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A PhD is an academic degree, typically the highest that can be earned in any university. Originally, the degree was awarded to advanced scholars in philosophy, and the degree’s letters still pay tribute to that background — PhD stands for “Doctor of Philosophy.” The degree is awarded in most areas of study, however. It is sometimes also referred to as a doctorate, and graduates are typically styled “Dr.”
Types of Programs
Universities around the world offer doctorate programs in a variety of subject areas. Almost any topic that can be studied at the bachelor’s degree level can also be pursued in doctoral studies. Common PhDs include chemistry, world literature, mathematics, and foreign languages, but the possibilities are nearly limitless.
Most of the time, students pursue PhDs as a way of obtaining maximum knowledge in a particular area, and setting themselves apart as subject matter experts. Teaching at the university level typically requires a PhD, for instance, and the degree is often also essential for top scientific researchers.
Exceptions for Certain Professions
In certain fields, notably medicine and law, the PhD is not usually the highest or most lauded degree. Specialized doctoral-level medical degrees or dental degrees (MD, DDS) or law degrees (JD, LLM) are more standard. It is often possible to earn PhDs in legal or medical studies, and doing so can lend depth and breadth to a professional’s background. Just the same, it is not usually the end of the road, since most jurisdictions restrict the practice of medicine and law to those who have earned more specific medical or legal degrees.
Getting Accepted Into a Program
It is very rare for students to be accepted into doctoral programs without first having completed a bachelor’s degree and, in most instances, a master’s degree as well. Though the application process tends to vary by school and subject area, it is almost always very rigorous. Applicants typically must submit all prior transcripts, as well as letters of recommendation from professors and personal essays detailing career ambitions. In many places, the United States and Canada included, standardized tests like the Graduate Record Examination must be taken and submitted with doctoral program applications.
Doctoral programs take anywhere from four to eight years to complete. Students typically split their time between advanced courses and independent research. Most of the time, research is designed to culminate in a publishable dissertation, which is often a book-length manuscript of original ideas or new theories. PhD candidates usually defend their dissertation research before a faculty board sometime in their last semester. A successful defense is required in order to earn the doctoral degree; an unsuccessful defense usually requires the candidate to take on at least a semester more to remedy problems and weaknesses.
While graduate work is rarely free, many schools use financial incentives as a way to lure top candidates to enter doctoral programs. In many cases, schools will help offset student tuition with research grants and supported stipends. Students typically carry some tuition expenses on their own, but not always. The low cost of most PhD work is one of the reasons many programs are so exclusive — most schools can only afford to support a fixed number of students per year.
Work and Student Teaching Expectations
In order to offset some of their costs, universities often expect doctoral candidates to spend at least some time teaching undergraduate courses. Particularly for those who hope to one day enter academia themselves, practice time in the classroom can be very valuable. Teaching the material is often seen as a good way of reinforcing it, as well, which applies broadly to all doctoral candidates.
Universities also see a cost boon in recruiting doctorate students as teachers. The students are usually paid for their teaching services, but usually at a reduced rate that is far less than a fully credentialed faculty member would earn.
Although different universities have different requirements, the PhD is usually something of a universal gold standard. The degree is well respected internationally, and is fully transferable across borders in most cases. Just the same, though, the quality of the degree-granting institution does matter. While a doctorate is a doctorate, graduates from top-tier schools often command much greater respect in the marketplace than those from lower-ranked, lesser known institutions.