Degree Research

Why You Should Consider Custom Doctorate Programs & Tips for Choosing One

By The Editorial Team
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A Ph.D is the highest academic degree most areas of study offer, and students who earn it are considered to be at the top of their field. The number of doctorates awarded by U.S. institutions is at an all-time high. Many universities offer doctoral degrees in various subjects, but a few allow ambitious students to customize a doctoral program to match their research interests. Customizing a doctoral degree by building your own curriculum can be an extremely productive way to earn an advanced degree in education and related studies.

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Earning a Doctoral Degree ⁠— How It Usually Works

There is a standard path most students follow to get a doctoral degree. The usual course is to spend four years earning an undergraduate, or bachelor’s degree. After that, students may earn a master’s degree or rotate directly into a doctoral program. As a rule, these programs impose a required minimum of course hours in the subject being studied, plus some lab work and listed extracurriculars. Graduate students often work in consultation with an advisor, who can point them toward productive research areas and help them locate resources for their largely independent studies. The available curricula vary between universities and degree programs, but certain core elements of each doctoral study program are similar at any accredited institution.

While a standard degree program is adequate for many people, some students do better with a customized doctoral program. Typically, a student interested in a customized course of study is expected to notify a dean or advisor sometime during their first year of graduate study and get approval from faculty members for their proposed course. Working with advisors and resident teaching staff, the student can chart a series of classes and expected coursework that can be accepted for a Ph.D. Both traditional curriculum and custom doctoral programs usually end with a dissertation and panel review of the applicant’s original research.

Who Benefits from Custom Doctoral Programs?

Custom doctoral programs are not for everyone. The majority of people who feel the need for a doctorate are perfectly comfortable with the standard curriculum, and they transition from their assigned coursework to post-doc employment well enough. Customizing a doctoral program takes more planning up front, and it’s usually done with closer supervision from advisors throughout the program’s course.

A customized degree path is often attractive for students with highly particular research interests. Students who want to study a very confined niche within a field may find it’s best to tailor their studies to just that niche, rather than to study other, possibly irrelevant, elements. An example of this might be an educator who wishes to specialize in designing curriculum for children with autism. In this case, many of the other elements of an education doctorate are not relevant, and with permission they can probably be skipped in favor of extra classes in psychology and even social work.

The interdisciplinary nature of a custom doctoral program is another draw for many interested students. If a chosen field of study has implications outside of the narrow field being studied, then a more flexible approach to research may be warranted. A standard Ed.D course, for instance, doesn’t usually include significant elements of child psychology, social work, prehospital medical care, nutrition classes, or business administration. All of these subjects, however, may be highly relevant to an educator who plans to operate a school for children with special needs. Plotting coursework that takes you through all of the relevant areas of study, with a central emphasis on the education your school provides, could be an excellent way to prepare for a varied and diverse career in education.

What Is It Like to Get a Custom Doctorate?

In many ways, getting a custom doctorate is like studying for a standard degree. Much of the coursework is the same, and many of the same classes are included in any doctoral program you pursue. Where a custom doctorate differs from the standard model is mostly in the course list and standards for completion.

After choosing your specialized degree field, it’s usual to meet with an advisor and announce your plan to get a custom doctoral degree. If the university allows it, you can then notify a dean and submit approval notices from however many professors the institution requires. You and your advisor then typically hold a series of meetings to plan which classes you need to take and what work will be accepted for credit. You may also meet with faculty members who agree to be involved at some stage of your education, since many of the experts you need to work with are likely to be in different departments. After the administration approves your submitted plan, expect to spend about the same 2 to 4 years working toward completion. You may be expected to check in with your advisor more often than other Ph.D candidates, if only because the unconventional nature of such a degree course calls for closer supervision of your progress.

Tips for Choosing Your Course of Study

Because you’re designing a custom doctoral degree path, rather than picking an existing program off of the shelf, you probably have to do some extra work choosing your course of study. Here are some tips for getting the most out of this process:

Trust Your Advisor

Your graduate advisor’s sole job is to help you succeed. Don’t hesitate to ask for advice and direction from your advisor, who likely has a lot to offer. Schedule regular weekly meetings, and reach out in between if you hit a roadblock.

Cultivate Relationships with Faculty in Other Departments

Most custom doctorates include interdisciplinary work. Getting to know professors in the other fields you’ll be studying can help you develop a mature understanding of these fields and get more out of your studies.

Budget Adequate Time

It takes time and research to find the classes that will help you the most. Before you finalize your course list, give yourself at least several days to research the classes’ synopses and decide whether they belong in your own custom doctoral program.

Go Wide

One of the greatest advantages to a custom doctoral program is the flexibility it gives curious students to study outside the box. Don’t be shy about adding classes well outside of your main area of interest, since great ideas can come from anywhere. At first glance, a chemistry class may not look terribly relevant to an education major, but including an introductory class could equip you with engaging classroom experiments your students will love. While it’s not good to split your attention too much during your studies, adding a few eclectic classes could really broaden your horizons and make the most out of your custom doctoral program.

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