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abbreviation or noun

Definition of phd, examples of phd in a sentence.

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'PhD.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History

New Latin philosophiae doctor

1839, in the meaning defined above

Dictionary Entries Near PhD

Cite this entry.

“PhD.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary , Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/PhD. Accessed 12 Jan. 2024.

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Is a PhD Degree for Me? This is What it Means

Is-a-PhD-Degree-for-Me-This-is-What-it-Means

Wherever you are in your educational journey, you’ve likely heard of the graduate degree called a PhD degree. You may be wondering what is a PhD degree, what are PhD requirements, and what it means to earn a PhD. At this point, you may be questioning if getting a PhD is the right next step for you.

To receive a PhD, you will add the title “Dr.” to you name, but there is much more to it than that. Here, we will dive into what a PhD means, what it takes to earn one, the different kinds of PhD degrees that exist, and the reasons why you may choose to take the path to graduate with one.

What is a PhD?

First thing’s first, let’s define all the ins and outs of what a PhD means. PhD is an abbreviation for “Doctor of Philosophy.”

A PhD is the ultimate academic degree you can earn in a field of choice. To earn a PhD, you must complete original research and evaluate a theory. More often than not, this includes data analysis. This fact is true no matter where you are in the world.

Unlike undergraduate degrees, a PhD is heavily focused on research. As such, lectures are not all that common when working towards earning the degree, but they do still exist. Rather, students will focus particularly on an aspect of the subject choice to create a dissertation. Along with a written thesis, students must present their work orally (known as a “viva voce”) to a group of examiners.

A PhD is recognized around the world as the highest academic achievement. Therefore, no matter where you go, it bears with it an international standard of understanding and a level of respect. It allows for you to be a professor in academia and work in a highly specialized position within the field.

Requirements and Length of Time

While the payoffs of a PhD may seem enticing, the journey to earn your PhD is not an easy or short one.

More often than not, a PhD comes after a master degree. Yet, that’s not always true. Some institutions allow students to skip the master degree and move straight from a bachelor degree into a PhD program.

The time length of a PhD program can vary, but it generally takes three to four years to complete. If a student chooses to study part-time, it could take upwards of six or seven years to graduate.

In order to be accepted into a PhD program, there are a variety of PhD requirements. The most important requirement tends to be proof of high academic standing from your master degree. Some schools may also factor in your bachelor degree grades.

Grades also play a role in assessing the type of funding you may receive. If you have low grades, but still want to pursue a PhD, you’ll likely have to self-fund.

Along with grades, most institutions will also require the following:

1. Proof of language proficiency in the language you will pursue your PhD.

2. resume of work experience and transcript of academic courses., 3. a personal statement sharing your reasons why you want to pursue a phd in your respective field and perhaps why you are choosing the institution., 4. a phd research proposal, which includes:.

  • Your proposed research topic
  • Experience regarding the subject matter
  • Gaps in current knowledge, your understanding of current findings
  • Your research methodology
  • How your research and its implications will affect the world

Student working on a dissertation for a PhD

Photo by  Wadi Lissa  on  Unsplash

How to get a phd.

Getting a PhD requires planning, research, and commitment. Some schools vary in their requirements to apply, so it’s best practice to create your list of desired schools and research their needs.

You can choose to get a PhD at any age, but it’s best to start thinking proactively when you are moving along your graduate degree program.

Here are the main steps it takes to get a PhD:

1. Get a bachelor’s degree

2. complete the gre, 3. apply to graduate schools, 4. begin master’s or phd program, 5. if master’s, graduate and then apply again for a phd program, 6. complete phd coursework, 7. start research and write a dissertation, 8. share dissertation and get published, 9. graduate with a phd, types of phd.

There are different categories of PhD degrees. However, students only choose between professional and academic. Higher and honorary PhDs are awarded later in one’s career.

These include:

Granted in traditional subjects by performing academic research (PhD/Doctor of Philosophy/Th.D – Doctor of Theology)

Professional

These contribute directly to a specific vocational field (Doctor of Business Administration, Doctor of Engineering, Doctor of Education, Doctor of Social Science, Doctor of Architecture, etc.)

Higher/Honorary

To honor esteemed researchers and professionals, an honorary PhD may be rewarded (Doctor of Divinity, Doctor of Science – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, Doctor of Science – Arts and Humanities)

Reasons to Get a PhD

Everyone has their own reasons for why they want to get their PhD. Here are some motivations behind why you may choose to pursue the degree:

1. Intellectual challenge:

As the final degree in academics, a PhD will challenge your intellectual abilities.

2. Career goals:

Your chosen career requires that you have the degree (i.e., becoming a professor).

3. Personal passion:

You enjoy the subject matter and want to be an expert in the field.

4. Research:

You have something to contribute or know how to fill a gap in the current information.

Research and PhD publication

Photo by  Abby Chung  from  Pexels

The bottom line.

Earning a Doctor of Philosophy degree is not only for those who wish to become a professor . Whether your future career requires the degree or not, you may still want to pursue the academic challenge.

The most common trait of a PhD relies on research. As such, a government agency or organization may also want to fund you in performing research if you have something worthwhile to contribute to your field of study.

As the ultimate destination in terms of degrees, the title of PhD next to your name is well-respected and universally acknowledged. However, before enrolling in a program, make sure that you have the time, resources, and personal passion to fulfill all the necessary requirements.

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What Is a Doctorate Degree?

A doctorate is usually the most advanced degree someone can get in an academic discipline, higher education experts say.

What Is a Doctorate?

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(Getty Images)

It's unwise to apply to a doctoral program if you don't have a clear idea of how you might use a doctorate in your career.

In many academic disciplines, the most advanced degree one can earn is a doctorate. Doctorate degree-holders are typically regarded as authorities in their fields, and many note that a major reason for pursuing a doctorate is to increase professional credibility.

"If someone wants to be respected as an expert in their chosen field, and also wants to have a wider array of options in research, writing, publishing, teaching, administration, management, and/or private practice, a doctorate is most definitely worth considering," Don Martin, who has a Ph.D. in higher education administration , wrote in an email.

A doctoral degree is a graduate-level credential typically granted after multiple years of graduate school, with the time-to-degree varying depending on the type of doctoral program, experts say.

Earning a doctorate usually requires at least four years of effort and may entail eight years, depending on the complexity of a program's graduation requirements. It also typically requires a dissertation, a lengthy academic paper based on original research that must be vetted and approved by a panel of professors and later successfully defended before them for the doctorate to be granted.

Some jobs require a doctorate, such as certain college professor positions, says Eric Endlich, founder of Top College Consultants, an admissions consulting firm that helps neurodivergent students navigate undergraduate and graduate school admissions.

Endlich earned a Doctor of Philosophy degree, commonly known as a Ph.D., from Boston University in Massachusetts. He focused on psychology and notes that a doctoral degree is generally required to be a licensed psychologist.

"Since a Ph.D. is a research-focused degree, it can be advantageous to those seeking high-level research positions in scientific fields such as astrophysics or biotechnology," he says.

How Long it Takes to Get a Doctorate Degree

Martin, founder and CEO of Grad School Road Map, an organization that helps grad school applicants navigate the admissions process, says obtaining a doctorate is often a lengthy endeavor.

"Typically it can take between four and six years to complete any doctoral program," he says. "If comprehensive examinations and a dissertation are part of the graduation requirements, it may take a year or two longer. There is no standard amount of time – some students take seven to 10 years to finish."

Endlich says doctoral degree hopefuls should be aware that completing a dissertation may take a long time, especially if unexpected hurdles arise.

"My dissertation, for example, involved recruiting college students to complete questionnaires, and it took much longer than I anticipated to recruit enough subjects for my study," he says.

The standards for a dissertation, which include the proposal and research, are rigorous and usually involve a review and approval by a faculty committee, says Hala Madanat, vice president for research and innovation at San Diego State University in California.

"As part of dissertation requirements, some programs will require publication of the research in high-impact peer-reviewed journals," Madanat wrote in an email.

Types of Doctoral Degree Programs

According to professors and administrators of doctoral programs, there are two types of doctorates.

Doctor of Philosophy

A doctor of philosophy degree is designed to prepare people for research careers at a university or in industry, and teach students how to discover new knowledge within their academic discipline. Ph.D. degrees are offered in a wide range of academic subjects, including highly technical fields like biology , physics, math and engineering; social sciences like sociology and economics; and humanities disciplines like philosophy.

A Ph.D. is the most common degree type among tenure-track college and university faculty, who are typically expected to have a doctorate. But academia is not the only path for someone who pursues a Ph.D. It's common for individuals with biology doctorates to work as researchers in the pharmaceutical industry, and many government expert positions also require a Ph.D.

Professional or clinical doctorates

These are designed to give people the practical skills necessary to be influential leaders within a specific industry or employment setting, such as business, psychology , education or nursing . Examples of professional doctoral degrees include a Doctor of Business Administration degree, typically known as a DBA; a Doctor of Education degree, or Ed.D.; and a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree, or DNP.

A law degree, known as a juris doctor or J.D., as well as a Doctor of Medicine degree, or M.D., are also considered professional doctorates.

How to Get a Doctorate

Getting a doctorate is challenging. It ordinarily requires a series of rigorous classes in a field of study and then passage of a qualification exam in order to begin work on a dissertation, which is the final project.

Dissertations are difficult to write, says David Harpool, vice president of graduate and online programs at Newberry College in South Carolina. Some research indicates that only about half of doctoral students go on to finish their degree, and a main reason is that many never finish and successfully defend their dissertation

"Many of them are in programs that permit them to earn a master’s on the way to a doctorate," Harpool, who earned a Ph.D. from Saint Louis University in Missouri and a J.D. from the University of Missouri , wrote in an email. "The transition from mastering a discipline to creating new knowledge (or at least applying new knowledge in a different way), is difficult, even for outstanding students."

Learn about how M.D.-Ph.D. programs

There is a often a "huge shift in culture" at doctoral programs compared to undergraduate or master's level programs, says Angela Warfield, who earned a Ph.D. in English from the University of Iowa.

Doctoral professors and students have more of a collaborative relationship where they function as colleagues, she says. And there's pressure on each student to produce "significant and original research."

Many full-time doctoral students work for the school as researchers or teaching assistants throughout their program, so time management is crucial to avoid burnout. However, the dissertation "is by far the biggest battle," she says. The goal is to avoid an "ABD," she says, meaning "all but dissertation."

"In my writing group, we had two motivational slogans: 'ABD is not a degree,' and 'a good dissertation is a done dissertation,'" Warfield, now the principal consultant and founder of admissions consulting firm Compass Academics, wrote in an email.

How Are Doctorate Admissions Decisions Made?

Admissions standards for doctoral programs vary depending on the type of doctorate, experts say.

The quality of a candidate's research is a distinguishing factor in admissions decisions, Madanat says. Meanwhile, leaders of clinical and professional doctorate programs say that the quality of a prospective student's work experience matters most.

Doctoral programs typically expect students to have a strong undergraduate transcript , excellent letters of recommendation and, in some cases, high scores on the Graduate Record Examination , or GRE, Endlich says.

"The size of the programs may be relatively small, and universities need to be sure that applicants will be able to handle the demands of their programs," he says.

Because professional doctorates often require students to come up with effective solutions to systemic problems, eligibility for these doctorates is often restricted to applicants with extensive first-hand work experience with these problems, according to recipients of professional doctorates.

In contrast, it's common for Ph.D. students to begin their programs immediately after receiving an undergraduate degree. The admissions criteria at Ph.D. programs emphasize undergraduate grades, standardized test scores and research projects , and these programs don't necessarily require work experience.

Admissions decisions may also depend on available funding, says Madanat, who works with doctoral students to provide funding, workshops and faculty support to help their research.

Who Is a Good Fit for a Doctoral Program?

Doctoral degree hopefuls "should be interested in making a deep impact on their field, open-minded, eager to learn, curious, adaptable and self-motivated," Madanat says. "Doctoral programs are best suited for those whose goals are to transform and change the fields they are studying and want to make a difference in the way the world is."

Someone who loves to study a subject in great depth, can work alone or in teams, is highly motivated and wants to develop research skills may be a good candidate for a doctoral program, Endlich says.

Because of the tremendous effort and time investment involved in earning a doctorate, experts say it's foolish to apply to a doctoral program if it's unclear how you might use a doctorate in your career.

"The students are being trained with depth of knowledge in the discipline to prepare them for critical thinking beyond the current state of the field," Madanat says. "Students should consider the reasons that they are pursuing a doctoral degree and whether or not it aligns with their future professional goals, their family circumstances and finances."

Rachel D. Miller, a licensed marriage and family therapist who completed a Ph.D. degree in couples and family therapy at Adler University in Illinois in 2023, says pursuing a doctorate required her to make significant personal sacrifices because she had to take on large student loans and she needed to devote a lot of time and energy to her program. Miller says balancing work, home life and health issues with the demands of a Ph.D. program was difficult.

