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So far as I understand, Ph.D. programs in the United States have entrance requirements and exams, but when you enroll in one, you start process of becoming a "Ph.D. candidate" first, which in the end will lead to defence of your thesis and becoming a Ph.D.

Before becoming a "Ph.D. candidate" you are usually in this system as a "Ph.D. student" until you defend your proposal. Before defense of your proposal, "Ph.D. students" should prepare for a comprehensive examination, but basically this is depends on your advisor, who will set a rules of how this examination will look like. In my case, preparation of manuscript allows you to qualify for a Ph.D. and you become a "Ph.D. candidate", while some other professors give a test or an oral examination.

Why is this first period of a Ph.D. program not counted as credit for part of your thesis? Why does credit counting start from moment of your thesis proposal approval?

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    Well no, it really isn't understandable. I didn't vote on it, but what I seem to understand (and which seems a re-submission of an even less clear question) is so very different from any U.S. Ph.D. system I am familiar with that I'm scratching my head. 'Ph.D. student' or 'Ph.D. candidate' are interchangeable in fields I know; you take coursework (or not) for a year or two, and after have a qualifying exam (orally or in writing); and in some fields - yours it seems - defend a proposal, but the last is not even close to being universal (I never did). Commented Jan 24, 2016 at 9:19
  • yes, it is universal, I didnt know @gnometorule i thought this first part is going to be counted in credits, I didnt know it is not considered, PhD candidate is one that defended proposal
    – SSimon
    Commented Jan 24, 2016 at 9:21
  • @gnometorule I dont study in USA!!!!!
    – SSimon
    Commented Jan 25, 2016 at 13:53
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    FYI, I cleaned up a lot of old comments discussing the previous iterations of the post.
    – eykanal
    Commented Jan 27, 2016 at 13:41
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it seems to basically be argumentative (why is the system the way it is). Commented Mar 7, 2018 at 0:54

4 Answers 4

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Every United States institution is different and sets its own rules, so there is no single universal answer. In the typical US system, however, there are three different requirements that are effectively orthogonal:

  1. The student has to take some sufficient set of classes
  2. The student has to pass one or more qualifying tests of some sort --- the details of these tests are radically different from institution to institution, but typically involve one or more elements of the following:
    • Being grilled on their knowledge by a panel of professors
    • Taking a difficult written test
    • Writing a formal research survey or proposal (sometimes of their proposed thesis work)
    • Presenting a piece of research (their own or others') and being interrogated on it
    • Doing very well in certain classes
  3. Carrying out research and writing a thesis dissertation on that research. This also often involves presenting this research and being interrogated on it in some sort of public defense.

The first is also generally sufficient to earn a Masters degree, so if the student fails in the second or third, then they are often given a Masters instead of a Ph.D.

In sequence, however, the order is often not strictly fixed, and there is no broadly adopted terminology to differentiate between people who have fulfilled different parts of their program. I, for example, have known people who had to scramble to fulfill one of the first two requirements to prevent their graduation from being delayed because they'd been letting them slide while working on their thesis.

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You have made some generalizations in your question that are not, necessarily, accurate.

Before defense of your proposal, "Ph.D. students" should prepare for a comprehensive examination, but basically this is depends on your advisor, who will set a rules of how this examination will look like.

This may or may not be the case at any given institution. For example, where I got my PhD, the doctoral comprehensive exams were highly standardized, and varied only by sub-specialty, not between advisors.

Why is this first period of a Ph.D. program not counted as credit for part of your thesis? Why does credit counting start from moment of your thesis proposal approval?

To be blunt - because it's a requirement to start your thesis.

In some ways that is counting it as credit. If you consider "Graduate with a PhD" as the end goal, then it is credit toward that process. But a thesis is a singular, somewhat indivisible unit of work - you either have, or have not, written your thesis. There's not really "credit" involved in the traditional academic sense of the word - you're not accruing hours, etc.

There are however, many ways where, if you mean more informally making progress toward your thesis, it's very likely your comprehensive examination may help. First, it may herald the end of classes - and this "credit" to begin working on your research as an exclusive focus. Second, in many cases, the subject of the comprehensive exam, and elements of it, may play directly to the questions of your thesis. For example, I have met people who, in studying for their comprehensive exam, essentially collected the literature review section of their thesis, and others who, in writing a "mock grant" as part of their comprehensive exam had made significant progress on the framework of their thesis.

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  • thank you formite, damn, I am shocked, I didnt know that, chair of program assured me that only difference between master and phd is number of publications!
    – SSimon
    Commented Feb 7, 2016 at 9:30
  • because it's a requirement to start your thesis. — ...in some PhD programs. In my department, students are expected to have completed a significant fraction, if not a majority, of their thesis research before submitting their proposal.
    – JeffE
    Commented Mar 12, 2016 at 14:49
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Why is this first period of a Ph.D. program not counted as credit for part of your thesis? Why does credit counting start from moment of your thesis proposal approval?

Credits earned before the student advances to candidacy are typically counted towards credit hour requirements for the degree, but not counted towards credit hour requirements for the dissertation research itself.

For example, a 90 credit hour PhD program might consist of 60 credit hours of coursework and qualifying examinations followed by a 30 credit hour dissertation.

You might ask why a specific number of dissertation credit hours is required. If a student can prepare and publish the research in a short period of time then why require them to register for more credit hours and spend more time as a PhD student? One reason for this is that the university charges tuition for these credit hours (which might be paid by the student or might be paid by a grant or some external source.) Another reason is that it provides the appearance of quality control.

It is also typical to require the student to go through some formal process of proposing the dissertation topic before starting to earn credit hours towards the dissertation. Without it, students could simply register for dissertation credit hours without any specific approved topic in place and fiddle around on random projects that don't contribute to the actual dissertation.

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I can contribute something regarding terminology that I hope will help clear up some confusion.

First, I'll outline how things work at at least some institutions in the US:

  • You take courses

  • You take some long, difficult, timed, paper and pencil exams

  • You look around for a topic. When you've found one, and have been working on it for a while, and generally when you're at approximately the half-way point, you present your research proposal, live, to your committee, and answer questions the committee members throw at you, in a oral exam.

  • You work on your topic some more and start writing it up. When you're done with the formal written thesis, you defend it in another oral exam.

You are a PhD student the whole way through, until you graduate. But you get "admitted to candidacy," in other words, you become a "candidate," when you pass the first oral exam -- the one where you presented your proposal and answered oral questions.

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