Your Complete Guide to Preparing for a Doctor of Liberal Studies Degree

Becoming a doctor of anything is a tough academic and personal journey to put yourself through. When you begin that journey in most subjects, whether medicine, psychology, or education, at least you get a well-defined map to follow. The field you specialize in is defined by the degree, and the expectations for your studies are set by the experts and employers that dominate those fields.

A doctor of liberal studies (DLS) degree is a little bit different, and that makes it a whole lot harder. In fact, when you take a look at descriptions of various doctor of liberal arts programs in the United States, the one word you will find in all of those brochures or websites is “rigorous.” Right behind that is “challenge.”

Woman studying her doctorate in liberal studies

It’s largely because there is no map where you are heading. The highest academic degree in liberal arts is also maybe the least defined degree in the most flexible field of study in existence. And that means you need the mental fortitude, the focus, and the drive to forge your own path to a higher plane of learning.

The rewards for that can be more intellectual than monetary. But the core principles of Western Civilization are riding on the thinking of advanced liberal arts graduates. Ideas coming from doctors of liberal studies change the world you live in. If you’re looking to be one of those people, there’s no better place to put yourself than a DLS program.

If there is a kind of doctoral degree designed for the most dedicated life-long learner and free-thinking renaissance person, it’s definitely the DLS.

Why is a doctor of liberal studies degree so demanding?

It’s largely because there is no map where you are heading. The highest academic degree in liberal arts is also maybe the least defined degree in the most flexible field of study in existence. And that means you need the mental fortitude, the focus, and the drive to forge your own path to a higher plane of learning.

How the Doctor of Liberal Arts Degree Came Back Into The Picture After Centuries of Neglect

liberal studies graduateA doctor of liberal arts is a rare bird. As scholars progress in the world of academia, they tend to specialize. But there is no course of study at the doctoral level that is broader than a DLS or DLA. Your specialty becomes general knowledge, critical thought and interdisciplinary enrichment—making connections between different fields, understanding the scope of human knowledge and its applications.

Doctor of Liberal Arts programs were pretty much unknown in the modern world until 2005, when Georgetown University instituted a DLS degree.

A DLS will take from five to seven years to complete. Those will be some intense years of study, discussion, and a whole lot of reading.

As intensive as the DLS can be, it’s also intensely personal. You will be the driving force behind your education at this level. Professors will boost you along where they can, but you need to believe in and be motivated by your own investigations.

Is There a Difference Between a PhD in Liberal Studies and a DLS Degree? 

In many fields, the PhD is considered to be more research-oriented and better preparation for a career in academic professions. A doctor of liberal studies would be a more practice-focused, professional degree… but liberal arts isn’t that sort of field. In fact, the intensely self-directed, unique character of these types of degrees all but erases any practical differences between the two.

How Hard is it To Earn Admission to a Doctor of Liberal Studies Program?

student learning online at homeYou might not think there would be a lot of competition for getting into such lengthy and difficult programs. The fact is that getting admitted to a DLS program means clearing some high bars, however. Some of the finest minds of your generation are vying for these positions. And since there are so few DLS programs in the first place, and since they have room for very few students, contention for those slots can be fierce.

Many schools require that you already have a master’s degree under your belt before seeking admission to a DLS program.

Probably the biggest criteria set out by most of these programs is your course of study. Unlike other degrees, you are driving a lot of the educational material you will see in your doctoral studies. Admissions committees want to see candidates who have already developed their intended course of study to a certain level of detail.

That course of study also has to align with the expertise available in the department offering the degree. The expertise required to guide a doctoral student through a DLS focused on 17th century French poetry is quite different from one that is aimed at exploring modern political science. Not every school has professors well-steeped in every conceivable subject area.

Finally, you’ll be expected to submit a portfolio of professional experience, letters of recommendation, and frequently a writing sample or essay of some sort. These materials allow admissions committees to evaluate your current levels of skill in liberal arts and weigh your potential for taking full advantage of the DLS curriculum.

Most Doctor of Liberal Studies Degrees are Self-Designed So You Build the Course Sequence

Because of the wide array of subjects that you might choose to review or focus on, there’s usually no established curriculum to follow. In contrast to your experience at the bachelor’s level, or even in a master’s program, you will find yourself working more in cooperation with your professors and advisors to come up with course material than having it dictated to you.

DLS programs usually require between 50 and 60 semester credits of coursework.

Library booksThose credits may be separated between core studies, required of all DLS students, and elective or coordinated studies, which are the subjects that you decide to focus your studies on.

Core coursework is typically comprised of traditional graduate level classes. It usually covers foundational, interdisciplinary liberal arts components studied at a high level, including subjects such as:

These elements of your education are designed to reinforce liberal studies core courses you probably studied as an undergraduate, but to hone them for the expert levels of analysis and creative thought that you are about to engage in.

