What are the steps in getting a PhD?

August 22, 2023

Reading Time: 2–3 minutes

The work required to complete a PhD varies across academic disciplines and universities, though earning a PhD typically requires the following elements:

  • Completing coursework
  • Completing one or more doctoral residency experiences
  • Passing a comprehensive assessment or exam
  • Developing and completing an independent research project
  • Seeking approval of your completed dissertation manuscript

Here’s a closer look at each step.


With this primary step in the PhD process, you will participate in courses related to your field of study. The goal here is to develop deep subject-matter expertise.

You’ll also become familiar with the key topics, theories, methodologies and concerns related to your discipline. The skills and foundational knowledge you gain in your coursework will serve as the basis for generating potential research topics, such as those you will use in your dissertation.


Often offered virtually, residencies provide structure, training and detailed feedback to guide you as you develop your research plan and gather essential elements for your dissertation. Residences give you a chance to focus on specific study and activities related to preparing your dissertation.

You will connect with faculty and peers during this rigorous academic experience. They can help you focus your research plan by giving feedback and discussing relevant topics.

Your residency is where you can make significant progress on your dissertation, including selecting an acceptable topic and developing a robust proposal for the project.

Learn more about doctoral virtual residency.

Capella offers both PhD and professional doctorate programs. Here’s how they’re different.

Comprehensive assessment

The comprehensive assessment is where you demonstrate what you’ve learned and present your knowledge of the academic competencies required for your discipline. This examination may be oral, written or both.

Upon successfully completing this step in your doctoral journey, you should be prepared to begin work on your dissertation.

Learn more about the comprehensive exam.


A dissertation is a written compilation of your academic research and provides a detailed description of your project (typically a five-chapter document).

Most dissertations address a question or problem that has not been fully addressed within your field. Before you begin your independent research, other faculty experts representing your dissertation committee and the Institutional Review Board will assess the rigor and ethical underpinnings of your project.

Learn more about the dissertation.


Once the research and writing are complete, the dissertation must be approved by a faculty committee and the school dean.

There is a final defense involved in which you will answer questions about your research, analysis and conclusions.

In many fields, there are also specific professional standards expected of learners. For example, a PhD learner in a Counselor Education and Supervision program will be expected to meet the guidelines of the American Counseling Association.

Once all approvals have been received and you’ve successfully defended, you’ll publish your dissertation. You’ll have then completed all your program requirements and be conferred your PhD.


Capella University offers PhD and professional doctoral degree programs in a number of different fields:

Learn more about Capella’s online doctoral programs

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