Questions to answer before applying to a doctoral program

January 2, 2018

Deciding whether or not to enter a doctoral program is one of the more important decisions you can make.

There are numerous aspects of the decision that need to be carefully considered even before you submit an application. Amy Horton, Capella University’s Director of Enrollment and Advising Services, and Heather Laska, Enrollment Services Supervisor, discuss what you need to know in order to decide if a doctoral program is right for you.

Understand your goals

Before anything else happens, both Laska and Horton say there is soul-searching that needs to be done first. “You need to identify your goals and motivations for pursuing a doctoral degree,” says Horton.

“What do you want to do with the degree? What topics, theories, or prior research might interest you? Is it a wise career move? Is this a lifelong goal of yours? How do you want to impact your field of study? Then see who’s out there, what’s out there, and what programs are available.”

There’s a second part to that reflection, too. “You’ve also got to consider what it’s going to cost, how you’re going to pay for it, and if you have (or can make) the time, especially if you’re managing a full-time career or family needs.”

Invest time for research

Once you’ve answered those questions, you probably have a pretty strong sense of what you’re looking for and if it’s both feasible and valuable for you. Then it’s time to narrow your focus and dig deeper.

“You should have a list of three to five schools that have strong programs in your chosen field and how the program will fit your lifestyle as a working adult,” says Horton. “Then you’ve got to do more intense, in-depth research to get that list down to 2-3 schools.”

Determine a method to track your research so you can easily compare and contrast the different schools and programs (most of which can be found online or in conversation with enrollment counselors).

Categories for research include:

  • Schools that offer your chosen program.
  • Career paths and types of jobs graduates pursue.
  • Faculty educational background, research specialties, and experience.
  • Dissertations published by graduates of the school and program.
  • Perspectives of enrollment counselors about the program and faculty.
  • Requirements for the program (including dissertation, field work, and residency).
  • Pricing comparisons, factoring any additional costs for residency, field work, etc.
  • Feedback from recent graduates about their experiences.

This intense research phase is not a process you have to go through alone. “I recommend reaching out to the school’s enrollment counselor,” says Laska. “They’ll work with you step by step to determine if the program matches your goals, and they’ll assist you in getting started with your application.”

Determine your desired outcomes

Along with researching options, take time to understand your end goal. Do you want to earn a doctorate in order to work on original research and make a contribution to your field? Or do you want to teach or research in higher education? Maybe you want to enhance your leadership expertise and address a real-world challenge in your own community.

Understanding your desired outcomes will help you answer other important questions: Do you pursue a PhD or an alternative, professional doctorate, such as the EdD, DBA, DSW, DNP, etc.? Consider where you want to be after you earn your degree and whether the degree aligns to your current or future employer’s needs and expectations.

Your desired outcomes can also determine where you enroll. For some potential doctoral students, it’s less about a specific program choice and more about the faculty. Is it important for you to study with a tenured, published professor, or are you looking to study with an individual who has distinguished, practical expertise?

Apply to programs

“At Capella, it’s a pretty easy application process overall,” says Laska. Enrollment counselors can guide you through filling in relevant information from your education, professional experience, and they’ll help you get transcripts from previous educational institutions to complete the application.

“We have applicants take a personal skills inventory which matches them with resources they can benefit from,” Laska notes. “For example, we offer help in writing or time-management skills, in addition to numerous other support services during the application process and beyond.”

The time it can take from first considering applying to a doctoral program to completing the application will vary depending on the candidate, school, and the specific program. Generally, once the initial research is completed, Horton and Laska say the actual process is about one to three months. “It’s not unusual for someone to be doing research for six months or more before committing to the application,” says Laska.

Horton agrees. “This may be an idea simmering in someone’s mind, and then there’s some kind of trigger event that makes someone say, ‘Yes, I want to do this.’ From that point, it’s about one to three months.”

Capella University offers PhD and professional doctorate degree programs in business, information technology, education, nursing, health care, psychology, counseling, social work, and public administration. Learn more about Capella’s online doctoral programs

Admission requirements for Capella doctoral programs vary by program; refer to your program’s admission requirements page or talk to an enrollment counselor for more details.

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Start learning today

Get started on your journey now by connecting with an enrollment counselor. See how Capella may be a good fit for you, and start the application process.