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A Guide to PhD Success: How to Thrive During Doctoral Studies

Your chances to succeed in any PhD or doctoral degree program increase when you are prepared from the inquiry stage to life after. These tips will help you survive—and even thrive—in graduate school.

Written by

Shannon Lee

Last updated

Jun 06, 2022

When it comes to reaching the pinnacle of academic achievement, a Doctor of Philosophy, or PhD, is at the top. Getting your PhD provides a sense of accomplishment and prestige and gives you a boost both professionally and monetarily. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employees with a doctoral degree have the lowest unemployment rate. They are among the highest median weekly earners (second only to those with a professional degree such as a law or medical degree). From an economic perspective, it’s easy to see why people decide to get a doctorate. 

Many PhD students start eagerly, yet never get their degree because they lose their motivation. This guide will help prepare you for your PhD program and provide tips on what to do to stay on track for success. 

Planning for Your PhD or Doctorate

The PhD degree is a terminal degree, which means it’s the highest level you can achieve in this field. After earning a PhD, you’re an expert in your area of study. 

Much of the PhD curriculum isn’t about teaching you information; you’ve already learned that in your undergraduate and master’s level studies. Instead, the primary purpose of the PhD curriculum is to teach you how to think, including improving your critical and analytical thinking skills. When you enroll in a PhD program, you’ll learn to develop a research topic, implement a research plan, and analyze research data. You’ll also get opportunities to improve your writing and communication skills. Keep reading to find out what steps you can take to ensure a doctorate is the right academic and professional path for you.


What Are Your Goals? 

Answering this question is the first thing to do before starting any PhD program; remember, getting a doctorate will take several years and a lot of hard work. In most cases, a PhD is a highly specialized degree designed to prepare graduates for future careers in research or academia. So, if the idea of teaching college students or conducting research doesn’t excite you, a PhD might not be the best degree for you. 

Another consideration is your career path. Generally speaking, if a career path requires a PhD, it will involve at least some research or teaching. But there are some jobs where the PhD is more of an eligibility requirement to work in the field.

Finally, be sure you can make it through the program. Most PhD programs last three or more years and involve a large amount of self-directed study and writing. If you prefer taking classes to studying and researching on your own, hate writing, or aren’t a self-starter, you’ll need to adjust your expectations before your first day of class.


Do Your Research

Once you’ve determined that a PhD is right for you, start your research. If applicable, make sure each program you consider has programmatic accreditation and, at the very least, the school you wish to attend has institutional or regional accreditation. 

Figure out what sort of research opportunities you’ll have. As a PhD student, you’ll be working on your research and helping a professor (who’s also likely to be your mentor or advisor) with their research. You need to ensure you’ll have access to the equipment, facilities, and support services necessary to complete your research projects. 

Look into funding opportunities. One of the biggest challenges for researchers and professors is getting funding for their work. As a graduate student, you’ll also deal with these challenges. 

Consider the program’s reputation and its faculty. Are any faculty members renowned experts in your chosen field? Is the school or program well-respected and widely recognized? Who you know and where you went to school opens doors to make it easier for you to achieve your goals.


Costs of Your Degree

When making plans for your doctorate, you’ll need to figure out what you can afford. Investigate the costs of attendance, starting with tuition and fees. Next, look into financial aid and academic funding. What scholarships, paid internships, fellowships, and student loans are available to help pay for school?

Most likely, teaching and research assistantships will be available. These involve receiving a stipend or other form of compensation to help a professor with their teaching load or research projects. In addition to helping pay for school, these opportunities help you hone your research and teaching skills. 

Finally, don’t forget the cost of your degree in terms of time. The good news is that the speed at which you complete your dissertation largely depends on you. But it will still take time. You’ll need to choose a research topic, design and conduct your research, compile and analyze your data, and then write, rewrite, and defend your dissertation. Plus, some classes may only be offered during a particular semester or in a specific order. In short, getting a PhD isn’t a quick process.


Application Deadlines

When getting ready for your PhD program, there are three major deadlines to keep in mind. 

First, there’s the application deadline. Some schools have different deadlines depending on which semester you wish to start. Other schools have a rolling admissions process, so there’s no absolute deadline to complete the application. Find out which applies to your situation. 

Second, some deadlines will precede your application. For instance, if you need to take an entrance exam, you’ll have to register and complete it well in advance of your application deadline. Some of these tests are only administered a few times a year. 