For some students, the financial component may be hard to overlook, Warfield notes.

"Student debt is no joke, and students pursuing graduate work are likely only compounding undergraduate debt," she says. "They need to really consider the payoff potential of the time and money sacrifice."

To offset costs, some programs are fully funded, waiving tuition and fees and providing an annual stipend. Some offer health insurance and other benefits. Students can also earn money by teaching at the university or through fellowships, but those adding more to their plate should possess strong time management skills, experts say.

"Graduate school, and higher education in general, can be brutal on your physical and mental health," Miller wrote in an email.

But Miller says the time and effort invested in her doctoral program paid off by allowing her to conduct meaningful research into the best way to provide therapy to children affected by high-conflict divorce and domestic violence. She now owns a therapy practice in Chicago.

Miller urges prospective doctoral students to reflect on whether getting a doctorate is necessary for them to achieve their dream job. "Really know yourself. Know your purpose for pursuing it, because that's what's going to help carry you through."

Searching for a grad school? Access our complete rankings of Best Graduate Schools.

30 Fully Funded Ph.D. Programs

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What is a PhD?

As the highest degree level achievable at university, completing a PhD shows that you've made a meaningful new contribution to your chosen research field

PhDs at a glance

  • Involves three or four years of full-time study, or up to seven part time.
  • Typically undertaken after achieving a Masters degree.
  • Can either be funded or self-funded.
  • Assessed through a written thesis and oral exam.
  • Many Doctoral graduates choose to pursue an academic or research career.

What is the meaning of PhD?

The term PhD or Doctorate of Philosophy is an abbreviation of the Latin phrase 'philosophiae doctor'.

A PhD degree typically involves students independently conducting original and significant research in a specific field or subject, before producing a publication-worthy thesis.

While some Doctorates include taught components, PhD students are almost always assessed on the quality and originality of the argument presented in their independent research project.

How long is a PhD in the UK?

Full-time PhDs usually last for three or four years, while part-time PhDs can take up to six or seven. However, the thesis deadline can be extended by up to four years at the institution's discretion. Indeed, many students who enrol on three-year PhDs only finish their thesis in their fourth year.

While most PhD studentships begin in September or October, both funded and self-funded PhDs can be undertaken at any point during the year.

If you're planning on studying for a PhD abroad, take a look at our individual country profiles .

Do I need a Masters to do a PhD?

The majority of institutions require PhD candidates to possess a Masters degree , plus a Bachelors degree at 2:1 or above. However, some universities demand only the latter, while self-funded PhD students or those with significant professional experience may also be accepted with lower grades.

You may need to initially register for a one or two-year Master of Philosophy (MPhil) or Master of Research (MRes) degree rather than a PhD. If you make sufficient progress, you and your work will then be 'upgraded' to a PhD programme. If not, you may be able to graduate with a Masters degree.

If you need an MPhil or MRes before enrolling on your PhD, search Masters degrees .

What does a PhD involve?

A standard PhD degree is typically split into three stages. A three-year PhD may follow this pattern:

  • First year - You'll meet with your supervisor to discuss your research proposal and agree an action plan with deadlines. You'll then complete your literature review, in which you'll evaluate and critique existing works to inform the direction of your project and ensure that your research will be original.
  • Second year - Your focus will shift to gathering results and developing your thesis, and potentially begin writing chapters of your thesis. You may also present your results and ideas at academic conferences, gain teaching experience, collaborate with other students on similar projects, communicate the benefits of your research to the general public through workshops, lectures and presentations, or submit work for publication in an academic journal or book.
  • Third year - Primarily involves writing your thesis, though your research may still be in progress. After your supervisor gives their approval, you'll submit your thesis before undertaking a one to three-hour oral exam ( viva voce ) in which you'll discuss and defend your thesis in the presence of at least one internal and external examiner.

How do I find a PhD?

As a PhD is different to other degrees, you're committing to more than simply an advanced qualification. You've chosen to engage in a large-scale independent research project and so you'll need to take into account a range of factors that will drive your search.

A methodical approach to the process is required and you'll need to consider the subject you're interested in carrying out research in and the type of Doctorate you're looking for, making sure this is the right project for you. Only when you're fully prepared and have a good idea of your research proposal should you search for PhD opportunities .

What other types of Doctorate are there?

Alternative types of PhD include:

  • Higher Doctorate - These are usually granted on the recommendation of a committee of internal and external examiners, which assesses a portfolio of published, peer-reviewed research you've undertaken over the course of many years. This type of Doctorate is usually for those with several years of academic experience. Common award titles include the Doctor of Civil Law (DCL), Doctor of Divinity (DD), Doctor of Literature/Letters (DLit/DLitt/LitD/LittD), Doctor of Music (DMus/MusD), Doctor of Science (DS/SD/DSc/ScD) and Doctor of Law (LLD).
  • Integrated/New Route PhD - This four-year PhD course is offered by over 30 universities and involves taking a one-year MRes before studying a three-year PhD. It combines taught elements with independent research, allowing students to learn different methodologies while building their transferable skills.
  • Professional Doctorate - Geared towards students of vocational subjects such as medicine, education and engineering, professional Doctorates are focused on teaching and so normally involve smaller research projects and thesis component. They're often favoured by those aiming for a career outside of academia and are usually supported by employers.

How much does a PhD cost?

Tuition fees vary, but usually fall between £3,000 and £6,000 per year for UK students and those from the European Union (EU) with settled status. UK Research Councils pay universities £4,596 per year (from 2022/23) on behalf of each funded PhD student, so this gives a good indication of the average figure.

For EU students looking to pursue a Doctorate in 2022/23, you'll need to have gained settled or pre-settled status to be eligible for student finance - see PhD loans .

Non-EU students may pay considerably more for their tuition fees.

Despite this, many PhD students are now part or fully funded - scholarships and bursaries are widely available, and particular attention should be paid to Research Council grants .

PhD studentships and assistantships involving a mixture of research and teaching are also common, with scientific studentships usually paid at a higher rate.

How do I apply for a PhD?

Some students propose their own research area and apply for funding, while in some cases a supervisor may already have funding for a project and advertise it like a job. When making a PhD application, you'll typically be asked to submit:

  • an academic CV
  • your academic transcripts
  • two or three academic references
  • a personal statement
  • a research proposal.

International students without settled UK status looking to study certain courses in medicine, mathematics, engineering and material sciences are required to comply with the Academic Technology Approval Scheme (ATAS) . This involves undergoing a security clearance process with the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office. International students may also have to prove their English proficiency.

What can I do next?

Your ability to critically analyse, display intellectual maturity, and research independently and honestly is highly valued within academia and the workplace.

Many students who undertake a PhD get an academic job or become an industry researcher, possibly following the PhD with postdoctoral study, then a fellowship or lectureship.

Other career options will depend on your study area.

Discover what a PhD degree can lead to at your PhD, what next?

Find out more

  • Consider your PhD options at 5 routes to getting a Doctorate .
  • Get help with choosing your PhD supervisor .
  • Explore funding postgraduate study .

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what is meant by phd degree

What is a PhD?

  • Types of Doctorates
  • A Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) is the highest globally recognized postgraduate degree that higher education institutions can award.
  • PhDs are awarded to candidates who undertake original and extensive research in a particular field of study.
  • Full time PhD programmes typically last three to four years, whilst part time PhD programmes typically last six to seven years.
  • A PhD can lead to an academia teaching role or a career in research. A PhD can also equip you with skills suitable for a wide range of jobs unrelated to your research topic or academia.

Definition of a PhD – A Doctor of Philosophy (commonly abbreviated to PhD , Ph.D or a DPhil ) is a university research degree awarded from across a broad range of academic disciplines; in most countries, it is a terminal degree, i.e. the highest academic degree possible.

PhDs differ from undergraduate and master’s degrees in that PhDs are entirely research-based rather than involving taught modules (although doctoral training centres (DTCs) offer programmes that start with a year of lecture-based teaching to help develop your research skills prior to starting your project).

In most English-speaking countries, those that complete a PhD use the title “Doctor” (typically abbreviated to Dr) in front of their names and are referred to as such within academic and/or research settings. Those that work in fields outside of academia may decide not to use the formal doctor title but use post-nominal letters (e.g. John Smith PhD); it’s unusual though for someone to use both the Doctor title and post-nominal letters in their name.

PhD vs Doctorate

A PhD and a professional doctorate are both research-based terminal degrees.

However, where a PhD focuses on original research mostly around theoretical concepts, a professional doctorate focuses on examining existing knowledge to solve real-life, practical problems.

While there is much crossover between the two, a PhD is generally better suited for an individual to wants to advance the knowledge and understanding in their field, and a professional doctorate degree is better suited to a working professional who wants to better be able to apply knowledge and understanding to their field.

What Are the Entry Requirements for a PhD?

To be accepted on to a PhD programme, students usually need to hold at least a high ( 2:1 and above ) undergraduate degree that is related to the field of research that they want to pursue. A PhD candidate may also be expected to hold a Master’s degree , however, this does not mean you must have one, as it is still possible to enrol into a PhD without a Master’s .

Self-funded courses may sometimes be more relaxed in relation to entry requirements. It may be possible to be accepted onto a self-funded PhD programme with lower grades, though these students typically demonstrate their suitability for the role through professional work experience.

Whilst a distance learning project is possible , most PhD candidates will carry out their research over at least three years based at their university, with regular contact with two academic supervisors (primary and secondary). This is particularly the case for lab-based projects, however, some PhD projects require spending time on-site away from university (e.g. at a specialist research lab or at a collaborating institution abroad).

How Long Does a PhD Take?

Typically, full-time PhDs last 3-4 years and part-time PhDs last 6-7 years. However, at the discretion of the university, the thesis writing-up period can be extended by up to four years.

Although most doctoral programmes start in September or October, they are generally much more flexible than taught-courses and can start at any time of the year.

How Much Does a PhD Cost?

Tuition fees for UK and EU students vary between £3,000 and £6,000 per year, with the average tuition fee of £4,712 per year for 2023/24 programmes.

Tuition fees increase considerably for international students, varying between £16,000 to £25,000 per year, with an average tuition fee of £19,600 per year .

Nonetheless, most students will secure PhD funding in the form of studentships, scholarships and bursaries to help pay for these fees. These funding opportunities can either be partial, which cover tuition fees only, or full, which cover both tuition fees and living expenses.

UK national students can also apply for Doctoral Loans from Student Finance England if they are unable to secure funding.

Finding a PhD has never been this easy – search for a PhD by keyword, location or academic area of interest.

What Does a PhD Involve?

To be awarded a PhD, a doctoral student is required to produce a substantial body of work that adds new knowledge to their chosen field.

A PhD programme will typically involve four key stages:

Stage 1: Literature Review

The first year of a PhD involves attending regular meetings with your supervisors and carrying out a search on previously published work in your subject area. This search will be used to produce a literature review which should set the context of the project by explaining the foundation of what is currently known within the field of research, what recent developments have occurred, and where the gaps in knowledge are. In most cases, this will be an extension of your research proposal should you have produced one as part of your application. The literature review should conclude by outlining the overarching aims and objectives of the research project. This stage of setting achievable goals which are original and contribute to the field of research is an essential first step in a successful PhD.

The supervisor is the main point of contact through the duration of a PhD – but remember: they are there to mentor, not to teach, or do it for you . It will be your responsibility to plan, execute and monitor your own work as well as to identify gaps in your own knowledge and address them.

Stage 2: Research

The second year (and prehapse some of your third year) is when you work on your research. Having identified novel research questions from your review of the literature, this is where you collect your data to help answer these questions. How you do this will depend on the nature of your doctoral research: for example, you may design and run experiments in a lab alongside other PhD students or visit excavation sites in remote regions of the world. You should check in regularly with your supervisors to update them and run any ideas or issues past them.

Have the structure and chapters of your thesis in mind as you develop and tackle your research questions. Working with a view of publishing your work will be very valuable later on.

Stage 3: Write up of Thesis

The next key stage of a PhD is writing a doctoral thesis , which typically takes from anywhere between three months to one year. A thesis is a substantial body of work that describes the work and outcomes of the research over the previous two to three years. It should tell a detailed story of the PhD project – focusing on:

  • The motivations for the research questions identified from the literature review.
  • The methodologies used, results obtained, and a comprehensive analysis and discussion of the findings.
  • A detailed discussion of the key findings with an emphasis on the original contributions made to your field of research and how this has been impactful.

There is no universal rule for the length of a PhD thesis, but general guidelines set the word count between 80,000 to 100,000 words.

For your thesis to be successful, it needs to adequately defend your argument and provide a unique or increased insight into your field that was not previously available.

Stage 4: Attending the Viva

A viva voce , most commonly referred to as just a ‘ viva ‘, is an interview-style examination where the PhD student is required to engage in a critical appraisal of their work and defend their thesis against at least two examiners. The examiners will ask questions to check the PhD student has an in-depth understanding of the ideas and theories proposed in their thesis, and whether they have developed the research skills that would be expected of them.

