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What is a PhD?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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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.

Degree Requirements

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.

Costs Involved

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.

Degree Transferability

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.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Practical Adult Insights contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon955284 — On Jun 06, 2014

It's not honorary. The PHD requires more classes than a regular Doctor degree. They also write a dissertation and defend it.

By anon955283 — On Jun 06, 2014

I'm working on a PHD right now and it is extremely difficult. It is a program of stamina. Anyone who doesn't quit will make it. Anyone interested in doing it should know your family and friends will not see you much. It takes a tremendous amount of time doing research, writing and preparing presentations. It is the hardest thing I've ever done and I made it through military boot camp. My reason for pursuing it is that I'm a principal and I am interested in becoming a superintendent of schools.

By serenesurface — On Dec 16, 2012

@anon23408-- Coursework for most PhD programs are completed in two years. After that, you're just working on your thesis.

Do you think that you can finish a thesis in a year? That's highly unlikely.

By ysmina — On Dec 15, 2012
@turquoise-- I'm doing my PhD. I'm in my second year.

Getting a PhD is great, but it's very hard and takes a long time. There is really no monetary incentive to get a PhD. I don't think it makes sense to go for this degree unless you want to teach at a higher institution or if you want to be called an expert in your field. I want to teach college courses and that's why I'm doing it.

If you're planning on getting a non-academic job afterward, beware that people with PhDs don't make that much more money than people with master's degrees. Not to mention that most Phd students get paid zilch while in school and some have to pay for their PhD courses out of their pocket. If you are married with kids, it just makes things that much harder.

By turquoise — On Dec 14, 2012

I just finished my Master's degree and I'm not sure what I want to do after this. I really enjoy being in school and I'm not much of a 9 to 5 office employee type of person. So I'm seriously considering applying for PhD programs.

At the same time, I know a PhD will be much harder than a Master's degree and I'm not sure if I have the devotion to go through with it just yet.

Can I get some feedback from people who have done a PhD?

By Jest Staffel — On Jul 06, 2010

As well as satisfying teaching or research assistant requirements, and participating in practica, most students spend a year preparing to take oral and written examinations that prove competence in their field. They then must also write a dissertation, which must be accepted and approved by the dissertation committee prior to receiving their PhD. This process can be lengthy.

The dissertation must typically include original research in one’s field of expertise. The average dissertation is normally book-length.

By anon91243 — On Jun 20, 2010

"The title of “Doctor” is not always used, and is essentially honorary in the US." - this statement can only be the result of 1000 monkeys trying to type on 500 typewriters. In fact, based on the origin of the word doctor, those who earn a PhD degree have more right to call themselves doctors than those who hold medical degrees.

By anon46449 — On Sep 25, 2009

the doctor title is not honorary' it is widely used in the US.

By anon23408 — On Dec 23, 2008

how to search for a university in Manhattan, ny that offers phd in three years time frame?

By anon16732 — On Aug 13, 2008

A PhD using the title of "doctor" should not be considered honorary, as the holder of this degree has a doctorate. Why is it considered honorary in the US, but not in other European/Asian/Australian countries?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Practical Adult Insights contributor...
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