How do I get a PhD in Science?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Getting a PhD in science or a Doctor of Science (Sc.D. or D.Sc.) takes hard work and commitment. It also requires more refinement of goals, since most people do not simply get a doctorate in general science. Rather, most people specialize in a specific area of science, and choice of specialization is exceptionally important and will help determine to what programs a person should apply after earning a bachelor’s and possibly master’s degree.

A science student works in a lab.
A science student works in a lab.

In brief explanation, any PhD in science represents focused studies in a particular area of scientific inquiry. Though a few people technically can complete a degree and all research and dissertation requirements in three years, most people will take at least four or five to earn their degree, and part-time studies could mean that a PhD in science takes seven years. Schools may have maximum time allowances for earning a degree, and if these are not honored, students may either need to reapply or they could lose some of their credits.

At minimum, most colleges with PhD in science programs want student applicants who have earned a bachelor’s degree or will earn one by the time they would begin a doctoral program. Some colleges have stricter requirements, only allowing those students with master’s degrees to apply. Other common requests are strong grades, letters of recommendation and excellent performance on standardized tests like the subject and general Graduate Record Examination (GRE).

Schools must also demonstrate knowledge in a particular scientific field, partly assumed by the student’s undergraduate major. If a student's undergraduate major was biology, a physics or astronomy department might not want to accept that student for a PhD in science. Frequently, people continue to pursue studies they began in undergraduate work by getting a PhD in science in the same or a closely related subject. If great disparity exists between undergraduate focus and studies desired at the doctoral level, students might want to do more undergraduate work in the new area of interest. Occasionally, strong performance on a GRE subject test is sufficient proof of competency to study a subject at the graduate level.

Programs are competitive and it’s a good idea to be aware of each school’s requirements. The most competitive programs will take only top students, but there are also schools that are willing to give those with potential a chance to succeed. Before applying, students should evaluate likelihood of acceptance and are usually advised to apply to three or four programs to increase their chance of getting into at least one school.

Once accepted into a program offering a Sc.D. or PhD in science, students will take classes, participate in research, and possibly become student teachers or research assistants, which may come with a stipend that helps defer some college expenses. After all class requirements are met, students usually prepare an extensive research project or dissertation which then must be presented to faculty. Upon successful presentation of this project, a degree is awarded.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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