The viva is one of the final steps in achieving a PhD, and typically lasts at least two hours, but this duration can vary depending on the examiners, the university and the PhD project itself.

Once you have done the viva – you’re on the home stretch. You will typically be asked to make some amendments to your thesis based on the examiner’s feedback. You are then ready to submit your final thesis for either:

  • PhD – If you pass the requirements you will be awarded a PhD degree (most common outcome),
  • MPhil – If you failed to meet requirements for a PhD, you may be downgraded to an MPhil degree (uncommon outcome),
  • Fail – No award is given, typically for cases of plagiarism (extremely uncommon outcome).

What Is It Like to Undertake a PhD?

We’re often asked what it is like to undertake a PhD study. Unfortunately, this isn’t a simple answer to this question as every research project is different.

To help give insight into the life of a PhD student, we’ve interviewed PhD students at various stages of their programmes and put together a series of PhD Student Interviews . Check out the link to find out what a PhD is like and what advice they have to offer you.

What Are the Benefits of A PhD?

A PhD is the highest globally recognised postgraduate degree that higher education institutions can award. The degree, which is awarded to candidates who demonstrate original and independent research in a particular field of study, is not only invaluable in itself, but sets you up with invaluable skills and traits.

Career Opportunities

First, a PhD prepares you for a career in academia if you wish to continue in this area. This takes form as a career in the Higher Education sector, typically as a lecturer working their way to becoming a professor leading research on the subject you’ve studied and trained in.

Second, a PhD also enables the opportunity for landing a job in a research & development role outside of the academic environment. Examples of this include laboratory work for a private or third sector company, a governmental role and research for commercial and industrial applications.

Transferable Skills

Finally, in possessing a PhD degree, you can show to employers that you have vital skills that make you an asset to any company. Three examples of the transferable skills that you gain through a PhD are effective communication, time management, and report writing.

  • Communication – presenting your work in written and oral forms using journal papers and podium presentations, shows your ability to share complex ideas effectively and to those with less background knowledge than you. Communication is key in the professional environment, regardless of the job.
  • Time management – The ability to prioritise and organise tasks is a tremendous asset in the professional industry. A PhD holder can use their qualification to demonstrate that they are able to manage their time, arrange and follow a plan, and stick to deadlines.
  • Report writing – Condensing three years of work into a thesis demonstrates your ability to filter through massive amounts of information, identify the key points, and get these points across to the reader. The ability to ‘cut out the waffle’ or ‘get to the point’ is a huge asset in the professional industry.

Aside from the above, you also get to refer to yourself as a Doctor and add fancy initials after your name!

What Can I Do After a PhD?

One of the most desirable postdoctoral fields is working within independent Research and Development (R&D) labs and new emerging companies. Both industries, especially R&D labs, have dedicated groups of PhD graduates who lead research activities, design new products and take part in crucial strategic meetings. Not only is this a stimulating line of work, but the average salaries in R&D labs and emerging start-ups are lucrative. In comparison, an undergraduate with five years of experience within their given field will, on average, likely earn less than a new PhD graduate taking on a R&D position.

It’s a common misunderstanding that PhDs only opens the door for an academic career such as university lecturers and training providers. Although obtaining a PhD opens these doors, the opportunities extend far beyond educational roles. In fact, recent data from the UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) indicates only 23% of PhD graduates take a position in educational roles . This low percentage is primarily because PhD graduates have a wide range of skills that make them suitable for a broad spectrum of roles. This is being seen first hand by the increasing number of PhD graduates who are entering alternative roles such as research, writing, law and investment banking.

How Do I Find a PhD?

We appreciate that finding a PhD programme to undertake can be a relatively daunting process. According to Higher Education Student Statistics , over 22,000 PhDs were awarded in 2016/17 within the United Kingdom alone. Clearly there are a huge number of PhD programmes available. This can sometimes be confusing for prospective doctorates, particularly when different programmes are advertised in different places. Often, it is difficult to know where to look or where to even start. We’ve put together a list of useful sources to find the latest PhD programmes:

  • A great place to start is with our comprehensive and up-to-date database of available PhD positions .
  • Assuming you are still at university, speak to an existing PhD supervisor within your department.
  • Attend as many postgraduate open days as you can. Whilst there, speak to current PhD students and career advisors to get an awareness of what PhDs are on offer.
  • Visit the postgraduate section of university websites and the PhD Research Council section of the UKRI website.

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What is a PhD? Advice for PhD students

How long does it take to get a doctorate degree how do you get into grad school are you qualified to do a phd answers to these questions and more.

PhD, doctorate

What is a PhD?

A PhD, which stands for “doctor of philosophy”, is the most advanced academic degree. It’s earned through extensive research on a specific topic, demonstrating expertise and contributing new knowledge to the field.

What does “PhD” mean?

The term “PhD” is often used as a synonym for any doctoral-level qualification. Doctorate degrees can often be split into two categories: MPhil and PhD.

An MPhil is similar to a PhD as it includes a research element (which is usually shorter and less in-depth than a PhD thesis, and often more akin to a dissertation undertaken at undergraduate or master’s level). 

MPhil students focus more on interpreting existing knowledge and theory and critically evaluating other people’s work rather than producing their own research. The precise nature and definition of an MPhil can vary among institutions and countries. 

A PhD, meanwhile, follows a more widely known and traditional route and requires students, often referred to as “candidates”, to produce their own work and research on a new area or topic to a high academic standard.

PhD requirements vary significantly among countries and institutions. The PhD, once completed, grants the successful candidate the title of “doctor of philosophy”, also called PhD or DPhil.

What is a professional doctorate?

A professional doctorate is a kind of degree that helps people become experts in their fields. Instead of focusing mainly on theory and research like a regular PhD, a professional doctorate is all about practical skills and knowledge.

This kind of doctorate is great for students who want to get better at their jobs in areas like teaching, healthcare, business, law or psychology. The courses and projects in these programmes are designed to tackle real problems you might face at work.

For example, you might have heard of the doctor of education (EdD), doctor of business administration (DBA), doctor of psychology (PsyD) or doctor of nursing practice (DNP). These programmes combine learning, hands-on projects and sometimes a thesis paper or essay to show you’re skilled at solving on-the-job challenges.

How long does it take to study a PhD?

The time required to complete a PhD can vary significantly based on several factors. Generally, a full-time PhD programme takes around three to six years to finish. However, it’s important to take into account individual circumstances and the nature of the research involved.

1. Full-time vs. part-time: If you’re studying full-time, dedicating most of your time to your studies, it usually takes about three to four years to complete a PhD. However, studying part-time while managing other commitments might extend the duration. Part-time PhDs can take around six to eight years, and sometimes even longer.

2. Nature of research: The complexity of your research proposal can influence the time required. Certain research questions may involve intricate experiments, extensive data collection or in-depth analysis, potentially leading to a longer completion timeline.

3. Field of study: The subject area you’re researching can also affect the necessary time. Some fields, such as sciences or engineering, might involve more hands-on work, while theoretical subjects might require more time for literature review and analysis.

4. Supervision and support: The guidance and availability of your academic supervisor can affect the pace of your research progress. Regular meetings and effective communication can help keep your studies on track.

5. Thesis writing: While the research phase is crucial, the stage of writing your thesis is equally significant. Organising and presenting your research findings in a clear and cohesive manner can take several months.

6. External commitments: Personal commitments, such as work, family or health-related factors, can influence your study time. Some students need to balance these alongside their PhD studies, potentially extending the duration.

7. External Funding: The availability of funding can also affect your study duration. Some funding might be linked to specific project timelines or research objectives.

So, although a PhD usually takes between three and six years of full-time study, with potential variations based on research complexity, enrolment as part-time or full-time, field of study and personal circumstances. It’s vital to have a realistic understanding of these factors when planning your PhD journey.

How long is a PhD in the UK?

In the UK, the length of a PhD programme typically ranges from three to four years of full-time study. As explained above, there are many factors to consider.

How long is a PhD in the US?

Similarly to the UK, in the United States, the duration of a PhD programme can vary widely depending on the field of study, research topic and individual circumstances. On average, a full-time PhD programme in the US typically takes between five and six years to complete.

Why does it take longer to study a PhD in the US?

PhD programmes generally take longer to complete in the US than in the UK due to various factors in the education systems and programme structures of each country:

1. Programme structure: UK PhD programmes often emphasise early, focused research from the first year, leading to shorter completion times. In contrast, US programmes commonly include more initial coursework in your first and second year and broader foundational training, which can extend the overall duration.

2. Course work requirements: Many US PhD programmes require a lot of course work, which can lengthen the time needed to finish. UK programmes tend to have fewer or no course work demands, allowing students to concentrate primarily on research skills.

3. Research funding: In the UK, PhD funding is often awarded with specific timeframes in mind, motivating completion of the research degree in the agreed duration. In the US, funding approaches can vary, requiring students to secure funding from multiple sources, potentially affecting their progress and completion time.

4. Teaching responsibilities: Some US PhD students take on teaching roles as part of their funding, dividing their time and potentially prolonging their studies.

5. Research approach: Differences in research methodologies and project scopes can affect the time needed for data collection, experimentation and analysis.

6. Academic culture: The US education system values a well-rounded education, including coursework and comprehensive exams. This can extend the time before full-time research begins. UK PhD programmes often prioritise independent research early on.

7. Part-time and work commitments: US PhD candidates might have more flexibility for part-time work or other commitments, which can affect research progress.

8. Dissertation requirements: US PhD programmes generally include a longer and more comprehensive dissertation, involving more chapters and a broader exploration of the research topic.

These variations in programme structures, funding models and academic cultures contribute to the differing completion times between the two countries.

What qualifications do you need for a PhD?

To be eligible for a PhD programme, certain educational qualifications are generally expected by universities. These qualifications serve as indicators of your readiness to engage in advanced research and contribute to the academic community.

First, an undergraduate or bachelor’s degree in a relevant field is typically the most common requirement. This degree provides you with a foundational understanding of the subject and introduces you to basic research methodologies. It serves as a starting point for your academic journey.

Do you need a master’s degree to get into a PhD programme?

In addition to an undergraduate degree, many PhD programmes also require candidates to hold postgraduate or master’s degrees, often in fields related to the intended PhD research. A master’s degree offers a deeper exploration of the subject matter and enhances your research skills. Possessing a master’s degree signifies a higher level of expertise and specialisation.

The combination of both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees demonstrates a solid academic background. This background is crucial before you engage in doctoral study because pursuing a PhD involves more than just knowledge; it requires advanced research abilities, critical thinking and the capacity to provide an original contribution and new insights into the chosen field of study.

While these qualifications are usually requested, there are exceptions. Some institutions offer direct-entry programmes that encompass bachelor’s, master’s and PhD degrees in a streamlined structure. This approach is often seen in scientific and engineering disciplines rather than humanities.

In exceptional cases, outstanding performance during undergraduate studies, coupled with a well-defined research proposal, might lead to direct entry into a PhD programme without requiring a master’s degree.

Admission requirements can vary between universities and programmes. Some institutions might have more flexible prerequisites, while others could have more stringent criteria. Make sure that you thoroughly research all admission requirements of the PhD programmes you’re interested in to ensure you provide the right information.

Are PhD entry requirements similar in other countries?

PhD entry requirements in Canada and Australia can be somewhat similar to those in the UK and the US, but there are also some differences. Just like in the UK and the US, having a bachelor’s degree followed by a master’s degree is a common way to qualify for a PhD in Canada and Australia. However, the exact rules can vary, such as how much research experience you need or the grades you should have.

In Canada and Australia, as in the UK and the US, international students usually need to show their English language skills through tests like IELTS or TOEFL. And, like in other places, you might need to give a research proposal to explain what you want to study for your PhD.

But remember, even though there are some similarities, each country has its own rules.

PhD diary: Preparing for a PhD Nine things to know before doing a PhD Women in STEM: undertaking PhD research in cancer Studying for a part-time PhD: the challenges and the benefits Is it possible to do a three-year PhD as an international student? Looking for PhD tips? Why not check Twitter PhD diary: Where do I begin? How to do a PhD on a budget

How much does it cost to study a PhD?

The cost of pursuing a PhD can vary significantly between international and home (domestic) students, and it depends on the country, university and programme you choose.

United Kingdom (UK)

Home students in the UK often pay lower tuition fees compared with international students. Home students might also have access to government funding or subsidised tuition rates.

International students typically pay higher tuition fees, which can vary widely depending on the university and programme. Fees can range from around £10,000 to £25,000 or more per year.

United States (US)

PhD programme costs in the US can be quite high, especially for international students. Public universities often have lower tuition rates for in-state residents compared with out-of-state residents and international students.

Private universities in the US generally have higher tuition fees, and international students might be charged higher rates than domestic students.

