First, most of the time, schools pay you to attend. Fellowship packages include paid tuition and a stipend. Some people are surprised to hear this. In Los Angeles, stipends may not get you very far, especially if you have a mortgage. You don't get rich becoming a PhD student, but you do get paid. Also, you can earn money from the university through teaching or research assistantships and you may apply for university and/or external fellowships.
I am beginning my third year in the program and sometimes people ask me, "aren't you done yet?" This brings me to my next point...
PhD programs take at least four years of full time work (at least on paper it looks like four years):
- The first two years consist of coursework in theory, research methods, statistics, policy, and so on. It may take longer than two years to complete the required coursework.
- At the end of the first year, we had to pass a comprehensive exam. That is, five in-class essays over the course of two days, for four hours each day. The questions came from professors who taught our foundation courses - Epistemology, Research Methods, Policy Formulation, Policy Analysis and Evaluation.
- In the second year, in addition to coursework, we were expected to participate in a research internship. Dr. Sheryl Kataoka was my research mentor. I worked with her on a National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) research grant (R21) that she was awarded for a pilot evaluation study in partnership with LAUSD.
- By the third year we have a second written comprehensive exam, it is expected that we write a publishable scholarly paper as a sole author. It is reviewed by at least two professors and may be sent to a journal for publication. This is in addition to the dissertation. At first, I thought - so many hoops! But now I understand it is an attempt to make sure we are more marketable at graduation. A product showing our integration of the material and our emerging scholarship.
- Also in the third year, it is expected that we draft a dissertation proposal. This is no small (pull an all nighter and get it done) feat. The proposal is about 70 to 80 pages in length and includes some of the following sections: Introduction/Statement of Problem, Literature Review, Theoretical Framework, Intervention Design, Summary of Research Questions and Hypotheses, Methodology/ Planned Analysis, and Timeline.
- The dissertation proposal has to be defended in front of a committee (about four professors) that you have pulled together for this purpose. Choosing professors that are expert in your research question or methods AND can get along and agree AND will support your work in a timely manner takes a lot of finesse.
- After all that, you can proceed with your dissertation. If you are collecting your own data, then this may take longer than if you are doing secondary data analysis (taking an existing data set and asking a new research question). You will also have to defend your dissertation before a committee of your making.
- Human Subjects Review approval is required for the publishable paper and dissertation, if applicable. This is another major hill to climb. There may be multiple committees to seek approval from depending on where you are conducting your research. For my studies, I have to get approval from both UCLA and LAUSD.
- I word about the Literature Review. This is an important and difficult aspect of any scholarly work - publishable paper, dissertation proposal or dissertation. It isn't just about reading 20 articles and summarizing what you read. It may mean reading 50-100 articles, understanding and making sense of the conversation, the history, the controversies, and then jumping in with your own point of view. This does not come together in an all nighter.
For anyone that believes someone would do all of this just for bragging rights: This is too grueling to do just for bragging rights. The main reason I came back to school was to learn how to become a researcher. I am passionate about working with low-income ethnic minority urban communities - children, youth and families. We need more empirical evidence about what works and then we need to do a better job of disseminating this important information. This is what drives me.