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You are ready to take a step up with your education and your career — and you are exploring the doctoral degree as a possibility for achieving your most ambitious goals.

What Is a Doctoral Degree?

A doctoral degree represents the rigorous, high-level component of postsecondary education. This graduate degree confers an undeniable level of respect and prestige.

An important distinction: the PhD and doctorate are not one and the same. While the PhD lies within the scope of the doctoral category, it is a specific type of doctorate and does not represent the degree as a whole. Many doctoral programs focus more on applied learning, with the intention of giving graduates a boost on their career path.

How Long Is a Doctoral Degree?

Doctoral degrees can vary dramatically in length. Many take longer to complete than an undergraduate degree. In other cases, students may be able to get their doctorate degree in a few short years. When these programs span less than four years, they tend to be very intense — but the academic, professional, and personal gains doctoral students make during this time can be astounding.

13 Things to Know Before Starting a Doctoral Program

As you determine whether a doctoral degree is right for you — and which one is preferable — keep these considerations in mind:

1. Be Sure You Are Ready to Start a Doctoral Program

Do you have what it takes to complete a doctoral program? It is possible that this academic endeavor will be right for you at some point, but perhaps not at the moment. You need to be mentally prepared to make a huge commitment to your academic and career training.

Depending on your program of choice, you may also need relevant employment for the purposes of degree-related work experience. This is a key component of the Doctor of Nursing Practice, for example. As such, it is important to consider both your academic and professional background when determining whether you are ready.

2. Choose Your Program Wisely

As mentioned previously, there are many types of doctoral degrees. Some focus more on practical applications than others. Choose wisely, as the payoff for this degree will be far greater if you are genuinely passionate about your field of choice and if you fully understand how your degree can impact your career path.

3. Determine Goals Early

What, exactly, do you hope to accomplish with help from your doctoral degree? Set both academic and professional goals to ensure that you make the most of every opportunity. Brainstorm broad goals before you even apply, as this will help you discern which degree programs are best suited to your personal interests and ambitions.

Once you are accepted, adapt your goals to the specific program. Continue to reevaluate and adjust these goals as needed throughout the entirety of your doctoral experience. These should be both specific and inspiring. They can provide much-needed accountability and inspiration when the going gets tough.

4. Understand the Differences Between Your Doctoral and Undergraduate Degrees

Many students assume that their doctoral studies should reflect their undergraduate experience. In reality, these programs look little alike. Doctorate degrees are far more targeted, whereas even the most career-oriented undergraduate degrees typically include some element of general education.

The other key difference? The dissertation project. We will discuss this in detail below, but for now, it is important to understand that this plays a far greater role in your doctoral experience than a capstone might have when you were an undergrad.

5. Your Undergrad Does Not Determine Your Graduate Studies

Do not let your undergraduate background rule out exciting doctoral opportunities. While many people pursue similar degrees as both undergraduate and graduate students, this approach is not absolutely essential. In fact, your doctoral program provides the perfect opportunity to change course if you are ready to explore new career opportunities. You will emerge with new skills and an excellent network of contacts.

6. Get Organized

Success as a doctoral student means keeping track of numerous class projects, clinical pursuits, and even relationships. If you made it through your undergrad without a solid organization system, do not expect that you will pull off this feat again. Make the most of productivity apps and digital reminders, which can keep you on track even when you have a lot to remember.

7. Be Realistic About Your Workload

As we have explained, a doctoral degree is a huge commitment. Yes, you can have a life outside of your studies, but you will need to dedicate a great deal of time and energy to your coursework. The more realistic you are about this from the get-go, the easier you will find it to manage your jam-packed schedule when the going gets tough.

Keep in mind that the workload can vary significantly from one doctoral program to the next. How you allocate your limited time will depend largely on how your classes are facilitated and the extent to which you commit to clinical and other applied learning experiences. The sooner you accept that your life is about to get busy, the easier you will find it to adapt to your new workload.

8. Find a Routine to Manage a Healthy Work-Life Balance

Time management is imperative as a doctoral student. Any efforts to master this skill could be well-rewarded down the road. If you can learn how to effectively juggle the many clinical experiences, your dissertation, and other obligations the program requires, you can handle just about any time-related obstacles your future career sends your way.