Third, keep an eye on financial aid deadlines. This includes completing financial aid forms like the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (most commonly referred to as the FAFSA) and scholarship application due dates.


Application Process

The application process varies depending on your program and school. Most PhD programs require the following:

  • Online application
  • Application fee
  • Personal statement 
  • Academic statement or answers to a series of questions explaining why you want to earn a PhD in your chosen area of study and explaining your background in that area
  • Resume or curriculum vitae (CV)
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Examples of prior work, such as a portfolio of papers or projects
  • Official transcripts
  • Admissions test scores, such as for the Graduate Record Exam (GRE)

One of the most important things you can do is to get organized, so you don’t miss any deadlines. Start writing your essay and preparing for the GRE as soon as possible. Also, ask people you trust for recommendation letters well in advance. By giving them plenty of time, you’ll get better, more compelling letters that can really help your application stand out.

PhD Versus Doctorate Preparation

The terms PhD and doctorate are sometimes used interchangeably. There are many different doctoral programs; a PhD is one of the most common. Some professions require a doctoral degree for licensing or for specific credentials, but that degree isn’t necessarily a PhD. Let’s look at some differences between a PhD and other doctorates.

What is a PhD?

A PhD is a doctorate in philosophy. The program’s primary focus is to develop a student’s ability to analyze data, evaluate theories, and conduct original research. Some classes offer new ideas and information in the academic area and a comprehensive examination; others teach the skills necessary to design and conduct novel research, draw conclusions, and effectively communicate the results to others. 

To that end, most PhD programs culminate with a dissertation. A dissertation is a paper that explains a doctoral student’s research and findings. Most students take several years to complete these steps to finish their dissertations:

Step 1

Find an area to investigate that hasn’t been examined before.

Step 2

Find an advisor and/or committee to guide your dissertation and research.

Step 3

Discuss the proposed topic and get it approved by the committee and advisor.

Step 4

Develop a research proposal and submit it for approval. During this step, you’ll decide how to conduct your research and what the research process will require. Your committee and advisor will review it and make sure it’s ready for you to move forward.

Step 5

Conduct your research. You’ll gather data, analyze it, and draw conclusions from your findings.

Step 6

Review your results and, if all goes well, finish writing your dissertation. Be prepared though. If you run into problems or results requiring additional research or another data review, you may have to do more research before you can finish writing.

Step 7

Defend your dissertation. This is the last major step in completing a dissertation. It consists of orally presenting your research to a committee and then defending it. The defense allows you to demonstrate your knowledge in the independent development of the research and conclusion. 

Step 8

A dissertation defense usually results in one of three conclusions from the committee—approval with no changes, approval after minor changes, or major modifications needed before the dissertation is approved. If no changes are needed, submitting your dissertation is basically an administrative task of preparing it to go into a database for publication. If minor changes are needed, complete them before submitting your final dissertation; another committee meeting usually won’t be needed. If major changes are required, the committee will meet again to review your dissertation before deciding whether to approve it and whether you can move ahead with submitting it.

What is a Doctorate?

A professional doctoral program (like a PsyD or EdD) is similar to a PhD program in that it’s usually a terminal degree in that field. But it’s different from a PhD because the curriculum focuses not on original research but on applied research and the development of practical skills that graduates will use in their industry or area of work. After graduating, those with a professional doctoral degree usually are eligible for additional certifications and licenses or can take on greater responsibilities and new roles in their profession.

PhD and professional doctorates both teach research skills. But research theory and more abstract scientific principles get a bigger emphasis in a PhD program. You may have more traditional classes in professional doctorate programs than in PhD programs because of the decreased focus on research.

Qualities of a Successful Doctoral Student

Whether you’re shooting for a PhD or a professional doctorate, expect the process to take at least three to five years. Mentally prepare yourself to handle the repetitive work, constructive criticism, and seemingly endless research and writing. The process can also take a psychological toll. To get through all this, it helps to have certain qualities. 


Doctoral students need to be willing to not only take the first step in the learning process but also be willing to work hard to achieve their goals.


You may have to deal with a fair amount of change, especially when starting your dissertation. For example, you might go through several potential topics before starting your research.


Rejection is far more common at the doctoral level because everyone involved is very smart, and there’s a lot of competition for funding, fellowships, and publications. When the inevitable setbacks hit, you must be ready to try again.


Earning a PhD or other doctorate can take years. Much of the timetable depends on you, but part of it relies on factors that can’t be sped up, such as finding funding for a research project or waiting on an advisor or committee members.


