Getting a PhD usually requires the following steps: doing coursework, attending colloquia, passing a comprehensive exam, and writing and defending your dissertation.

PhD work varies across academic disciplines and different universities, there are some fairly universal stages that you can expect in any PhD program. Here’s what they entail:


1. Coursework

This is the primary stage of the PhD process involving courses and lectures in your field of study. You’ll gain deep subject-matter expertise and begin the process of developing ideas for potential research topics.

Learn more about coursework in a doctoral program.


2. Residency

Residencies provide structure, training, and detailed feedback that guide you through the development of your research plans and the essential elements of your dissertation. Instead of attending lectures, you work on activities to prepare for comprehensive exams and the dissertation.

During the residencies, you’ll have the opportunity to meet one-on-one with your instructors, as well as meet with consultants from the school’s research and writing groups and the Institutional Review Board (IRB). This phase can provide many of the needed levels of approval for research topic and methodology, and it helps you develop the skills needed to conduct independent research.

Learn more about doctoral residency.


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


3. Comprehensive Examinations

These may be oral or written or both. The goal is for faculty to assess your readiness for the dissertation process and to deem you well-grounded and ready to contribute something meaningful to your field of study.

Learn more about the comprehensive exam.


4. Dissertation

Every dissertation has a large research component. Once your proposal has been approved by your mentor, committee, and the IRB (much of which can happen during the residency phase), independent research and writing begins.

This process of intensive research and authoring a multi-chapter book essentially transforms the student into a scholar.

Learn more about the dissertation.


5. Approval

Once the research and writing are complete, the dissertation must be approved by a faculty committee. There is a final defense involved in which you will be questioned in detail about your research, analysis, and conclusions. Depending on your field of study, you may also need to meet specific professional standards. (For example, a PhD in Counselor Education and Supervision needs to meet guidelines from the American Counseling Association.)

Once all approvals have been received, you will have earned your PhD.



How long it takes to get a PhD depends on a number of variables, including whether or not you’re studying full-time or part-time; the program you’re in; other life commitments you have (family, full-time job, etc.); and the amount of time it will take you to do your research and writing. Generally, you can expect it to take about 4-6 years.


Capella University offers PhD and professional doctorate degree programs ranging from business to education and health to technology. Learn more about Capella’s online doctoral programs.