Degree Requirements

What must I do to earn a Ph.D.?

There are suggested courses to demonstrate competence in the foundations of sociological analysis. Students are also expected to complete a major research paper, pass a comprehensive General Examination, and write an acceptable dissertation.

The program seeks to fulfill three primary academic objectives:

  • Provide students with the basic theoretical, methodological, and statistical skills needed to be successful sociologists;
  • Expose students to a breadth of knowledge in sociology so that they can be competent teachers, colleagues, and consumers of the sociological literature; and
  • Develop in-depth expertise in one or more areas of specialization, thereby ensuring that students can contribute original research in these areas.

Students achieve these objectives in a variety of ways, depending on their previous training, interests, and preferred style of learning.

Basic Skills

These are generally acquired during students’ first year in the ­program. Students generally take a two-semester sequence in classical and contemporary sociological theory, a two-semester sequence involving one general course in statistics and one course in social statistics that emphasizes sociological applications, and a course on research design covering a variety of quantitative and qualitative methods. Normally, students are asked to do short written exercises in the theory courses, computational exercises in the statistics courses, and a short research proposal in the methods course. Students may also opt to fulfill the basic skills requirements by passing examinations given by instructors in charge of the relevant courses or, in consultation with the Director of Graduate Studies, by proposing alternative seminars or reading courses in the department or in other departments.

Breadth of Knowledge

This is usually obtained in the first and second years of the ­program through a combination of formal coursework (both full-semester courses and half-semester “mini-seminars”) and independent study. Students are normally expected to take a total of 14 courses or their equivalent during their first two years in the program.

Students in their first two years normally take four courses or course equivalents each semester. Courses or course equivalents include: regular graduate courses (with two mini-courses equal to one regular course), including courses in other departments that contribute to the student’s progress towards her or his degree; reading courses, or directed research under the supervision of a Sociology Department faculty member; service as an assistant in instruction, also known as a preceptor (2 precepts equivalent to one course).

Students identify one or two areas of specialization that are sufficiently wide in scope and autonomous from one another that, collectively, they represent command of a broad set of areas within sociology. Students prepare a “contract” (normally by the spring of their second year) by stating briefly their justification of the field or fields, by indicating the various seminars and reading courses they will take or have taken, and by appending a detailed reading list that gives an idea of how they are approaching each field. Fields should be submitted for the approval of the Director of Graduate Studies early in the process. Contracts themselves must be submitted to the Director of Graduate Studies for approval and are intended as a preview, subject to later revisions, of what the student plans to do, rather than a retrospective statement of what the student has already done. Students must acquire a faculty examiner with whom to work in preparing for each of the areas. These fields then become the basis for the General Examination. (Examples of students’ contracts are available on the website or from the department office.)

The General Examination is normally taken at the end of the second year or fall of the third year. It includes both a written and an oral component. The written component consists of either (a) the syllabus option or exam in two fields and a dissertation-relevant literature review paper in a third area or areas, or (b) the syllabus option or exam in one field and dissertation-relevant literature review papers in two areas; the intent of these requirements is to ensure breadth of knowledge while also keeping expectations within manageable limits. Details of these options should be discussed with the Director of Graduate Studies.

The oral component ordinarily consists of an oral examination of approximately 90 minutes administered by the faculty advisors for each of the areas. (Students in the demography program prepare only two fields in this manner, receiving credit for the third through special examinations in demography at the end of their first year.)


To fulfill the requirement of gaining in-depth specialized knowledge in one or more fields, students must submit a major paper of publishable length and quality using quantitative data. The paper is normally written in conjunction with the Seminar in Empirical Investigation and is supervised by the instructor in charge of that seminar and advised, as well, by the ­student’s second-year advisor. The paper must be single-authored and approved by both the primary advisor and the second reader. Both readers must be members of the Princeton University faculty (unless other arrangements have been made in advance with the Director of Graduate Studies).

