Master's to Doctorate

What is a doctoral student?

A Ph.D. student is an individual pursuing an advanced degree that focuses on a specific area. USask typically uses "Ph.D." and "doctorate" interchangeably. Ph.D. students have previously completed a master's (or transferred from a master's) degree and will complete a series of courses, and examinations (e.g., comprehensive exams, qualifying exams), and conduct an independent research project under the supervision of a faculty member, usually referred to as a dissertation. The length of the program is dependent on many varying factors (e.g., program, leaves, research project delays) and you shouldn’t compare your journey with someone else.

   PhD stands for ‘Doctor of Philosophy.’ Philosophy here comes from the Latin words philo (friend or lover of) and sophia (wisdom). 

What is a dissertation?

A dissertation is an original body of work from an in-depth research process that can take several years to complete. The dissertation demonstrates mature scholarship, critical judgment, familiarity with disciplinary tools and research methods, and significant contribution to the doctoral student's field of study. 

Why pursue a doctoral degree?




Typical program requirements

  Program requirements are structured differently amongst graduate programs. To gain knowledge of your program's comprehensive exam and qualifying exam processes, contact your graduate administrator 

Course requirements include classes in theory or research methods that guide students' knowledge advancement. Course requirements also include weekly seminars and introductory ethics courses (when required).

All program requirements are publicly available through the University Catalog in the Program Catalogue section. To access your program’s requirements, visit the program catalogue website and select your program.

For a guide on interpreting your program requirements, visit the Mapping section of the GradHUB Blueprint.

Qualifying exams are program-specific in terms of time, format, and evaluation. The examination is designed to assess the student’s broad conceptual knowledge of their discipline, deeper knowledge of their field, critical thinking skills, and experimental and communication skills, both written and oral. The qualifying examination is typically completed in the first year of the student's program.

The purpose of the examination is to demonstrate the student has sufficient knowledge of their field of study to proceed toward candidacy for the Ph.D. degree. The content of the examination reflects what the student is expected to know and understand within the discipline and the student's research area.

You can access the CGPS Qualifying Exam Policy Here.

The purpose of the Comprehensive Examination is to determine whether the student has a mature and substantive grasp of the field as a whole.  Normally this examination is scheduled after the student has completed all course requirements and before beginning the doctoral research and thesis.

The comprehensive exam assesses the students:

  • knowledge of the discipline
  • understanding of the proposed field of research
  • ability to conduct independent and original research
  • ability to present and defend material orally

The exam is on topics cognate to the candidate's field of research. A student passing the Comprehensive Examination is deemed a Ph.D. candidate.

The requirements and process for comprehensive exams are completely different from program to program.


The timing of the comprehensive exams also varies.  Comprehensive exams require students to prepare over a specific window of time and then complete the examination. The window of examination can vary between completing a written/oral exam within a three-hour window or writing a larger paper over a set number of weeks.


The format of the comprehensive(s) or "comps" can take various forms. Examples of common formats are:

  • written examination
  • take-home examination
  • extended research paper(s)
  • written research proposal
  • oral examination

You can access the CGPS Qualifying Exam Policy Here.

The dissertation is a technical work that documents and demonstrates a substantial contribution to the field of study. The dissertation is provided in written form to their supervisor, and eventually the dissertation committee. After receiving approval from the committee, the student will locate their cognate examiner and defend their work.

The dissertation defence will open with a brief (10-20 minute) presentation summarizing the major themes and findings of the dissertation. The candidate is expected to defend the work, and to answer questions from the examination committee in a clear, direct, and knowledgeable fashion. The candidate is then assessed on the submission’s success in meeting the requirements for the degree.

You can review CGPS’s dissertation policies and process here

Check out the Roadmap guide to completing your dissertation






Funding and awards

A key difference when entering a graduate program is the potential to receive graduate funding in the form of graduate student awards. 

Graduate awards can be awarded:

  • At the university level
  • Department level
  • Tri-agency funding
  • National awards
  • External awards

More information for graduate student awards

Navigating student funding can be a complicated process that varies across programs and departments. To obtain the most accurate information you should always talk with your graduate supervisor about potential funding opportunities.

Also, pay close attention to your email for updates on upcoming scholarships and awards that are released throughout the year.  




Tips for surving your PhD

Take ownership of your grad school experience

It's your responsibility to ensure you are aware and complete of all program and university requirements. You can do this by reading policies, and program handbooks, checking your email regularly, and going through the Hub resources here and here.

You need to search for, identify, and pursue opportunities in learning, researching, teaching, and networking. Explore the opportunities you want to experience and go after them.

You will need to develop independence in driving your development. It's up to you to notice any gaps in your knowledge or skills, locate potential workshops, and complete them to make sure you continue growing and achieve your goals.



Participate in academia and your university community

Programs sometimes offer optional seminars or guest lectures, take advantage of these opportunities to learn and network. Don’t be afraid to visit events outside of your department.

Build opportunities. Connect with faculty (even outside your supervisor) and other graduate students to collaborate on research projects or manuscript writing.

Identify key conferences for your research area or discipline to attend. Don’t be afraid to present and share your research with others.

Build connections with others. Networking is extremely important to be successful in your studies and your career. You want to network with other graduate students and faculty all over: in different programs, colleges, and institutions.

The Grad HUB has collected a bunch of resources for building campus connections over on the Community page! 

Enter the Hub Community



Know your program requirements, timelines, and institutional policies

Make sure to review and become familiar with your program requirements in the Program Catalogue

Become familiar with each requirement and discuss with your supervisor or grad administrator any requirements that you do not understand

Make sure you are aware of the timelines you need to follow to avoid unnecessary delays or complications. For example, typically your thesis committee will take 6-8 weeks to review your thesis before you can defend it. Ethics applications can take a similar amount of time (or even longer depending on the level of risk with your study) before you can begin research.

Policies exist to help you make progress through your program. Policies communicate what, when, and how different actions need to be completed. Becoming familiar with policies will help you in becoming aware of actions you can take in different situations (e.g., medical leave, accommodations, program extensions).



Create a plan and track your graduate student experience

ake your program requirements and the student opportunities you want to experience during your program and develop a plan.

Take your plan and track what you need to accomplish each term to make progress towards completing your program requirements and meeting your final goals.

Think about your desired career and partake in opportunities that can propel you forwards. This can be joining research projects, sitting on committees, or volunteering in the community. All of these activities can provide valuable experiences.

Track your progress with program requirements and activities you participate in throughout your program. You can use these events as examples when you are applying for jobs.

The CGPS has created an Independent Development Plan (IDP) template you can use to help you in developing your plan. Learn more here.