Canadian universities often charge higher tuition fees for international students compared with domestic students.

Some universities offer funding packages that include tuition waivers and stipends for both domestic and international doctoral students.

In Australia, domestic students (Australian citizens and permanent residents) usually pay lower tuition fees than international students.

International students in Australia might have higher tuition fees, and costs can vary based on the university and programme.

Apart from tuition fees, other aspects play a role in the overall financial consideration:

PhD studentship: Many universities offer PhD studentships that provide financial support to research students, covering both tuition fees and a stipend for living expenses.

Stipend and housing: Stipends are designed to cover living expenses. Stipend amounts can vary depending on the university and location. If you’re studying in London in the UK, stipends might be higher to account for the higher living costs in the city. Some universities also offer subsidised or affordable housing options for doctoral students.

Tuition and stipend packages: Some PhD programmes provide funding packages that include both tuition waivers and stipends. These packages are to help relieve the financial burden on students during their doctoral studies.

Research the financial support options provided by the universities you’re interested in to make an informed decision about the cost of your PhD journey.

What funding options are available for PhD candidates?

PhD candidates have various funding options available to support their studies and research journeys. Some of these options include:

PhD scholarships: Scholarships are a common form of financial aid for PhD candidates. They are awarded based on academic merit, research potential or other specific criteria. Scholarships can cover tuition fees and provide a stipend for living expenses.

Bursaries: Bursaries are another form of financial assistance offered to students, including PhD candidates, based on financial need. They can help cover tuition fees or provide additional financial support.

In the UK, specific funding options are available:

Regional consortium: Some regions have research consortiums that offer funding opportunities for doctoral candidates. These collaborations can provide financial support for research projects aligned with specific regional needs.

UK research institute: Research councils in the UK often offer stipends to PhD candidates. These stipends cover living expenses and support research work.

University-based studentship: Many UK universities offer studentships. You can read more about these above.

In the USA, there are also funding options available:

Research assistantships (RAs): Many universities offer research assistantships where PhD candidates work on research projects under the guidance of faculty members. In exchange, they receive stipends and often have their tuition waived.

Teaching assistantships (TA): Teaching assistantships involve assisting professors in teaching undergraduate courses. In return, PhD candidates receive stipends and sometimes tuition remission.

Fellowships: Fellowships are competitive awards that provide financial support for PhD candidates. They can come from universities, government agencies, private foundations and other institutions. Fellowships can cover tuition, provide stipends and offer research or travel funds.

Graduate assistantships: Graduate assistantships include a range of roles, from research and teaching to administrative support. These positions often come with stipends and sometimes include tuition benefits.

External grants and fellowships: PhD candidates can apply for grants and fellowships from external organisations and foundations that support research careers in specific fields. Examples include the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Fulbright Programme.

Employer sponsorship: In some cases, employers might sponsor employees to pursue PhDs, especially if the research aligns with the company’s interests.

You can read about the current available scholarships for international students of all education levels on our website .

What does a PhD Involve?

How does a PhD work?

A PhD includes thorough academic research and significant contributions to your chosen field of study. The timeline for completing a PhD can significantly vary based on the country, college or university you attend and the specific subject you study.

The duration of a PhD programme can vary based on factors such as the institution’s requirements and the academic discipline you’re pursuing. For instance, the timeline for a PhD in a science-related field might differ from that of a humanities discipline.

UK PhD timeline example

Looking at a typical PhD degree in a London higher education institution, we can consider this example timeline.

In the initial year of your PhD, you’ll collaborate closely with your designated academic supervisor. This collaboration involves refining and solidifying your research proposal, which lays the foundation for your entire doctoral journey.

This is also the time to establish a comprehensive plan, complete with well-defined milestones and deadlines. A crucial aspect of this year is conducting an extensive literature review, immersing yourself in existing academic works to understand the landscape of your chosen research area. It’s important to make sure that your research idea is original and distinct from prior studies.

As you begin the second year, you’ll actively collect data and gather information related to your research topic. Simultaneously, you’ll initiate the process of crafting your thesis. This involves combining your research findings and analysis into sections of your thesis document.

This is also the phase where you might have opportunities to share your research insights at academic meetings, conferences or workshops. Depending on the programme, you might even engage in teaching activities. Some PhD candidates also begin contributing to academic journals or books, showcasing their findings to a broader audience.

The third year of a PhD programme often marks the final stage of your research efforts. This is when you dedicate substantial time to writing and finalising your complete thesis. Once your thesis is completed to the highest standard, you’ll submit it for thorough evaluation.

A significant milestone in the third year is the viva voce, an oral examination where you’ll defend your thesis before a panel of experts in your field. The viva voce is an opportunity to showcase your deep understanding of your research and defend your findings.

Why should you do a PhD?

For many people, acquiring a doctorate degree is the pinnacle of academic achievement, the culmination of years of commitment to higher education.

However, the act of pursuing a PhD can be a complex, frustrating, expensive and time-consuming exercise. But with the right preparation, some sound advice and a thorough understanding of the task at hand, your years as a doctoral student can be some of the most rewarding of your life. 

People choose to work towards a doctorate for many reasons. If you are looking to pursue an academic position, such as university lecturer or researcher, then a PhD is usually required.

Many people obtain a PhD as part of a partnership with an employer, particularly in scientific fields such as engineering, where their research can prove useful for companies.

In some cases, however, PhDs are simply down to an individual’s love of a subject and their desire to learn more about their field.

What are some benefits of studying a PhD?

Pursuing a PhD can have many benefits that extend beyond academic achievement, encompassing personal growth, professional advancement and meaningful contributions to knowledge.

One of the most notable benefits of a PhD is the potential for tenure in academia. Attaining tenure provides a level of job security that allows you to delve into long-term research projects and make enduring contributions to your field. It signifies a stage where you can explore innovative ideas and pursue in-depth research, fostering your academic legacy.

While not obligatory, the opportunity to collaborate on research projects with your supervisor is another valuable aspect of a PhD pursuit. These collaborations might even come with financial compensation, offering real-world experience, skill development and practical applications of your research. Engaging in such collaborations can enrich your research portfolio and refine your research methodologies.

A pivotal aspect of a PhD journey is the chance to publish your original research findings. By disseminating your work in academic journals or presenting it at conferences, you contribute to the expansion of knowledge within your field. These publications establish your expertise and reputation among peers and researchers worldwide, leaving a lasting impact.

The pursuit of a PhD can provide a unique platform to build a diverse network of colleagues, mentors and collaborators. Engaging with fellow researchers, attending conferences and participating in academic events offer opportunities to make valuable connections. This network can lead to collaborations, expose you to a spectrum of perspectives and pave the way for future research endeavours.

What is a PhD thesis? And what is a PhD viva?

A PhD thesis will be produced with help from an academic supervisor, usually one with expertise in your particular field of study. This thesis is the backbone of a PhD, and is the candidate’s opportunity to communicate their original research to others in their field (and a wider audience).  PhD students also have to explain their research project and defend their thesis in front of a panel of academics. This part of the process is often the most challenging, since writing a thesis is a major part of many undergraduate or master’s degrees, but having to defend it from criticism in real time is arguably more daunting.  This questioning is known as a “viva”, and examiners will pay particular attention to a PhD’s weaknesses either in terms of methodology or findings. Candidates will be expected to have a strong understanding of their subject areas and be able to justify specific elements of their research quickly and succinctly.

In rare cases, students going for a PhD may instead be awarded an MPhil if the academic standard of their work is not considered fully up to par but still strong enough to be deserving of a qualification.

Can you do a PhD part time? 

Many PhD and MPhil candidates choose to pursue their qualification part time, in order to allow time to work and earn while studying. This is especially true of older students, who might be returning to academia after working for a few years. 

When applying, you should always speak to the admissions team at your university to ensure this is possible and then continue to work with your supervisor to balance all your commitments. 

Can I do a PhD through distance learning?

This is something else that you will need to check with your university. Some institutions offer this option, depending on the nature of your research. 

You will need to be clear how many times you will need to travel to your university to meet with your supervisor throughout your PhD. 

Your PhD supervisor

Choosing the right PhD supervisor is essential if you want to get the most out of your PhD. Do your research into the faculty at the institution and ensure that you meet with your proposed supervisor (either virtually or in person) before fully committing. 

You need to know that not only do they have the right expertise and understanding of your research but also that your personalities won’t clash throughout your PhD. 

Remember, to complete your PhD, you will need a strong support network in place, and your supervisor is a key part of that network. 

Coping with PhD stress

If you do decide to embark on a doctorate, you may well encounter stress and anxiety. The work involved is often carried out alone, the hours can be long and many students can suffer from the pressure they feel is on their shoulders.

Ensuring that you check in regularly with your emotions and your workload is crucial to avoid burnout. If you have other commitments, such as a job or a family, then learning to balance these can feel overwhelming at times. 

Give yourself regular breaks, speak to your supervisor and ensure that you know what university resources and support systems are available to you in case you need to access them. 

Post-doctorate: what happens after you finish your PhD?

Many PhD graduates pursue a career in academia, while others will work in industry. Some might take time out, if they can afford to, to recover from the efforts of PhD study.

Whatever you choose to do, undertaking a PhD is a huge task that can open up a range of doors professionally. Just remember to take some time out to celebrate your achievement. 

How does a PhD affect salary and earning potential?

How much does a professor with a PhD make a year?

Professors with PhDs can earn different amounts depending on where they work and their experience. In the UK, a professor might make around £50,000 to £100,000 or more each year. In the US, it's between about $60,000 and $200,000 or even higher. The exact salary depends on things like the place they work, if they have tenure, and what they teach.

How much does a PhD add to salary?

Having a PhD can make your salary higher than if you had a lower degree. But exactly how much more you earn can change. On average, people with PhDs earn more than those with bachelor’s or master’s degrees. The increase in salary is influenced by many things, such as the job you do, where you work and what field you’re in.

In fields such as research, healthcare, technology and finance, your knowledge and skills from your PhD can potentially help you secure a higher salary position.

In the end, having a PhD can boost your earning potential and open doors to well-paying jobs, including professorships and special roles in different areas. But the exact effect on your salary is influenced by many things, so ensure you weigh the cost against the benefit.

How to choose a PhD programme?

Choosing a PhD programme involves defining your research interest, researching supervisors and programme reputation, evaluating funding options, reviewing programme structure, considering available resources, assessing networking opportunities, factoring in location and career outcomes, visiting the campus if possible and trusting your instincts.

How can I find available PhD programmes?

You can find available PhD programmes by visiting university websites, using online directories such as “FindAPhD”, checking professional associations, networking with professors and students, following universities on social media, attending career fairs and conferences, contacting universities directly and exploring research institutes’ websites.

How to apply for a PhD programme?

To apply for a PhD programme:

Research and select universities aligned with your interests.

Contact potential supervisors, sharing your proposal, CV and references.

Prepare application materials: research proposal, CV, recommendation letters and a writing sample.

Ensure you meet academic and language-proficiency requirements.

Complete an online application through the university’s portal.

Pay any required application fees.

Write a statement of purpose explaining your motivations.

Provide official transcripts of your academic records.

Submit standardised test scores if needed.

Some programmes may require an interview.

The admissions committee reviews applications and decides.

Apply for scholarships or assistantships.

Upon acceptance, review and respond to the offer letter.

Plan travel, accommodation and logistics accordingly.

Remember to research and follow each university’s specific application guidelines and deadlines.

How to apply for a PhD as an international student?

Many stages of the PhD application process are the same for international students as domestic students. However, there are sometimes some additional steps:

International students should apply for a student visa.

Take language proficiency tests such as TOEFL or IELTS if required.

Provide certificates if needed to validate your previous degrees.

Show evidence of sufficient funds for tuition and living expenses.

Check if you need health insurance for your chosen destination.

Translate and authenticate academic transcripts if necessary.

Attend orientation sessions for cultural adaptation.

Apply for university housing or explore off-campus options.

Familiarise yourself with international student support services.

Ben Osborne, the postgraduate student recruitment manager at the University of Sussex explains in detail how to apply for a PhD in the UK .

Giulia Evolvi, a lecturer in media and communication at Erasmus University, Rotterdam explains how to apply for a PhD in the US .

Finally, Samiul Hossain explores the question Is it possible to do a three-year PhD as an international student?

Q. What is a PhD? A. A PhD is the highest level of academic degree awarded by universities, involving in-depth research and a substantial thesis.

Q. What does “PhD” mean? A. “PhD” stands for doctor of philosophy, recognising expertise in a field.

Q. What is a professional doctorate? A. A professional doctorate emphasises practical application in fields such as education or healthcare.

Q. How long does it take to study a PhD? A. It takes between three and six years to study a full-time PhD programme.

Q. How long is a PhD in the UK? A. It takes around three to four years to study a full-time UK PhD.

Q. How long is a PhD in the US? A. It takes approximately five to six years to complete a full-time US PhD.

Q. Why does it take longer to study a PhD in the US? A. US programmes often include more course work and broader training.

