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Peter's Notes for...

Getting What You Came For

Robert L. Peters, Ph.D.

The smart student's guide to earning a master's or Ph.D. degree.



Graduate school is a ritual humilation in which novice academics are initiated into their respective disciplines

A study by Ramiro Valdez at a northeastern school of social welfare found that, on a standardized scale where 100 equaled the amount of stress experienced by someone whose spouse had just died, doctoral students in their first year scored an average of 313 points.

Even if you write a brilliant thesis, you will also have to play a smart political game to maximize future job or academic options.

Where to Study and How to Get There

Choosing a Thesis Advisor


Advisers regularly say that their favorite type of student is one who comes in knowing just what thesis topic he wants to work on.

The Doctorate

There are three things that are not formally required by your department but are so important you should make them requirements for yourself. [..] Tattoo this list somewhere you won’t forget to look. (1) Publish academic papers. (2) Go to conferences. (3) Get on committees.

[The] thesis will establish your reputation as a competent researcher and also build the base for your postdoctoral research.


Most graduate students and indeed most professors are lousy public speakers and their presentations are boring. Make yours stand out.

Set a goal of getting on at least one committee per year.

Writing Papers

If you are a doctoral student, set yourself the goal of publishing at least two or three papers in professional journals before you graduate, and at least one if you are a master’s student.

Early publication is also a good way to minimize problems with your thesis committee. It becomes very difficult for the thesis committee to find significant fault with your research if it has alredy been judged mature and useful.

Start the publication process early; it usually takes a year or two from submission to publication.

Qualifying Examinations

Ph.D. qualifying examinations are large and terrifying. Their purpose is to certify that students who pass are qualified to be Ph.D. candidates.

Many students study for six to twelve months. The best defense against nervousness is to really know the material.

The Thesis

A thesis, in the US system, is a document that sets out to explore an academic subject and which contains unique research or insight into an area relating to that discipline. The thesis is a mandatory part of receiving a doctorate but may be optional (and called a dissertation) in a master’s.

Note: How to Write a PhD Thesis is a great online guide specifically about writing a Ph.D. thesis.

The Thesis Committee

The thesis committee’s formal obligations are to approve your thesis proposal and to judge the quality of your thesis and its defense.

Ideally, you want secondary committee members who recognize that their role is to be counselors and not judges.

Thesis Topics

A thesis, particularly on the Ph.D. level, is expected to be an original contribution to knowledge.

It can help if you think of the thesis as the answer to a research question rather than as just a written report on research.

You begin with a major question, develop subordinate questions that help you answer it, and plan and refine along the way research to answer these questions.

It is easy to find a topic if you search actively.

Interest develops from immersion and activity.

The Thesis Proposal

Most departments require that Ph.D. students write a thesis proposal that describes in detail on what, why, how, and on what time schedule they plan to do their thesis research.

To use a house-building analogy, the proposal is a blueprint for your research.

Even if your committee will let you get away with a vague proposal, don’t do it.

How To Write A Thesis

First, when you pick a title for your thesis, work in as many descriptive, precise key words as possible without making it absurdly long.

Writing up your thesis is a monstrous task, so you should expect to take somewhere between six months and a year, provided you don’t seriously procrastinate.

One productive scholar says that a reasonable writing rate is three pages per day, including time for research.

One excellent way to trick yourself into starting your thesis is to make course papers do double duty as thesis research. Whenever possible, choose paper topics that cover material you need to know for your thesis.

The Thesis Defense

[T]he average defense in now more civilized, and many departments consider them to be largely ceremonial presentations of work which has already been judged sufficient to warrant the degree.

Most likely you will begin your defense by presenting a brief overview of your thesis work, which can last anywhere from a few minutes to an hour. When your presentation is completed, the committee cross-examines you for another hour or two, asking about either specific aspects of your research or more general questions about the broader implications of your research, or even asking detailed questions about your field which are not covered by your thesis.

Foreign Students

Career and Jobs

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