Opportunities for Teaching

Experience in teaching is an important part of preparation for a scholarly career. All undergraduate and graduate courses at Princeton are taught by members of the faculty. The typical undergraduate course is divided between lecture and discussion (or “precept”) sessions, the latter of which are usually conducted by graduate students with appointments as Assistants in Instruction (AIs) (known at Princeton as “preceptors”). All graduate students are required to serve as AIs on several occasions (most recently six hours while in residence, ordinarily in their second and third years). AIships carry small stipends over and above fellowship support and are excellent ways of preparing to teach as well as gaining additional competency in a subject area. Princeton University’s McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning offers a range of services to graduate students wishing to improve their teaching skills, including additional instruction in teaching skills for foreign students through a mentoring program prior to the fall semester, a university-wide learning laboratory, and support for training sessions for faculty and AIs in large courses. Additional ­programs have often been organized by the department’s graduate s­tudents. In addition to teaching at Princeton, advanced students have often taught courses in other colleges and universities in the Princeton area.

Research Apprenticeships

Although students are not required to work as research assistants for department faculty, many students choose to do so. Research assistantships are often excellent ways to learn about aspects of research practice not covered in formal classes from accomplished and experienced researchers. Department faculty work closely with graduate student research assistants, and such relationships have often culminated in collaborative publications. In recent years, demand for student research support has been high, and all students wishing to work have been able to do so. The Director of Graduate Studies will assist students in finding research assistantships when necessary.

Admission to Candidacy

Students are admitted to candidacy for the Ph.D. upon the successful execution of their academic contract (required coursework, General Examinations, and qualifying paper) and any other department requirements. The Graduate School will not be notified that the student has completed the General Examination (i.e. the student will not be certified as having been admitted to candidacy for the Ph.D.) until all requirements have been completed.


Upon completion of the General Examination, students turn their full attention to writing a dissertation. Students are encouraged to begin thinking about dissertation topics during the first year of graduate study, and to focus their readings and papers as ways of doing background work relevant to the dissertation. They should select a dissertation committee chair and two or more other members of their dissertation committee in their second year or early in their third year, and work with those faculty members to prepare a disser­tation proposal (prospectus) for approval. Normally, a draft must be submitted by October 15 and approved by May 15 of the third year for the student to be eligible for fourth-year reenrollment. Once a well-developed prospectus has been submitted, the dissertation committee chair will call a meeting of the committee members and the student to discuss and approve the dissertation proposal. (The dissertation committee ordinarily consists of three members, though committees of four or even five members are permitted. The chair must be a member of the Princeton Sociology Department. Faculty from other Princeton academic units [e.g., the Woodrow Wilson School or the History Department] may also be on the committee. Under extraordinary circumstances, and with the approval of the committee chair and the Director of Graduate Studies, faculty from other universities may serve if they provide expertise that is (a) essential and (b) not available at Princeton.) The proposal (normally a document of at least 20 pages) includes a statement of the problem to be studied, an explanation of its theoretical relevance to sociology, a survey of pertinent literature, a tentative statement of the main thesis or hypotheses, a discussion of the data and methods to be employed, and a detailed timeline. (Copies of sample dissertation proposals are available on the website or in the department office.)

Two options are available for the format of the dissertation: (a) the traditional format of a single document divided into chapters, or (b) three separate but thematically related papers of publishable length and quality. Selection of the options is done in consultation with the student’s dissertation committee and with the committee’s approval.

A final public oral examination (often referred to as a “dissertation defense”), given by a least two members of the dissertation committee and two other members of the Sociology Department faculty (referred to as “outside readers” because they are “outside of” the dissertation committee), is the last requirement for the achievement of the degree.

After five years in the program, students no longer receive Princeton fellowship support, but are eligible for two years of DCE (Dissertation Completion Enrollment) status in which they remain enrolled with health insurance and access to university resources in return for a modest fee. Arrangements can ordinarily be made for students to defer payment of loans and (if applicable) to retain visas for educational purposes during these years, as well. Limited sixth-year funding is available on a competitive basis.