Q. What qualifications do you need for a PhD? A. You usually need an undergraduate degree as a minimum requirement, although a master’s might be preferred.

Q. Do you need a master’s degree to get into a PhD programme? A. Master’s degrees are preferred but not always required.

Q. Are PhD entry requirements similar in other countries? A. Entry requirements are similar in many countries, but there may be additional requirements. Make sure to check the university website for specific details.

Q. How much does it cost to study a PhD? A. The cost of PhD programmes vary by country and university.

Q. What funding options are available for PhD candidates? A. Scholarships, assistantships, fellowships, grants, stipends are all funding options for PhD candidates.

Q. What does a PhD involve? A. PhDs involve research, seminars, thesis, literature review, data analysis and a PhD viva.

Q. Why should you do a PhD? A. There are many reasons to study a PhD including personal growth, research skills, contributions to academia and professional development.

Q. What are some benefits of studying a PhD? A. Benefits of graduating with a PhD include achieving tenure, collaborations with colleagues, publication of your work, and networking opportunities.

Q. What is a PhD thesis? A. A PhD thesis is a comprehensive document that showcases the original research conducted by a PhD candidate.

Q. What is a PhD viva? A. A PhD viva, also known as a viva voce or oral examination, is the final evaluation of a PhD candidate’s research and thesis where the panel asks questions, engages in discussions and assesses the depth of the candidate’s understanding and expertise.

Q. Can you do a PhD part-time? A. Yes, part-time options are available for PhDs.

Q. Can I do a PhD through distance learning? A. Some universities offer online PhDs; you can find out more on their websites.

Q. How to choose a PhD programme? A. You can find PhD programmes through research, by contacting faculty, checking resources and considering location.

Q. How can I find available PhD programme? A. You can find available PhD programmes on university sites, through directories and by networking.

Q. How to apply for a PhD programme A. To apply for a PhD programme, research suitable universities and programmes, get in touch with potential supervisors, gather required documents like transcripts and reference letters, complete the online application, pay any necessary fees and submit a statement of purpose and research proposal. If needed, meet language-proficiency criteria and attend interviews. After acceptance, explore funding choices, confirm your spot and get ready for the programme’s start.

Q. How to apply for a PhD as an international student A. To apply for a PhD as an international student, follow similar steps to domestic students, but you need to include securing a student visa and passing language requirements.

Q. What is a PhD dropout rate? A. The dropout rate from PhDs varies but is approximately 30-40 per cent.

Q. How does a PhD affect salary and earning potential? A. A PhD can boost earning potential, especially in research, technology, healthcare and academia. Impact varies by job, industry and location. Experience, skills and demand also influence salary.

Q. How to address a person with a PhD? A. When addressing someone with a PhD, it’s respectful to use “Dr”, followed by their last name, whether they have a PhD in an academic field or a professional doctorate. For instance, “Dr. Smith”.

Q. Is there a difference between a PhD and a doctorate? A. The terms “PhD” and “doctorate” are often used interchangeably, though a PhD is a specific type of doctorate focused on original research. A doctorate can refer more broadly to any doctoral-level degree, including professional doctorates with practical applications.

Q. What is the difference between a PhD and an MD? A. A PhD is a doctor of philosophy, awarded for academic research, while an MD is a doctor of medicine, focusing on medical practice. They lead to different career paths and involve distinct areas of study.

Q. What is the difference between a PhD and a professional doctorate? A. A PhD is an academic research-focused degree, while a professional doctorate emphasises applying research to practical fields such as education or business. PhDs often involve original research, while professional doctorates focus on real-world application.

Q. What is the difference between UK and US PhDs? A. The difference between UK and US PhDs lies mainly in structure and duration. UK PhDs often have shorter durations and a stronger emphasis on independent research from an early stage. US PhDs typically include more initial coursework and broader foundational training before full-time research begins.

Q. What is the difference between a PhD student and a candidate? A. A PhD student is actively studying and researching in a doctoral programme, while a PhD candidate has completed programme requirements except for the dissertation and is close to completion.

Q. What’s the difference between a PhD and an EdD? A. A PhD and an EdD (doctor of education) differ in focus. A PhD emphasises research and academic contributions, while an EdD focuses on applying research to practical educational issues.

Q. What’s the difference between a PhD and a DBA? A. A PhD and a DBA (doctor of business administration) differ in purpose. A PhD emphasises theoretical research and academia, while a DBA is practice-oriented, aimed at solving real business problems.

Q. What’s the difference between a PhD and a PsyD? A. A PhD and a PsyD (doctor of psychology) differ in emphasis. A PhD focuses on research and academia, while a PsyD emphasises clinical practice and applying psychological knowledge.

Q. What’s the difference between a PhD and an LLD? A. A PhD and an LLD (doctor of laws or Legum doctor) are distinct. A PhD is awarded in various disciplines, while an LLD is usually an honorary degree for significant contributions to law.

Q. What’s the difference between a PhD and an MD-PhD? A. A PhD and an MD-PhD differ. An MD-PhD is a dual degree combining medical training (MD) with research training (PhD).

Q. What is the Cambridge PhD? A. A Cambridge PhD involves original research guided by a supervisor, resulting in a thesis. It’s offered at the University of Cambridge .

Q. What is the Oxford DPhil? A. An Oxford DPhil is equivalent to a PhD and involves independent research leading to a thesis. The term “DPhil” is unique to the University of Oxford .

Q. What is the PhD programme acceptance rate? A. PhD acceptance rates vary by university, field and competition. Prestigious universities and competitive fields often have lower acceptance rates.

Q. What is a PhD supervisor? A. A PhD supervisor guides and supports a student’s research journey, providing expertise and feedback.

Q. What is a PhD panel? A. A PhD panel evaluates a candidate’s research, thesis and oral defence. It consists of experts in the field.

Q. What is a PhD stipend? A. A PhD stipend is a regular payment supporting living expenses during research, often tied to teaching or research assistant roles.

Q. What is a PhD progression assessment? A. A PhD progression assessment evaluates a student’s progress, often confirming their continuation in the programme.

Q. What is a PhD defence? A. A PhD defence, or viva, is the final oral examination where a candidate presents and defends their research findings and thesis before experts.

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  • Master’s vs PhD | A Complete Guide to the Differences

Master's vs PhD | A Complete Guide to the Differences

Published on November 27, 2020 by Lauren Thomas . Revised on June 1, 2023.

The two most common types of graduate degrees are master’s and doctoral degrees:

  • A master’s is a 1–2 year degree that can prepare you for a multitude of careers.
  • A PhD, or doctoral degree, takes 3–7 years to complete (depending on the country) and prepares you for a career in academic research.

A master’s is also the necessary first step to a PhD. In the US, the master’s is built into PhD programs, while in most other countries, a separate master’s degree is required before applying for PhDs.

Master’s are far more common than PhDs. In the US, 24 million people have master’s or professional degrees, whereas only 4.5 million have doctorates.

Table of contents

Master’s vs phd at a glance, which is right for you, length of time required, career prospects, costs and salaries, application process, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about master's and phd degrees.

The table below shows the key differences between the two.

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A PhD is right for you if:

  • Your goal is to become a professor at a university or some other type of professional researcher.
  • You love research and are passionate about discovering the answer to a particular question.
  • You are willing to spend years pursuing your research even if you have to put up with a lot of dead ends and roadblocks.

A master’s degree is the better choice if any of the following apply:

  • You want to continue studies in your field, but you’re not committed to a career as a professional researcher.
  • You want to develop professional skills for a specific career.
  • You are willing to pay a higher upfront cost if it means finishing with your degree (and thus being able to work) much faster.
  • You want the option to study part-time while working.

The length of time required to complete a PhD or master’s degree varies. Unsurprisingly, PhDs take much longer, usually between 3–7 years. Master’s degrees are usually only 1–2 years.

Length of a master’s

Master’s degrees are usually 2 years, although 1-year master’s degrees also exist, mainly in the UK.

Most of the degree consists of classes and coursework, although many master’s programs include an intensive, semester-long master’s thesis or capstone project in which students bring together all they’ve learned to produce an original piece of work.

Length of a PhD

In the US, a PhD usually takes between 5 and 7 years to complete. The first 2 years are spent on coursework. Students, even those who choose to leave without finishing the program, usually receive a master’s degree at this point.

The next 3–5 years are spent preparing a dissertation —a lengthy piece of writing based on independent research, which aims to make a significant original contribution to one’s field.

Master’s degrees tend to prepare you for a career outside of academia, while PhDs are designed to lead to a career in research.

Careers for master’s graduates

There are two types of master’s degrees: terminal and research-intensive. The career prospects are different for each.

Terminal master’s degrees are intended to prepare students for careers outside of academia. Some degrees, known as professional degrees, specifically prepare students for particular professions; these include the Master of Public Policy (MPP), Master of Business Administration (MBA), Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT), Master of Fine Arts (MFA), and Master of Public Health (MPH) degrees.

Other master’s degrees, usually Master of Arts (MA) or Master of Sciences (MS or MSc) degrees, do not necessarily lead to a specific career, but are intended to be a final degree. Examples include an MS in Communications or MS in Data Analytics.

In research-intensive master’s programs, students take coursework intended to prepare them for writing an original piece of research known as the master’s thesis . Such programs are usually intended to prepare for further study in a doctoral program.

Careers for PhD graduates

As research degrees, PhDs are usually intended to lead to an academic career. A PhD can be thought of like an apprenticeship, where students learn from professional researchers (academics) how to produce their own research.

Most students aspire to become a university professor upon the completion of their degree. However, careers in academia are highly competitive, and the skills learned in a doctoral program often lend themselves well to other types of careers.

Some graduates who find they prefer teaching to producing research go on to be teachers at liberal arts colleges or even secondary schools. Others work in research-intensive careers in the government, private sector, or at think tanks.

Below are a few examples of specific fields and non-academic careers that are common destinations of graduates of those fields.

  • Computer Science
  • Lab Sciences

Many government jobs, including economists at a country’s central bank, are research-intensive and require a PhD. Think tanks also hire economists to carry out independent research.

In the private sector, economic consulting and technology firms frequently hire PhDs to solve real-world problems that require complex mathematical modeling.

Graduate students from the humanities are sometimes hired by museums, who can make use of their research and writing skills to curate exhibits and run public outreach.

Humanities PhDs are often well-suited to research and grant-writing roles at nonprofits. Since so much of research is funded by grants, PhD students often gain a lot of experience applying for them, which is a useful skill in the nonprofit sector.

There are a wide range of non-academic research jobs for lab scientists with doctorates in subjects like chemistry, biology, ecology and physics.

Many PhD graduates are hired by pharmaceutical companies that need to perform research to create and test their products. Government agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), also hire lab scientists to work on research projects.

Job prospects after graduation vary widely based on the field. In fields like management, computer science, statistics, and economics, there’s little underemployment—even graduates from less well-known programs can easily find jobs that pay well and use the skills they’ve gained from the PhD.

However, in other fields, particularly in the humanities, many PhD graduates have difficulty in the job market. Unfortunately, there are far more PhD graduates than assistant professor roles, so many instead take on part-time and low-paid roles as adjunct instructors. Even non-academic careers can sometimes be difficult for PhDs to move into, as they may be seen as “overqualified”  or as lacking in relevant professional experience.

Because career options post-PhD vary so much, you should take the time to figure out what the career prospects are in your field. Doctoral programs often have detailed “placement” records online in which they list the career outcomes of their graduates immediately upon leaving the program. If you can’t find these records, contact the program and ask for them—placement information should play an important role in your choice of PhD program.

Although PhDs take far longer to complete, students often receive a living stipend in exchange for being a teaching or research assistant. Master’s degrees are shorter but less likely to be funded.

Both master’s degrees and PhDs lead to increased salaries upon graduation. While PhDs usually earn a bit more than those with a master’s degree, in some fields, the wages are identical, meaning that no financial benefit is gained from going on to a PhD.

Cost of a master’s

The upfront cost of a master’s degree is usually higher than a doctoral degree due to the lower amount of financial aid available. However, increased salaries also arrive faster than with a doctoral degree, because people graduate much earlier from a master’s program.

Some master’s students do receive stipends for their degrees, usually as compensation for being a teaching or research assistant. In addition, many people complete master’s degrees part time while working full-time, which allows them to fund their living costs as well as tuition.

The cost varies significantly by school and program. Public schools are usually cheaper than private ones. Some master’s degrees, such as MBAs, are notoriously expensive, but also result in much higher wages afterwards that make up for the high cost.

The master’s wage premium , or the extra amount that someone with a master’s degree makes than someone with just a high school diploma, is 23% on average. Many universities provide detailed statistics on the career and salary outcomes of their students. If they do not have this online, you should feel free to contact an administrator of the program and ask.