Much of the learning is self-directed. So, if you aren’t pushing yourself toward an academic goal, no one else is going to remind you to speed things up.


Earning a doctorate involves many moving parts, especially regarding your dissertation or final research project. Part of your job is to keep track of all the requirements and ensure they are done at the right time.

Critical thinking

Getting a PhD is about learning how to think and not simply following what other people do. Not only will critical thinking help you identify issues for research, but it will also come into play when analyzing your data.

A clear sense of purpose

Getting a PhD or professional doctorate takes considerable time and effort. Students shouldn’t try to get this degree unless they have a clear reason to need it.


There’s a lot of rejection in graduate school, so maintaining confidence isn’t always easy. But if you don’t believe in yourself, it’ll be hard to convince others.

Research, writing, and public speaking skills

Excellent communication skills are imperative. It doesn’t matter how great an idea is if you can’t effectively convey it to others.

Passion for learning

Many students who seek a PhD do it because they want a career in education or research. Either career path leads to a lifetime of constant learning. This thirst for knowledge also helps as you work to earn a PhD, providing extra incentive to dive into the research and try new things.


A vital part of your dissertation is coming up with an original topic to study. Originality also comes into play during research because you’ll most likely encounter unforeseen hurdles that you must overcome to ultimately be able to draw conclusions from the research.

Tips for Doctoral Success

Now that you’ve decided to get a doctorate and know what qualities will help you succeed, let’s look at some tips to maximize your success. Completing a doctoral program can take as much perseverance as intelligence (if not more); many of our tips focus on helping you maintain the right mindset and stay focused despite the hurdles.

During Your First Year

Attend the orientation

It’s important not to skip orientation, even if it’s optional. You’ll learn a great deal about your program and will meet classmates and individuals who may be instrumental in helping you get your doctorate. 

Pick the right mentor

When choosing a mentor or advisor, pick someone related to your study interests. For example, choosing a professor whose research inspired your topic is a good idea. But there are other factors to consider, such as how well you get along with the professor and how available they are.

Pick a research topic that interests you

It doesn’t take a doctorate to know that working on something you enjoy is a lot easier than working on something you hate or are bored with. The more interested you are in your dissertation topic, the easier (and faster) it’ll be to complete your work.

Schedule your week

Plan your schedule, including time to step away from school and work, even for a little bit. Organize your week to ensure your break time doesn’t diminish your time for studying, research, class, and other academic obligations. If you feel you’re meeting your other obligations, you’ll be more likely to allow yourself a brain break.

Size up your weaknesses

No one is an expert at everything. Figure out what you need extra help on and take steps to remedy these deficiencies. Tutoring, extra informal studying on your own, or enrolling in a class are all good options.

Start writing from day one

You’ll discover two benefits to this approach. First, it helps develop your scholarly writing skills. Second, it can help you get a head start on your studies, whether you want to make the best grades in class or are beginning work on your dissertation.

Rest of the Journey

Reach out for help

It’s unrealistic to expect to know everything while you earn your degree. If you did, you wouldn’t need a doctorate. Your professors, advisors, and mentors expect you to ask for assistance—and they may even think it’s odd if you never do. 

Stay flexible

This flexibility will help you as you estimate a timeframe for completing your dissertation. Learn to expect changes, tweaks, and modifications during the process, and remind yourself that these unexpected detours will help you learn and will likely result in better research.

Be part of the community

Interacting with your peers can improve your mental health and professional prospects. Remember, these interactions are networking opportunities for people you may work with closely in the future.

Conduct your research

You won’t find your answers on a website. Remember, you’re trying to ask and answer a question that’s new, so doing lots of research is inevitable.

Go to conferences

One of the biggest struggles for researchers is getting funding. And one of the best ways to raise money is by getting recognized for your work. Take every opportunity to present your findings at conferences or other events and find a journal that will publish your work. 

Learn to write grants

You’ll need money for your research, and lots of it. Your ability to obtain grants and funding will be almost as important as how well you do in class and how interesting and original your research is. If you can’t pay for the research, the world will never see the results.

Be kind and compassionate to yourself and others

Cut yourself (and others) some slack. If you’re struggling in your doctoral program, chances are good your classmates are too.

The Dissertation or Doctoral Study

Meet with your advisor

Even if you think you’re doing everything perfectly, have a second brain and set of eyes to review your plans and findings. Having a regular meeting with your advisor helps establish a routine during the doctoral process.

