Doctoral candidates research and complete coursework to obtain degree

Doctoral Candidate centerpiece

Sage Smith

Doctoral students put a lot of work into the process of completing the requirements to receive their doctorate degree, including a dissertation.

“A Ph.D. is much more than the dissertation,” said Carolyn Cutrona, associate dean for the Graduate College. “A minimum of 72 hours of coursework are required by the Graduate College for all Ph.D. programs, but individual departments or majors may require more.”

All doctoral students have to submit a Program of Study and Committee (POSC) form. This form selects the major professor or adviser, appointment of a committee and development of a program of study.

It is suggested the committee be formed as early as the second semester of graduate study, according to the Graduate College’s website, and doctoral candidates have to have the POSC approved by the Graduate College no later than the semester before the preliminary oral exam.

David Wahl just presented his dissertation “Speaking Through the Silence: Narratives, Interactions and the Construction of Sexual Selves” on Wednesday and received his doctorate in sociology.

Wahl’s major adviser has been David Schweingruber, associate professor of sociology.

Schweingruber has a doctorate in sociology that he received from the University of Illinois in 1999. He said he had a lot of fun in graduate school and enjoyed it a lot. He advises sociology doctoral candidates and teaches the introductory sociology course.

“[Major advisers] help you with everything,” Wahl said. “They try to keep you sane, which is probably their biggest job, but they’re there for any support you need. They help you with every aspect of your dissertation. The worst thing a person can do is to keep their adviser in the dark about anything because that’s why your adviser is here — to advise you, to get you through this process.”

Advisers meet with their students to check in on their progress with research and talk about struggles they may be having.

“It’s hard; it’s a huge challenge,” Schweingruber said. “Particularly the last part because you need to design and conduct and write up an independent research project, and it takes a long time, and it’s a lot of hard work, and people need encouragement along the way.”

Wahl advises those seeking a doctorate to talk to everyone and gain experience. The major adviser and committee are there for the doctoral candidates to use when in need of answers.

“The main thing is when you’re in the Ph.D. program, don’t close yourself off,” Wahl said. “Use the support that’s all around you. Don’t ignore your committee until the last minute; let them know what you’re doing. Keep them in the loop. Keep everyone in the loop. I’ve known too many people that they just shut themselves away, and they have a much harder time either emotionally, mentally or with the actual work.”

Praise Farayola is a second-year graduate electrical and computer engineering student, currently working to obtain his doctorate degree. He said he chose Iowa State because it’s one of the top schools for engineering and is well known in his field.

Farayola hasn’t set up his committee yet as he is only a second year student but said he should do it by the end of the semester. He does have a major adviser whom he said has good relationships with companies he wants to work with.

Farayola said he wants to be a professor while continuing research. He plans on getting his doctorate in a total of five years, so he only has the beginning of his dissertation.

“I have some few people, some few research results,” Farayola said. “I have them in writing; they will form part of my dissertation.”

There are many steps people take to earn their doctorate degree. Each major has a list of requirements for courses to take. There are also required research credits and a minimum of two important exams, Cutrona said.

The exams are the preliminary oral exam to test the knowledge the student has learned from the courses and research they have taken part in.

The preliminary oral exam process can be different for every department and university.

For Wahl, the preliminary oral exam was more pressure than the final. He said doctoral candidates at Iowa State used to be presented with a set of questions, and the candidate would spill everything they know for the questions.

“That’s the old way of doing it,” Wahl said. “They changed that because it’s not as beneficial as they thought it would be. So basically what it is in sociology now, you have three questions, you have six weeks to write it. It’s 30 pages, 30 pages max. And it’s basically a dissertation proposal: here’s what I’m going to be doing on my dissertation, here’s how I’m going to be going about it, here’s some of the studies that are involved in this. So it’s a lot of pressure because if you don’t pass your prelim, you can’t go onto your dissertation.”

Then there is the final exam, which must occur no later than three weeks before the end of the term of graduation.

“The final exam, which is typically the presentation, explanation and answering questions about their dissertation research project,” Cutrona said. “The dissertation research project must be an original research project, which adds new knowledge to the student’s field.”

The final oral exam is presented to the doctoral candidate’s committee. This is when the doctoral candidate defends their dissertation.

Something that surprised Wahl when defending his dissertation was not getting grilled in the private defense after everyone except his committee had left the room.

“I was really expecting, because I’ve heard just horror stories of you know, people three hours of just getting crucified,” Wahl said. “I didn’t have that. I was expecting that; when it didn’t happen, I was surprised.”

Instead, Wahl’s private defense lasted 45 minutes, and he said they talked more about what he wants to do, which is study sex and human sexuality, write books and continue teaching.

If one committee member votes not to pass the candidate, then each member has to forward to the Dean of the Graduate College with a justification for their vote. If more than one committee member votes not to pass, the candidate does not pass the final exam.

A doctoral candidate only has two tries to pass their final exam; if they do not receive their doctorate after two defenses, then they do not receive that degree.

Cutrona said while she doesn’t have specific statistics on how many people receive their doctorate degree on the first or second try, most people pass the final exam the first time.

Schweingruber said when considering what to focus their dissertation on, doctoral candidates should commit to something they actually want to learn.

“Well, I think that they should, they need to pursue a project that they are excited about,” Schweingruber said. “They shouldn’t spend time pursuing someone else’s dream or trying to become someone else. They should investigate something that they think is interesting because along the way, you’re going to get sick of the project.”

The Graduate College website has a “Dissertations & Theses” page, which may be helpful to doctoral students as it has some guidance on preparing to write the dissertation and what to keep in mind when thinking about graduation.

“A Ph.D. means that the individual is an expert in their field of study,” Cutrona said. “They are trained to teach, conduct original research and consult on their topic of expertise. They are paid more, in most cases, than people who have a master’s degree or a bachelor’s degree.”

Universities usually require a doctorate to be a professor, but something Cutrona said nationally many people don’t know is only about 20 percent of doctoral graduates go on to be professors.

There are various jobs those who have a doctorate can have. Most go into industry, working for a company, non-profit organization or in government, Cutrona said.

While working on courses and research to receive a doctorate, there can be ups and downs, Farayola said. He is part of the International Friendship Connection organization, which he said allows him to relax with friends after a stressful week.

Sometimes there are meetings with their major adviser where the candidate doesn’t have much of an update because they don’t have the research results or are stuck for another reason, which is when the adviser can provide guidance.

Cutrona said there are two primary methods on how the major adviser is decided for the doctoral student as they work through courses and research.

One of the methods is called “direct admission,” where students describe interests on their graduate school application.

With this method, Cutrona said faculty look at those interests, and if they have similar interest in the same specific topics and the student has a good record of undergraduate grades and sometimes test scores, the faculty member may choose to work with them. This is a method used in majors like psychology.

Another method has the adviser decided by students working as a teaching assistant or rotating through lab experiences until they decide which faculty member would be a good match to work with.

“For here, in fact, everyone that I know, they kind of came here with someone in mind,” Wahl said. “Like for me, when I was finishing my master’s degree, I was accepted by four places, and when I came here, I already knew that if I came to Iowa State, I wanted to work with David Schweingruber. So we had a meeting before I committed to Iowa State just to see if he’s someone I wanted to work with and whether or not I was someone he wanted to work with.”