Cost of a PhD

PhDs, particularly outside the humanities, are usually (though not always) funded, meaning that tuition fees are fully waived and students receive a small living stipend. During the last 3–5 years of a PhD, after finishing their coursework (and sometimes before), students are usually expected to work as graduate instructors or research assistants in exchange for the stipend.

Sometimes students can apply for a fellowship (such as the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Program in the United States) that relieves them of any obligations to be a teaching or research assistant. Doctoral programs in the US tend to be better funded than in the rest of the world.

Sometimes, PhD degrees can be completed part-time, but this is rare. Students are usually expected to devote at least 40 hours a week to their research and work as teaching or research assistants.

The main cost of doctoral programs comes in the form of opportunity cost—all the years that students could be working a regular, full-time job, which usually pays much better than a graduate school stipend.

The average wage premium for PhDs is 26%, which is not much higher than the master’s degree premium.

In the US, the application process is similar for master’s and PhD programs. Both will generally ask for:

  • At least one application essay, often called a personal statement or statement of purpose .
  • Letters of recommendation .
  • A resume or CV .
  • Transcripts.
  • Writing samples.

Applications for both types of programs also often require a standardized test. PhDs usually require the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), which tries to measure verbal reasoning, quantitative, critical thinking , and analytical writing skills. Many master’s programs require this test as well.

Applying for a master’s

Master’s degrees programs will often ask you to respond to specific essay prompts that may ask you to reflect upon not just your academic background, but also your personal character and future career ambitions.

Northwestern University’s Kellogg Business School requires Master’s of Business Administration (MBA) applicants write two essays, one about a recent time they demonstrated leadership and the second about their personal values.

Who you should ask for your letters of recommendation varies by program. If you are applying to a research-intensive master’s program, then you should choose former professors or research supervisors. For other programs, particularly business school, current work supervisors may be a better choice.

Some professional master’s programs require a specific test. For example, to apply to law school, you must take the Law School Admissions Test, or LSAT. For business school, you must take either the GRE or the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT).

Applying for a PhD

When applying for a PhD, your resume should focus more on your research background—you should especially emphasize any publications you’ve authored or presentations that you’ve given.

Similarly, your statement of purpose should discuss research that you’ve participated in, whether as an assistant or the lead author. You should detail what exactly you did in projects you’ve contributed to, whether that’s conducting a literature review, coding regressions, or writing an entire article.

Your letters of recommendations should be from former professors or supervisors who can speak to your abilities and potential as a researcher. A good rule of thumb is to avoid asking for recommendations from anyone who does not themselves have a PhD.

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A master’s is a 1- or 2-year graduate degree that can prepare you for a variety of careers.

All master’s involve graduate-level coursework. Some are research-intensive and intend to prepare students for further study in a PhD; these usually require their students to write a master’s thesis . Others focus on professional training for a specific career.

A PhD, which is short for philosophiae doctor (doctor of philosophy in Latin), is the highest university degree that can be obtained. In a PhD, students spend 3–5 years writing a dissertation , which aims to make a significant, original contribution to current knowledge.

A PhD is intended to prepare students for a career as a researcher, whether that be in academia, the public sector, or the private sector.

This depends on the country. In the United States, you can generally go directly to a PhD  with only a bachelor’s degree, as a master’s program is included as part of the doctoral program.

Elsewhere, you generally need to graduate from a research-intensive master’s degree before continuing to the PhD.

This varies by country. In the United States, PhDs usually take between 5–7 years: 2 years of coursework followed by 3–5 years of independent research work to produce a dissertation.

In the rest of the world, students normally have a master’s degree before beginning the PhD, so they proceed directly to the research stage and complete a PhD in 3–5 years.

A master’s degree usually has a higher upfront cost, but it also allows you to start earning a higher salary more quickly. The exact cost depends on the country and the school: private universities usually cost more than public ones, and European degrees usually cost less than North American ones. There are limited possibilities for financial aid.

PhDs often waive tuition fees and offer a living stipend in exchange for a teaching or research assistantship. However, they take many years to complete, during which time you earn very little.

In the US, the graduate school application process is similar whether you’re applying for a master’s or a PhD . Both require letters of recommendation , a statement of purpose or personal statement , a resume or CV , and transcripts. Programs in the US and Canada usually also require a certain type of standardized test—often the GRE.

Outside the US, PhD programs usually also require applicants to write a research proposal , because students are expected to begin dissertation research in the first year of their PhD.

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What is a PhD Degree? [2024 Guide]

As you’re taking a look at potential grad school programs, you might be asking yourself, “What is a PhD degree?”

What is a PhD Degree

Understanding what a PhD is and what’s involved in earning one can help you decide whether to enroll in this type of doctoral program. You might decide that a PhD is a strategic step for you to take to further your career.

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If you choose to pursue a PhD, you’ll be glad to know that you can also earn this type of degree online through an accredited university.

What Is a PhD Degree?

students pursuing PhD degree, doing research

After earning a bachelors degree and a masters degree, you may be considering taking your education even further.

The next step for you might be a Doctor of Philosophy degree, better known as a PhD. As a terminal degree, a PhD can set you apart as an expert in your field. Earning a doctoral degree is not a small undertaking. The process includes multiple steps and can last for several years.

Components of a Ph.D. degree program often include:

  • Advanced courses in your chosen field
  • Classes in research methods, data analysis, and scholarly writing
  • Examination of current literature and studies related to your field
  • Oral or written comprehensive exams
  • Original research project—includes writing and defending a major paper about your research

The dissertation, sometimes known as a thesis, is usually the part of a PhD program that takes the longest. During the dissertation process, you’ll work under the supervision of a faculty advisor, often someone whose research interests correlate with yours. You’ll design a research project, carry it out, and write about your findings. This project is meant to contribute new ideas to your field.

A PhD is particularly suitable for students who love school settings and want to pursue academic careers. For instance, professors often have PhDs. It’s also common for scientists and other researchers to hold this type of degree. Outside of  academia, a PhD could set you apart as a knowledgeable leader in your field.

Benefits of a PhD Degree

students taking PhD degree, in group study

Getting your PhD can be an incredible personal goal worth achieving. Plus, a degree at this level can offer many professional benefits, such as:

  • Career advancement . As a person with a PhD, you may be considered an expert in your field. That could help qualify you for a variety of top roles within your line of work.
  • Higher earnings . A job promotion or a new employer might offer you a higher salary.
  • Networking . You can meet new people and build professional connections as you work toward a PhD.
  • Preparation for becoming a professor . Universities typically prefer to hire faculty members who hold PhDs in their area of expertise.
  • Research opportunities . Before you can earn your PhD, it’s necessary to complete an original research project called a dissertation. After completing your degree, you may have additional opportunities to contribute research to your field.

If you’re willing to put in the work, then getting your PhD could be worth the effort.

How to Know If a PhD Is Right for Me

Woman taking PhD degree online

Before you sign up for a PhD program, it’s helpful to carefully weigh the decision and make sure it’s the right choice for you. You might ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I willing to commit years to the process ? PhDs take at least 3 years, and most take longer than that.
  • Do I want to carry out original research ? This is a research-focused degree, and the purpose is to contribute new ideas or theories to your field.
  • Does an academic career interest me ? Many people get PhDs because they want to work in higher education as teachers or researchers. Those who plan to remain as practitioners often consider professional doctorates instead.

It can also be helpful to speak with faculty members and current students to get a feel for what you can expect from PhD studies.

Applying for a PhD: Education Requirements

Friends applying for PhD Education online

It’s necessary to put in years of study before you can apply for a PhD program. Most students need to hold at least two degrees already. But, in some cases, one may be sufficient.

  • Bachelor’s degree . All graduate programs require students to have earned a four-year undergraduate degree before enrolling in advanced studies. Most PhD programs don’t specify that your bachelors degree must be in the same field as your hoped-for doctoral studies, but it can help you move through a graduate-level program with more ease.
  • Master’s degree . Colleges often expect students to have earned a master’s degree before applying for PhD studies, but some programs do allow students straight out of bachelor’s degree programs. Doing a master’s degree first can provide strong preparation for the advanced coursework, research, and writing that are required in doctoral programs.

It is often required that the degrees you have be from accredited colleges. It may also be necessary to meet a minimum GPA requirement, such as a score of 3.0 or higher. Some colleges prefer PhD applicants who have graduated from previous programs with honors.

Doctor of Philosophy: Admissions Requirements

Man preparing requirements for Doctor of Philosophy

Doctoral programs can be quite selective about whom they admit because they’re looking for capable students who can keep up with the demands of the program and contribute valuable new research to the field.

In addition to meeting the education requirements, you’ll also be required to turn in records that demonstrate your academic potential. Here are some common admissions requirements:

  • College transcripts and professional resume
  • Letters of recommendation from people who know you academically or professionally
  • Statement about relevant background, research interests, or professional goals
  • Proposal that presents the original research project you’d be interested in doing
  • Scores from the GRE or GMAT (not always required)

You might also connect with the department’s faculty members and find someone who would be willing to serve as your academic supervisor for your dissertation. It’s beneficial for this person’s research interests to align with your own.

Some schools have you do this before admission, and others connect admitted students to supervisors later in the enrollment process.

What Does PhD Stand For?

Students taking a PhD degree

PhD stands for “Doctor of Philosophy.” It doesn’t mean that you’ve studied philosophy at the highest levels. Rather, the word “philosophy” in the name refers back to ancient Greek. It implies that you are someone who loves and seeks wisdom and knowledge.

You can get a PhD in many different subject areas—such as a Doctor of Philosophy in Mathematics or a Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology. PhD students explore their chosen field of study in great depth. They also learn how to conduct original research, and they undertake major research projects. By graduation, they are considered experts in their fields.

What Do You Learn in a Doctoral Degree?

Friends getting Doctoral degree, researching in library

In a PhD program, you’ll learn about your chosen area of study, such as biology or sociology. You will also study a niche area within that field in great depth.

Research is a significant topic in any PhD program. Your courses might include topics on:

  • Advanced statistics
  • Dissertation preparation
  • Literature review
  • Quantitative and qualitative methods
  • Research methodology

These research-focused classes may be tailored to your particular area of study, such as research methodology in the social sciences or advanced statistics in criminal justice research.

What Can You Do with a PhD Degree?

Biochemists with PhD degrees, working in the lab

Many people earn PhD degrees because they want to teach at the college level. This degree is often required for tenured faculty positions at universities.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that most postsecondary teachers earn between $46,690 and $172,130 each year. Research scientists often hold PhDs as well. Examples include medical scientists, biochemists, and physicists.

Additionally, there are some career paths that require a doctorate for licensure. For instance, clinical and counseling psychologists usually need to receive training at the doctoral level before they can practice independently.

Do You Need a Masters to Get a PhD?

Woman with masters degree, pursuing PhD

Whether you’ll need a masters before you can begin the PhD process will depend on the program you choose.

Many PhD programs require a master’s degree as an admissions requirement. Completing a master’s program can provide a strong research and writing foundation that can help you during this advanced program. Other programs, though, let students enroll with only a bachelors degree.

There might be additional classes required to prepare you for working at the graduate level, so it may take a bit longer to complete your studies. For more information on whether you need a master’s to get a PhD , you can consult the admissions requirements of each program you’re considering.

Can You Get a PhD Online?

Man taking PhD degree Online

There are many online PhD programs available for aspiring students looking for flexibility. Some PhD programs are offered entirely online. You can take all of your classes online, and you can also receive guidance from your faculty advisor and defend your dissertation from afar.

Other programs are mostly online but require some in-person experiences. You might be asked to come to campus for a week or two of intensive study. Also, you may be asked to show up in person for your dissertation defense. Either way, online PhD studies are often more accessible for working professionals than fully on-campus programs.

How Long Does It Take to Get a PhD?

students taking PhD degree, attending class in university

Students often spend 3 to 5 years completing a PhD program. Online programs sometimes include features like year-round classes and short course terms that encourage quick completion.

The shortest PhD programs typically do not involve writing a dissertation. There may be a different final assignment, such as a capstone project, instead. You might be able to finish one of those programs in about 3 years. Not all students finish within 5 years. Some spend around a decade on this massive undertaking. Some PhD programs set an upper limit for completion, such as 7 or 8 years.

Is a PhD a Doctor?

People with PhD degrees

People with PhDs are considered experts in their fields, and the degree includes “Doctor” in its name. For that reason, PhD holders often use the title “Doctor.” A college professor, for example, might go by Dr. Smith.

Even still, there’s a difference between MD vs. PhD. A person who holds a PhD is not a medical doctor. Medical doctors earn a Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree before becoming licensed to practice medicine. In most contexts, though, people refer to professionals with PhDs as “doctors.”

What Jobs Can You Get with a PhD?

College professor guiding students in class

People with doctorate degrees work in both academia and professional practice. Being a college professor is quite popular among people who hold PhDs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that a PhD can also be helpful for obtaining jobs in higher education administration, particularly as a dean or a provost.