Seek a fellowship

Fellowships are significant for several reasons—compensation, tuition assistance, prestige, real-world learning, and networking opportunities. If you get a fellowship, make sure it doesn’t interfere with your academics or work on your dissertation.

Prepare for your final project and exam

Practice makes perfect. Reviewing your presentation helps ensure you’re explaining it clearly and helps you better retain the information. The more familiar you are with a subject, the more confident and comfortable you’ll be discussing it.

Join a dissertation support group

The dissertation process can be a grind, and it helps to have a support network in place. Your support group can give advice when you run into technical challenges, provide a sounding board for you to talk through problems, and give emotional support when things get tough.

Get editing and writing support

You should have access to writing support services from your program, whether from your advisor, committee member, or a formal department. However, getting additional feedback and a second editorial opinion about your writing never hurts.


Indiana University Bloomington’s Writing Tutorial Services offers writing guides to help students with their studies.

This is a blog with resources and discussions about the doctoral writing process.

This blog covers all things related to academic writing.

Check out this free online database of scholarly articles and journals.

A lot of effort in the PhD process involves finding money for research. This web page focuses on how to improve your chances of getting much-needed funding.

This nonprofit organization works to increase the number of racially and ethnically diverse business professors with doctorates.

Review this list of online resources for all aspects of the dissertation-writing process.

This site describes itself as the world’s most extensive online library catalog.

This site is filled with advice to make the dissertation or thesis writing process go as smoothly as possible.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s writing center offers practical advice on how to avoid being one of the 50% of doctoral students who never finish their degree.

Planning for After Your Hooding

Think about your career

Even though you had plans for your doctoral degree, make sure those plans are still viable. Perhaps the job market, economy, or even your academic interests have changed.

If you are pursuing academics, prepare

This includes making sure your vital documents are in order, including applications, your CV, application letters, a statement of research, an outline of interests and future research plans, a statement of teaching interests, and teaching evaluations.

Does your program offer career placement?

Getting post-graduate employment will largely depend on your efforts. See what career services your program offers and whether they have contacts and resources you could take advantage of.

Ask your mentor to help

It’s common for doctoral students and their mentors to become friends during their educational careers. After graduation, consider staying in touch with your mentor or advisor. They may not only be a good friend but may also provide you with inside information about potential jobs, research, or funding opportunities.

Stay in contact with the network you’ve made

You might be able to help them out in the future, or they might have a perfect opportunity for you.

What if Your PhD Program is Online?

Online learning has really taken off. This has led to a proliferation of many online degree programs, including PhD and professional doctoral programs. They allow students to complete many of their academic requirements off campus. This added flexibility makes earning a doctorate more convenient. Yet this different learning format means you’ll have to slightly modify your approach to earning your degree.

Build Your Tribe

Learning is usually more effective (and enjoyable) with others. But online learning means you lose out on the in-class opportunities to mingle with classmates. Don’t be afraid to reach out to classmates about what’s going on. Talking to your peers gives you access to different perspectives.

Dedicate a Space

Sometimes it’s hard to get into the right mindset for learning. One way to mitigate this problem is to create a routine. Because online learning can take place anywhere and at any time, it helps to carve out a particular time and area dedicated to school-related obligations.

Get To Know the Professor

Spending a little time getting to know your professor is a worthwhile investment. For one thing, they’ll be more likely to help if you need a favor. Plus that professional connection could pay dividends later when you need a letter of recommendation or contact at a school or company where you hope to work. 

Technical Knowledge

Because online learning relies heavily on technology, you’ll be responsible for making sure your technology works properly so you can meet your academic requirements. Dive into your program’s learning management system and understand how it works. Take a few extra minutes to test out the communication platform, such as videoconferencing or direct messaging, so you’re comfortable with it before classes start. 

Writing Skills on Display

Because of the asynchronous learning possible with remote education, you’ll rely more on your writing ability to convey your ideas to your classmates and professors. While it’s obvious you need to be a proficient writer when preparing formal papers and journals, don’t forget that you want to maintain this level of writing professionalism and skill among your professors and classmates in emails and chats and on message boards. 

Time Management

Even if you’re attending a traditional PhD program, many of the academic requirements are self-paced. Tack on online classes, and now students have even greater control of how quickly they earn their degree. Create a schedule and take careful note of class and dissertation deadlines so you can set a schedule and stick to it.