From what I know of my own program and what I've seen from friends the whole process generally has three parts and each part has an exam of some kind related to it.
- Part 1 involves taking classes, for a period of 1-4 years depending on the program. At some point in the process a very comprehensive exam is given in which you have to prove your knowledge of the field. For me, it was about 2 yrs of classes (four semesters) with the exam after the third semester (January of 2004). At some point in this period you choose an adviser/mentor who you want to work with to complete the next two parts.
- Part 2 involves isolating your topic of interest, collecting some preliminary data and developing a research plan for your thesis project. How long this takes is really variable. Some people are provided a complete project to complete by their advisers and are thus able to start working right away, other people are allowed to develop their own project around their particular set of interests and therefore take longer to move through this stage (I was part of the later group, each has its own pro's and con's). Once again, at some point there is an exam (often called a proposal) in which you prove that you understand the background and significance of your project and subsequently outline your project to a committee of people (either chosen or assigned) who's job it is to make sure you know what your doing and your project makes sense. I completed this exam in September of 2006
- Part 3 involves actually doing the work outlined in your proposal. Once again, how long this takes is entirely up to the individual. If you choose a simple project research could take less than a year, for others it takes longer. Once the research is done, or often along the way, it is written up either as individual journal publications which later get compiled or as a complete document all at once (the thesis or dissertation). Your committee will read your dissertation and later witness your presentation of that work. It is at this point that you actually 'defend' your dissertation while your committee asks you questions regarding the methodology, results and presentation of that work. Typically they suggest changes to the document that must be completed to their satisfaction prior to submitting that document for publication by the school. For me, the actual research took two years. I competed that right before Colin was born... The writing should take about a year, but I complicated that process by staying home and raising Colin full time and only writing part time (oh and not sleeping for 15 months really limited my ability to produce anything coherent). So I will defend a full three years after completing my research. Making this whole process for me be 8 yrs. I would guess the national average is somewhere around 7 years but my particular departments average is around 5-6yrs. This time frame is very dependent on how you are funded and if your are required to teach (I was) as part of your funding package.
I have currently completed the draft of my dissertation and submitted it to my committee. On June 30th I will defend my dissertation by giving an approximately 40 minute presentation to anyone who is interested in listening (and taking their questions for upwards of 20 minutes) and afterwards will go into a closed door session with my committee while they put me through the ringer. At this stage of the game it is extremely rare for people to 'fail' although it has been known it happen (I have no intention of doing so). After the defense I will make whatever changes my committee requires to the document and then submit it to the college. I officially have until Sept 15th to complete the document but obviously would like to have it done way before that so I can just focus on getting ready for the baby, having the baby and adjusting to our new life as a family of four without worrying about the document anymore.