PhD graduates may work in research as well. Research jobs are available with colleges, government agencies, and private institutions. Researchers are needed in many different fields, including biology, mathematics, computer science, and economics. PhDs also help people rise to the top in their industries, perhaps as chief executives.

How Much Does a PhD Cost?

People attending PhD program

Some graduate schools charge just $300 to $400 per credit hour. Others may charge $2,000 per credit hour or more.

Per-credit-hour rates between $600 and $1,000 are quite common. It’s helpful to keep in mind that state universities often charge less for in-state residents than nonresidents. Your total number of credit hours may depend on how many years you spend working on your dissertation.

Some universities offer tuition-free PhD programs for qualifying participants. The students may even receive a stipend in exchange for research or teaching assistance. This arrangement is more common for on-campus programs than online ones.

What’s the Difference Between a Doctorate vs. PhD Degree?

Is a PhD a doctorate degree ? For your terminal degree, you may have the choice between a PhD degree and a professional doctorate. While they are both doctoral degrees, they do have some differences.

Professional doctorates are sometimes a year or two quicker than PhDs, but that’s not always the case.

Is a PhD Worth It?

Man pursuing PhD degree online

Yes, a PhD is worth it for many students. For one thing, holding a PhD could be the key to fulfilling your professional dreams.

If you want to be a professor, for instance, there’s a good chance that you’ll be required to have this advanced degree. Even if that’s not your ultimate goal, a PhD could be beneficial. The more education you have, the more your job security usually increases.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there’s an inverse relationship between education and unemployment. As education increases, unemployment rates decrease.

Getting Your PhD Degree Online

student getting PhD degree online

An exciting future as an expert in your field may await. You can earn a PhD to increase your knowledge, prove your capability, and contribute new ideas to your area of study. Getting this degree is an impressive accomplishment, and it may open new doors for your career. For convenience and accessibility, you might take a look at online PhD studies.

Many accredited colleges offer robust online PhD programs. You’ll get to take advanced courses and work with respected professors. An online program can also offer opportunities for completing a thesis or a doctoral project. You could graduate prepared to make a difference in your field.

Why not start exploring your options today?

what is meant by phd degree

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What is a PhD?

Are you considering a phd degree we take a look at what a phd is, how long it takes and how you can go about getting one..

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What’s a PhD?

What does phd stand for, how long is a phd, how much does a phd cost, how to get a phd, can you do a phd without a master’s, is a phd worth it.

A PhD is the highest postgraduate-level qualification offered by universities in the UK. It’s for those who are looking to build on what they studied during their master’s degree, or for those currently working who wish to research a particular area within their field.

PhDs are research-based degrees. The student comes up with an original research question, often in collaboration with a university professor, and explores that topic in depth. At the end of the degree a final thesis is produced that could range from 40,000 to 120,000 words.

The number of students enrolling in PhD degrees is increasing year-on-year. From 2015/16 to 2019/20 enrolments increased by 2.9%, according to 2019/20 HESA data on student enrolments . This highlights the growing interest in and demand for the postgraduate qualification.

PhD stands for Doctor of Philosophy. You’ll often find this abbreviated to just ‘Doctorate’ as a PhD falls under the umbrella of doctorate degrees.

They vary in length, based on what you decide to research and whether you choose to study part-time or full-time. Full-time PhD students often take three or four years, with part-time students taking up to seven. Some universities even offer deadline extensions of up to four years.

You can expect to pay anywhere from £3,000 to £6,000 per year. This applies to all UK and EU students, with other international students paying more. Most PhD students fund their degree through scholarships, bursaries, and grants. Many UK research organisations also offer studentships through UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) , which can be another form of funding.

  • Bursaries and scholarships
  • Postgraduate funding

Having a strong interest in a particular subject is the first step to a PhD. You’ll either be applying for an already funded project being offered by a university, or you’ll be pitching your own research proposal. Admissions teams want to see your dedication and enthusiasm, so make sure you’re passionate about the subject first.

Universities tend to list available research projects and who’ll be supervising them on their website. Don’t hesitate to contact any professors you know that are doing research in an area you’re interested in. They may have a PhD position available they haven’t yet advertised.

When applying, you’ll need a:

  • Cover letter
  • Research proposal (if pitching an original research idea)
  • Reference (may be asked to provide three people, who know you in an academic setting or can comment on your research capability)

Use your application as a chance to really convey your passion for the subject. It’s important to expand on your interest, explain why you have that interest and cite examples of you pursuing this interest through past experiences. You’ll be studying for at least three to four years and the admissions teams will want to make sure you’ll be dedicated.

Yes, but this will depend on the course you’re applying for and what previous experience you have. Most PhD degrees will require you to have completed a master’s degree or equivalent, but exceptions can be made if you can demonstrate your capability. Universities want to see that you’re passionate, hard-working, and determined.

This is up to you and your career aspirations. Consider how important it is that you have a doctorate degree and what contribution it’ll make to your future.

Boost your employability

Many choose to do a PhD because it’ll increase their chances of employment. This’ll depend on what you want to study and what industry you want to work in, but doing so could increase your job prospects. Recent data from HESA on graduate activities by level of qualification found that 78.9% of doctorate students were employed upon graduating in the academic years 2017/18 to 2019/20. Only 3.4% were unemployed.

Helps you pursue an academic career

Many students use a PhD as a pathway into academia, progressing into full-time roles at a university or other higher education institution. This could be as a professor, researcher, or other role. PhD students are often employed by the university while they study, helping in lectures, labs, tutorials or as research assistants.

Make a significant contribution to your field

Doctorate degrees offer the opportunity to explore an original research question and advance your knowledge in your chosen field. It's a satisfying position to be in and comes with recognition from your peers. This could also open up a wealth of further research to be explored by either you or your peers.

Develop a range of transferrable skills

Through a doctorate degree you’ll learn a range of invaluable skills, transferrable beyond your studies. These can include:

  • Project management
  • Time management
  • Independence
  • Writing and presentation skills
  • Communication skills
  • Research skills
  • Teaching others

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What Is A Postgraduate Degree? A Definition and Guide

Find your perfect postgrad program search our database of 30,000 courses.

What is a postgrad degree?

One thing that all postgraduate degrees have in common is that they allow you to continue your studies in a specialised subject, and mostly require an undergraduate degree in order to be considered for entry.

Postgraduate degrees are taken for a number of different reasons, such as to move into academia and research or specialise in a career path. Some people choose to complete a postgraduate degree to change study or career paths entirely. 

There are a lot of different aspects involved in postgraduate education. If you are considering expanding your knowledge with a postgraduate degree, it’s important to understand the details.  This guide covers everything you need to know about postgraduate degrees.

Masters degree

A masters degree is one of the most common postgraduate courses completed after undergraduate study. This postgraduate qualification can take a number of different forms, but what they all have in common is that they usually require an undergraduate degree to gain entry. These forms of postgraduate degree include:

Masters of Arts (MA)

Masters of Science (MSc)

Masters of Philosophy (MPhil)

Masters of Research (MRes)

Masters of Engineering (MEng)

The majority of masters courses require a thesis or dissertation to graduate in addition to any coursework. In the UK, most masters courses are a year in length, apart from some professional masters courses such as Masters of Architecture (MArch) which are generally between two and three years. Most masters courses in the US are also a year in length and many masters courses in Europe are two years in length. 

MA, MSc and MPhil

Masters degrees are gained either through a taught or research course . In a taught masters, students are awarded a Masters of Arts (MA) , Masters of Science (MSc) or a Master of Philosophy (MPhil) . 

MA and MSc are the two most common types of postgraduate degrees. MA courses focus on arts and humanities subjects, whereas MSc degrees focus on STEM subject areas.

There are variations between countries, for example in Scotland students can study a Masters of Letters (MLitt) in subjects such as Creative Writing , History and Theology. 

Postgraduate degrees can also include a Masters of Research (MRes) , available through research based study, and these are awarded entirely on the basis of your own independent research. The designation of a masters course is important as for some subjects it shows the emphasis of the course as some subjects such as Anthropology can have courses with radically different approaches depending on the designation of the degree. 

MArch and MEng

Some masters courses like an MArch or a Masters of Engineering (MEng) are taken after completing the relevant undergraduate course with a long-term view to qualify as an Architect or Engineer. These masters programs are essential parts of the qualification routes and those who wish to become architects or engineers must complete them to be able to practise in their chosen career.

Other masters courses are about specialising or focussing on a career choice, especially those in the law or medical professionals. There are some masters courses that are for those graduates who already have a first degree but wish to retrain in another subject, such as a Masters in Town Planning or Journalism, for these courses it is assumed that the student has a number of academic skills that are transferable to the new subject.

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what is meant by phd degree

A PhD (Doctorate of Philosophy) is the highest level of postgraduate qualification available that can be studied. This advanced postgraduate degree involves an element of both research and working at an institution.

The majority of students who go on to complete a PhD have already undertaken a masters course in a relevant subject. Often, this will be an MPhil or MRes, but this is not exclusively the case. It is mostly those who wish to go into academic research or teaching who decide to complete PhDs. The whole point of a PhD is further specialisation and it's not an option for changing career path.

Postgraduate diploma 

Postgraduate Diplomas are taught courses that do not require students to complete a dissertation or thesis. This type of postgraduate qualification offers the same level of study as a masters degree, but is completed over a shorter period of time because it doesn’t require a dissertation.

If you undertake a masters course but do not complete the dissertation this is the postgraduate qualification that you will probably find yourself finishing with. Postgraduate Diplomas can be a great way for those who are unsure about whether they need or want to complete a full masters course, whilst still finishing with a postgraduate-level qualification to specialise their knowledge and career skills.

There are some UK professions, such as teaching , that involve a Postgraduate Diploma ( PGCE in Education ) that allows graduates who did not study teaching to quickly qualify in an education profession. 

Postgraduate certificate

Postgraduate Certificates are similar to postgraduate diplomas, in that they do not require the completion of a dissertation or thesis in order to get the final qualification. This postgraduate course allows students to gain specialised knowledge in their chosen area in a shorter amount of time. A Postgraduate Certificate is shorter than a Postgraduate Diploma, making it one of the shortest postgraduate qualifications to attain.

Entry requirements

The entry requirements for postgraduate degrees will vary depending on the level of qualification, the course and the university. In most cases, you will need to have completed an undergraduate degree in order to obtain a postgraduate degree, although some postgraduate qualifications may accept students who have a suitable level of work experience in the subject area.

Higher postgraduate level qualifications, such as a PhD will usually require you to have both an undergraduate and postgraduate degree in order to have a place on the course. You should always check the specific course requirements when choosing a postgraduate degree.

Postgraduate degrees: summary

A postgraduate degree is an excellent way to specialise, retrain and develop new skills in your chosen subject and career path. Postgraduate degrees tend to be shorter than undergraduate degrees, letting you efficiently gain further qualifications once acquiring basic academic skills from an undergraduate degree. 

Further postgraduate study gives students the opportunity to learn and gain a deep understanding of their chosen subject and is well worth the time and money . Having a postgraduate qualification can also help improve your future career prospects, since you have demonstrated both a deeper understanding of a subject area, and a determination to complete further academic studies.

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Alice Tucker is a 21-year-old student studying an MA in Human Rights at the University of Manchester. She experienced a whole range of emotions when she discovered she was being awarded one of our bursaries, saying, “I was shocked but extremely grateful. Masters degrees are very difficult to fund and I was working two part-time jobs during the final year of my undergraduate degree to save up for this. Even with those savings, I am constantly thinking about how I will make my money last. Having this bursary will definitely remove that pressure for me so that I can focus on studying for my degree.”

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Dual Degree vs. Double Major: What's the Difference?

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In college, many people pick their major based on their passions or career goals. But what if you have two fields you're equally passionate about  — or if there are multiple career paths that interest you?

If this sounds like you, you might want to consider a dual degree or a double major.

What is the Difference Between a Combined Degree and Double Major?

Double majoring and getting a combined/dual degree are two options available if you want to deepen your studies during college.

Jessica Erb and the text Jessica Erb

With a dual degree being two separate degree programs, a major difference between that and a double major is the number of credits you'll need.

Jenifer Chabot, an academic advisor at SNHU

Chabot has personal experience with dual degrees as well. “During my undergrad, I chose to earn more than one bachelor's degree,” said Chabot. “As an academic advisor, I’ve had students request additional information on the differences between a double major versus a dual degree, and I feel like I was in a unique position to provide guidance due to my experience.”

Do Double Majors Get Two Separate Degrees?

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Even though you don’t receive two separate degrees with a double major, your transcript will show both majors. This is different from a dual degree, where you do receive two diplomas that list your degrees separately.

What are Common Double Major and Dual Degree Combinations?