The Seminar Style Classes in DLS Programs Will Get You Deeply Involved in Every Course

Graduate level courses in the liberal arts are dominated by seminar-style classes. With small class sizes, usually fewer than ten, there is plenty of personal attention from professors. The emphasis in this style of course isn’t sitting quietly while the professor lectures you, though. Instead, seminars are about discussion and interaction. Just like Plato did, your professors will usually push you to lead the discussions, drawing out your ideas and helping you clarify your thinking.

This is especially true at the doctoral level, where you are learning to establish your own thoughts and arguments at the highest levels of thought in your field. You can think of seminars in doctoral programs as being close to active partnerships in learning. Faculty are nearly peers, someone to bounce your ideas off of and engage in research and theoretical discussion with as you pursue similar goals.

Doctoral Dissertations Define Doctor of Liberal Studies Graduates

Teacher speaking to classSomething that your core courses are designed to help you prepare for is the difficult task of developing and completing your doctoral dissertation or capstone project.

A dissertation has been a key piece of doctoral programs for hundreds of years. The traditional written dissertation may be 50 to 300 pages in length, and consists of your independent and in-depth development of original ideas in your field of study. It has to be tightly reasoned and packed wall-to-wall with research in support of your theory. You’ll have to defend it in front of a committee of faculty and other professionals, and frequently your first pass just won’t be good enough.

It takes grit and concentration to produce a publication-worthy piece of original writing and research sufficient to pass muster with liberal arts professors.

Your dissertation is what will define you in your field. As the culminating experience of your program, it has to wrap up all your research and thinking in the subject you are investigating.

Some DLS programs may offer the option of undertaking a capstone project instead of a traditional dissertation. These projects usually also involve significant original writing, but may also involve more active works of creative expression. They’re common in art or music concentrations in liberal arts.

Is An Online Doctor of Liberal Arts Program A Good Choice?

Online doctoral programs have been a rare beast in American universities, and none more so than those in liberal arts. The intensive personal interactions in seminar classes, the perceived value of face-to-face discussion, and the cloistered environment of a ivy-decked campus have made liberal arts colleges slow to move into the virtual world.

But a combination of COVID-19 pandemic realities and the personal and professional obligations of students have made even the most traditional of liberal arts universities change their tune. With the success of master’s and bachelor’s liberal studies programs shifting online, now some DLS programs are going the same way.

It’s a win/win for students and the programs. Doctoral students tend to be older and well-established professionally. Few can afford to take off years to pursue an advanced degree, which is why most doctoral programs were already part-time. But that also makes it difficult for them to relocate to a university of their choice. Online degrees take location out of the picture and let students pick schools that have the right fit for their goals.

Older students also mean students with families. Families come with odd and unpredictable schedules, which can make even part-time programs with fixed class times difficult. But online studies often allow students to shift their coursework around from week to week, wedging a video lecture in while hanging around at the dentist’s office or in the kitchen at home after putting the kids to bed.

And programs win by increasing the diversity and accessibility of their programs. More widespread students mean more interesting views and discussions, which, after all, is the mode by which a liberal education works.

Coping With the Costs of a Doctor of Liberal Studies Degree Through Scholarships and Teaching Positions

Doctor of liberal studies degrees can be many things to many people, but inexpensive is never one of them.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), as of 2021 the average cost of fees and tuition for graduate students is at $19,792 per year.

Multiply that out by the five to seven years you can expect to be studying for your DLS and you’re going to come up with an average cost of $98,960 to $148,544. And that’s just tuition—cost of living will vary by where you are located, but will almost certainly eclipse those numbers.

Loans and Scholarships Offer A Path to Paying for a DLS

Most students take out low-interest loans to pay for their studies. But more than $100,000 in loan debt is a big chunk for the average liberal arts graduate to pay off after graduation.

Doctoral programs are often only completed with the assistance of scholarships, or through graduate teaching assistant positions that come with the territory.

So, many DLS programs offer students the opportunity to take on graduate teaching positions that offer an annual stipend that will help cover your tuition costs. These are a good opportunity not just for the money, but because you will effectively be employed at your doctoral studies. The subjects you are teaching may be the same ones you are researching, so you’re effectively double-dipping by getting your education while getting paid for it.

Scholarships, or grants, are also frequently available for liberal studies students. These may be tied to the school or the field of knowledge you are studying, but they come with no strings attached.

There are also fellowships, which effectively combine scholarship with job by offering a stipend or grant for investigations in certain areas. As long as you can find a fellowship that lines up with your area of interest, it offers another way to help subsidize your training.

Other than knowledge, you might not have any set goal for earning a doctor of liberal studies degree. In a sense, it’s the knowledge and the educational process itself that offers value in these programs. There’s no set career path waiting for you when you emerge from a doctor of liberal arts program. Just as you did when you started studying, you’ll have to rely on your own energy and motivation to turn your education into a profession.

But the breadth of knowledge that comes with a liberal arts doctorate, together with the communication and critical thinking skills, will give you the kind of equipment you need to succeed in almost any field.