The easiest way to optimize your academic pursuits and personal life? Develop a routine. This does not necessarily mean scheduling down to the minute, but it should include small rituals that help you make the most of every minute. For example, a brief morning routine will prevent you from wasting precious time on social media — and it will help you feel mentally prepared for the day. Do not forget to schedule “me time.” An hour or two of relaxation can make you a far more effective student or employee.

9. Understand Doctoral Program Expectations from the Beginning

Do not rely on assumptions about any given program to prepare you for the challenges of doctoral life. Instead, do your research to determine exactly what your life as a student will look like. Seemingly small details can make a big difference, so it is impossible to be too prepared.

If you have an idea as to which doctoral program you would like to enter, take a close look at the curriculum and any practical experiences, simulations, preceptors, or clinicals you might be required to fulfill. Consider what these experiences might look like and how you will find a mentor or an agency.

10. Treat Your Doctoral Program Like a Job

Life as a doctoral student is all-encompassing. This is far more than a casual hobby you enjoy on the weekends. It warrants the same level of commitment you would give to a full-time job. This means carving out ample time in your schedule for academic pursuits rather than making a variety of other professional or extracurricular commitments. Thankfully, doctoral programs that emphasize practical application could be integrated with existing work functions, allowing you to make the most of both.

Treating your doctorate like a job also means conducting yourself as a professional in all academic settings. If you would not engage in a particular behavior at work, it should not be acceptable for the college environment — online or in-person.

11. Commit to Networking

Networking is crucial during all stages of your career, but it will pay off the most if you commit to it during your doctoral program.  You will enjoy such excellent access to experienced professionals in your field. This is your opportunity to build strong connections with fellow graduate students. If possible, form a study group, as this will help you accomplish both academic and networking goals. Online networking can also be helpful, so do not hesitate to reach out via social media or email.

12. Choose Your Dissertation Project Early

When your doctoral program begins, the dissertation may seem like a far-off obligation. It is no secret that this evidence-based project is a big deal, but some mistakenly think of it as the crowning achievement of the doctorate, rather than an all-encompassing process that begins on day one.

As you get caught up with challenging coursework, you might be tempted to save the complications of your dissertation for later. Fight your urge to procrastinate, as this could have you scrambling as your dissertation draws near.

Early dissertation selection is important, in part, because it can influence the rest of your doctoral experience. The right project provides a practical application for all the theoretical knowledge and hands-on skills gained during readings and class discussions.

How early depends largely on how long your program lasts, but most dissertation advisors agree that the process warrants at least 20 months. During this time, you will have the opportunity to meet with a committee or mentor who can help you clarify whether your proposed project meets your college’s strict academic standards.

Another consideration: Depending on your doctorate program, the time you dedicate to your project may be applied towards your degree’s total practice hours. The sooner you start, the easier you will find it to meet this requirement.

13. Remember to Always Take Care of Yourself

There is no denying the challenges of doctoral-level studies. All the sacrifice could pay off in the form of newfound professional success and the opportunity to make a meaningful difference in your field, but only if you take care of yourself. The moment you begin to neglect your physical and mental health, your academic performance will also start to suffer.

Taking care of yourself can take many forms, including:

  • Establishing a solid sleep routine so you get enough rest.
  • Sneaking in exercise whenever possible — this could be as simple as walking for ten minutes, three times a day.
  • Swapping junk food for nutritious snacks and meals that fuel both your mind and body.
  • Dedicating a few minutes each day to meditation or yoga to help you free your mind of negative mental chatter.

Discover Your Doctoral Passion at American Sentinel College of Nursing & Health Science at Post University

If you have a red-hot passion for your field and want to build on it via doctoral studies, you are the perfect candidate for the online DNP program at American Sentinel College of Nursing & Health Science at Post University. Contact us today to learn more about this exciting opportunity.

Thank you for reading! The views and information provided in this post do not reflect Post University programs and/or outcomes directly. If you are interested in learning more about our programs, you can find a complete list of our programs on our website or reach out directly!