it is recommended that you follow up with either a thank-you note or a telephone call to show your appreciation and continued interest. This is not only common courtesy, it is a necessity. After all, you may be establishing one of the most important relationships in your career.

Preparing Your Course of Study

When you enter your PhD program some planning will be required to determine what you will study, how you will demonstrate mastery of the material, and when you expect to complete the various phases of your program.

A plan of study is typically developed in the first or second term of your first year. You will receive guidelines to follow in creating your plan and usually your mentor will provide assistance. The plan is then presented to your academic guidance committee for feedback and ultimate approval. In some programs you may be required to complete preliminary examinations to determine your strengths and needs before finalizing your plan.

Keep the following suggestions in mind when selecting courses to include in your plan:

  • Place a heavy focus on your desired area of expertise. For example, if your research interest is in dysphagia, then you would benefit from several courses on this topic and on related topics such as anatomy, dietary planning, or instrumentation.
  • Consider courses outside your immediate departments in order to study a topic in depth.
  • Use independent studies to provide greater exposure to various aspects of a topic when only survey courses are offered.

One last piece of advice - take your statistics courses early in your doctoral study and avoid taking only the minimum number required. Taking these courses early is important for several reasons.

  • From the very beginning of your program you will be expected to read and understand research articles, and you will have a difficult time interpreting the statistical procedures without prior knowledge of statistics.
  • You will need this information to select the proper procedures when you become involved in doing your own research.
  • Taking these courses early will allow you to practice using this knowledge prior to planning your dissertation. Just like other skills, mastering statistics takes practice. Resolve to practice so that you become comfortable with statistical procedures early in your program rather than waiting to the end.

Establishing a Research Focus

Your research career begins in your PhD program, so it is important to be thoughtful when selecting a topic for research beginning with your first study. The PhD degree is viewed as a time for specialization. Although you will need to acquire knowledge of various research methodologies so that you can address your research area from different perspectives, you will likely be encouraged to keep your research focus more narrow than broad.

  • Select a topic that interests you. You will find the journey of research, grant writing, and publication much more pleasurable when you have a genuine interest in the topic.
  • Select a topic that is important. When the topic of your research has importance, either from a basic or clinical standpoint, it stands a greater chance of being accepted by the research or clinical communities and by the public.
  • Select a topic that has potential for thematic research. When you can study an area through a series of research projects without exhausting the topic, it has greater potential for thematic research. In thematic research you may find the answer to one research question in a study, but this finding leads you to ask subsequent research questions resulting in further studies. In this way you build your scientific findings through systematic testing of hypotheses.

Obtaining Experiences That Are Important for Your Career

Most students consider that their PhD program is intended to prepare them for their future career in teaching and research. When learning how to conduct research, you will be exposed to many activities that will be useful to you in the future. For example, you will learn how to prepare an IRB (Institutional Review Board) application, how to plan statistical procedures, and how to write your results for publication.

There are at least four additional activities that would be significantly beneficial to your future work.

Experience writing research grants

When you begin conducting research you will quickly find that quality research costs money. If a grant-writing course or seminar is offered at the university, it is recommended that you begin with this. However, taking a class and actually writing and submitting a proposal are not the same experience, so avoid the temptation to replace an actual grant experience with a class alone.

  • To fund your research you will be required to prepare grant applications, and the best time to learn about grant writing is in your doctoral program.
  • Many universities have internal funding mechanisms for student research and these are often less competitive than the external funding you will be expected to pursue when you are employed.
  • Learning to write grants in your PhD program allows you to take advantage of the assistance and guidance that your mentor can provide. Your mentor will help you refine your writing skills, help you explain complicated concepts so that reviewers can follow your arguments, and may show you a few tricks of the trade in grant preparation.
  • Students who have an established grant record when they complete their doctoral degree are more competitive in the job market.

One reference on grant writing that provides excellent introductory information and a list of potential funding sources is a chapter by Minghetti titled "Research needs and grant-seeking" (see Lubinski & Fratalli, 1994).

Experience teaching courses in your area of expertise

In some departments, PhD students are expected to teach undergraduate courses to earn their stipend support. Although it is sometimes difficult to feel prepared to teach a class while still a student yourself, it will be a valuable experience for at least three reasons.

  • It will give you an opportunity to evaluate how much you enjoy teaching before you begin a career in academia. If students find they do not enjoy teaching as much as they thought they would, they may choose to devote their career to research and seek positions with research institutes instead of with universities.
  • Doing class preparation for one or more courses will result in significant time savings when you teach these courses in your future job. Although you may change your syllabi, examinations, and lectures later, you will still have a great deal already accomplished.
  • When students teach, they become better learners themselves. Teaching shifts your perspective from learning material for some future application to understanding the material well enough to explain it to others and to show its relevance.

If your department does not require PhD students to teach or if teaching is not an option, there may still be an opportunity for you to gain this experience. Perhaps you could request an assignment as a teaching assistant for a term or approach your mentor or another faculty member to voluntarily assist with teaching a class, seminar, or brief workshop.

Experience writing critiques for journals

In the journal peer review process, a manuscript is sent to two or more researchers who are familiar with the content area of the paper.

  • These researchers serve as reviewers. They are asked to read the manuscript thoroughly and to provide their feedback and comments in the form of a written critique. Based on these critiques, the journal editor makes a decision about the manuscript's prospect for publication.
  • Being involved in the journal reviewing process during your PhD study and under the guidance of your mentor will help you learn the process. Your mentor can help you set the appropriate tone and will assist you in focusing on important points. And, as always, the more you read research, the better you will understand it.

Experience with new technology

It is recommended that you gain as much experience as possible using all the newest technology while in your PhD program because you will be expected to have working knowledge of it when you begin your first job. Staying abreast of technological innovations is vital to your future efficiency and competence.


American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (1994). Selecting a doctoral research education pro­gram in communication sciences and disorders. Rockville, MD: Author.

Minghetti, N. J. (1994). Research needs and grant-seeking. In R. Lubinski & C. Fratalli (Eds.), Professional issues in speech-language pathology and audiology (pp. 321–333). San Diego, CA: Singular.

Pannbacker, M., Lass, N. J., & Middleton, G. F. (1996). Selecting a doctoral program in communication sciences and disorders. National Student Speech, Language, Hearing Association Journal, 23, 59–62.

This information is adapted from Guide to Success in Doctoral Study and Faculty Work (2002), by Helen K. Ezell. The complete guide is available for purchase from ASHA's Online Store.

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