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As a career advisor, Erb sees lots of these different combinations. One common double major she sees includes business administration, which provides 14 concentration options and pairs well with many other majors, like sports management or communication. Double majors require fewer credits than a dual degree, so it can be helpful for your two majors to have overlap in the courses you need. Some double major combos that Erb often sees include:

  • Data Analytics and Computer Science : A data analytics major can be added to any degree, as data analytics is a versatile skill and touches every industry. “Employers highly value candidates who possess the ability to understand and interpret data ,” said Erb.
  • Healthcare Administration and Human Resources : A double major in healthcare administration and human resources can be a good combination. According to Erb, these can provide a solid foundation in both fields, allowing graduates to lead and manage healthcare organizations efficiently.
  • Environmental Science and Business Administration : These two majors are another combo Erb sees often. Together, they can help a student bridge the gap between environmental awareness and business acumen. “This can be beneficial for careers that entail green entrepreneurship , corporate sustainability or sustainable business practices,” she said.

When it comes to dual degrees, your options are limited only by your interests and imagination — though some degree combinations are more common than others. Certain programs complement each other or make sense for specific career paths you might be interested in.

Find Your Program

What are the benefits and disadvantages of doing a dual degree.

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If you're earning a dual degree, you may need to factor in the additional time that comes with getting two degrees instead of one. “Juggling the course requirements for two programs will require more time than a single degree, which can delay starting a new job,” said Chabot. You may decide that a double major is a better option because it lets you complete more than one major while maintaining a lower credit requirement and time commitment.

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Whether a dual degree is a good fit depends on the student. “The benefits may outweigh the disadvantages for some students, as a dual degree can provide a competitive advantage in the job market with its unique skill set and interdisciplinary focus,” said Erb. “This is especially true for career paths seeking candidates who can collaborate across different areas of expertise, such as healthcare or technology.”

How to Decide if a Dual Degree or Double Major Is Right for You

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“Curiosity, discipline, motivation and passion are some of the characteristics of students that pursue double majors or dual degrees,” said Chabot.

Both Chabot and Erb recommend meeting with your school's Career Services  office when making a decision between a dual or double major.

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If you're looking to increase your education and career options through multiple areas of study, a double major or dual degree may be a great next step.

A degree can change your life. Choose your program  from 200+ SNHU degrees that can take you where you want to go.

Meg Palmer '18 is a Southern New Hampshire University graduate and a writer, who also teaches English at the university level.

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Academic Spotlight: CBE Associate Dean Kelly Gump

About southern new hampshire university.

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SNHU is a nonprofit, accredited university with a mission to make high-quality education more accessible and affordable for everyone.

Founded in 1932, and online since 1995, we’ve helped countless students reach their goals with flexible, career-focused programs . Our 300-acre campus in Manchester, NH is home to over 3,000 students, and we serve over 135,000 students online. Visit our about SNHU  page to learn more about our mission, accreditations, leadership team, national recognitions and awards.

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What Is a Doctorate?

Learn more about the two major types of doctorate degrees, academic and professional, and when you might need each.

[Featured image] A Black female doctorate student in a coral pink sweater smiles into the camera while holding a yellow folder.

A doctorate is the highest degree you can earn in an academic field or profession. Earning your doctorate can help advance your career and increase your salary, while also showing others that you’re an expert in your subject area. 

In this article, we’ll review the two different types of doctorate degrees, the areas you can study, and the benefits of graduating with a doctorate. 

Types of doctorate degrees

There are two types of doctorate degrees available to earn: academic and professional . Each type is a terminal degree , meaning it’s the highest degree you can earn and shows true mastery over a subject. The type of doctorate you earn will largely depend on what you want to study. 

Academic doctorate 

An academic doctorate, often called a PhD (short for Doctor of Philosophy), is a research degree that typically requires completing a dissertation. Students enrolled in a PhD program may be interested in working in academia as a professor or conducting research in their field. However, a growing number of PhD students go on to apply their specialized knowledge and skill set to various careers outside of academia as well. 

Examples of academic doctorates include:

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Doctor of Education (EdD)

Doctor of Design (DDes)

Doctor of Fine Arts (DFA)

Doctor of Nursing Science (DNS)

Doctor of Theology (ThD)

Professional doctorate

A professional doctorate is also referred to as an applied doctorate, and has more to do with a specific profession, such as medicine, law, or business. Students in professional doctorate programs enroll to learn specific knowledge and skills they will need to pursue their chosen career path.  

Examples of professional doctorates include:

Doctor of Business Administration (DBA)

Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS)

Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD)

Doctor of Podiatric Medicine (DPM)

Doctor of Chiropractic (DC)

Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM)

Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine (ND)

Juris Doctor (JD)

Learn more: What is a Professional Degree?

Doctorates: Time and costs

On average, it takes between four and seven years to earn an academic doctorate. That lengthy timeline often has to do with the dissertation phase, which requires extensive original research. 

The time it takes to earn a professional doctorate varies. A JD degree takes three years of full-time study to complete while earning a Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree takes four years of full-time study before you begin a residency, which can last between three and seven years depending on your specialty. Careers that require a professional doctorate also often include studying and passing a licensure exam.  

Costs of a doctorate

As with timing, the costs of a doctorate degree will depend on what you choose to study and where you go to school. The average cost of a PhD in 2021 was $98,800, while a Doctor of Education degree cost an average of $111,900 [ 1 ]. The average total cost of medical school in 2021 was $218,792 [ 2 ].

What does it take to earn a doctorate? 

Both types of degrees involve completing advanced coursework and conducting original research. With a professional doctorate, you'll tend to focus your research on solving existing problems, whereas with an academic doctorate, you'll tend to focus your research on contributing a new theory or analysis to your field.

Beyond that, the path to earning your doctorate will depend on what you want to study—an academic subject or a professional one—and where you go to college or university.

Professional doctorates

Your time in a professional doctorate program will be spent advancing your knowledge in your field—medicine, law, or otherwise—and developing important skills to begin doing the work required by your chosen profession. 

The common requirements include: 

Coursework 

Internship (clinical rotation) 

Medical students spend around two years taking courses in a pre-clinical phase, followed by two years rotating through various medical specialties in a clinical phase. On the other hand, law students might spend two years completing their coursework before enrolling in a capstone project in their third year that might include interning or completing a writing project. 

Both medical and law students will need to seek licensure after finishing their program. Law students who pass the bar exam can go on to practice, while medical students will typically need to be licensed before beginning their residency program. 

Academic doctorates

Your time in an academic degree program will also be spent advancing your knowledge in your field by learning more about its history, theories, and key figures. From there, you will begin exploring how you can contribute original research to further people’s understanding of some aspect of the subject.

Comprehensive exam 

Dissertation 

Learn more about the requirements to get an PhD .

Applying for a doctorate 

Each type of doctorate requires similar admissions criteria. Requirements generally include: 

Institution’s application

Resume or CV

Transcripts

Entrance exam (MCAT, LSAT, GRE, or GMAT) 

Personal statement

Letters of recommendation

Learn more: GMAT vs GRE: Which Should I Take?

Requirements for a professional doctorate

Professional doctorate students must first earn their bachelor’s degree in a related subject. For example, many law students study English or communications as an undergrad given the amount of writing they will undertake as JD students. Med students, on the other hand, might study biology or chemistry.

It can be helpful to pursue an undergraduate degree that will prepare you for the advanced coursework a professional doctorate requires, but it is not always necessary. If you’re interested in beginning a professional doctorate after studying a completely unrelated subject, you will likely have to first complete prerequisite courses to show you can succeed in advanced science courses. In fact, postbaccalaureate programs are designed to help students interested in the medical profession become stronger applicants. 

Prepare for medical school with a series of specialized, free courses from Stanford University, University of Michigan, Duke University, the University of Chicago, and other leading US institutions.

Requirements for an academic doctorate

As with a professional doctorate, you will need to earn your bachelor’s degree, but you will also likely need to earn your master’s degree unless you are accepted into a dual degree program that combines the master’s and PhD into a shorter timeframe. Depending on what you study, a master's degree takes between one and three years to complete and further prepares you to go on and earn your doctorate.

Learn more: MA vs MS Degrees: A Guide

Demand for doctorates

The demand for experts who hold a doctorate degree depends largely on the field. The need for lawyers is expected to grow by nine percent (about average) between 2020 and 2030, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics [ 3 ]. But the demand for doctors and surgeons has slowed in recent years, though other health care professions, such as physicians assistants and nurse practitioners, which often require less education, are expected to increase significantly [ 4 ].

In certain professions, like business, it’s more common to earn a Master of Business Administration (MBA) , but executives with several years of experience and an MBA may want to further their education and solve real-world business problems by earning their DBA. Doing so can be a lucrative venture. Because DBA graduates are not as common as MBAs, there may be more demand for their services.

Salaries for doctorates

For professional doctorates, earnings can be significant. For example, veterinarians make a median salary of $100,370 and lawyers make a median salary of $127,990, according to BLS.

Overall, both doctorates tend to make more than those who earn a master’s or bachelor’s degree, according to BLS. A doctoral degree graduate has median weekly earnings of $1,909 and a professional degree graduate has $1,924 compared to $1,574 for master’s degree holders and $1,334 for bachelor’s degree holders [ 5 ]. 

Is a doctorate right for you?

If your goal is to work in a specific field, like medicine, or to become an authority in your field, a doctorate can help you achieve either outcome. When considering whether you should begin a doctorate program, ask yourself the following questions to help outline the best path forward.  

Do you enjoy working with this subject matter?

What kinds of job opportunities are available after graduation?

How competitive is the job market for your chosen career?

Will a doctorate give you a unique career advantage?

Do you have time to dedicate to earning a doctorate? 

Can you afford the cost of a doctorate? 

Are there financial aid options available?

Alternatives to doctorate degrees

Depending on your career path and goals, a master’s degree may be a better option. Master’s degrees take less time and cost less than doctorate degrees, and are available in nearly every field, including health care , business , the social sciences , natural sciences , and humanities . 

If you’re more interested in skills development, a professional certificate program can be a strong option to help you develop job-ready skills in popular fields like data science, project management, and UX design. You’ll find an array of programs from industry leaders like Google, Meta, IBM, Salesforce, and more on Coursera . 

Learn more: Is a Master’s Degree Worth It?

A doctorate can be financially, academically, and personally rewarding, adding important knowledge to your wheelhouse and a standout credential to your resume. Earning your master's can also help you discern whether an academic doctorate makes sense for your larger objectives. Explore degrees in computer science , business , management , or public health from leading US institutions on Coursera, all while enjoying greater flexibility than an in-person degree program tends to offer. 

Related articles

How Long is Law School: What to Expect as a Law Student

How Many Credits Do You Need to Graduate?

How to Pay for Graduate School: 8 Ways

What Can You Do with a Master’s in Public Health?

Article sources

1. Education Data Initiative. “ Average Cost of a Doctorate Degree , https://educationdata.org/average-cost-of-a-doctorate-degree.” Accessed June 22, 2022. 

2. Education Data Initiative. “ Average Cost of Medical School , https://educationdata.org/average-cost-of-medical-school.” Accessed June 22, 2022. 

3. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “ Lawyers , https://www.bls.gov/ooh/legal/lawyers.htm.” Accessed June 22, 2022. 

4. BLS. “ Physicians and Surgeons , ​​https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physicians-and-surgeons.htm.” Accessed June 22, 2022. 

5. BLS. “ Education Pays , https://www.bls.gov/emp/chart-unemployment-earnings-education.htm.” Accessed June 22, 2022. 

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Coursera staff.

Editorial Team

Coursera’s editorial team is comprised of highly experienced professional editors, writers, and fact...

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

Is grad school worth the investment? Our exclusive data shows some surprising answers

what is meant by phd degree

When Amir Nijem got into graduate school, he knew he’d have to take out loans. Such degrees cost $20,000 a year on average at private institutions, and his particular program – a master's in public policy at the University of Chicago condensed into evenings over the course of 15 months – struck him as especially pricey. At roughly $50,000, his estimated cost of attendance wasn’t much less than his annual salary working in communications for the city. 

What Nijem didn’t know was the exact breakdown of that cost – nor that he could appeal the amount of aid the university offered him. He wasn't given a clear sense of how the degree would alter his income and job prospects, either.  

Half of graduate students use loans to pursue their advanced studies, nearly twice the rate of undergraduates . Such debt is so prevalent among current and former graduate students that it now accounts for nearly half of the country’s student loan portfolio. Given the cost of these programs, and the fact that earning more money is a major motivation for most graduate students, the debt levels aren’t surprising. 

But new research by the centrist think tank Third Way reveals that the experience of applying to, paying for and moving on from graduate school is full of surprises. The survey data, collected last summer and shared exclusively with USA TODAY on Thursday, reveals major fissures in the information that influence graduate students’ decisions. These are especially high-stakes decisions, sometimes costing those students tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars and several years of paused or reduced employment. 

Only half of the survey’s participants said they felt certain the advanced schooling was “worth it,” and a majority said they would need more time than they had expected to pay off their student debt. A plurality said the total amount they owe is more than they'd thought they'd have to pay.

“It’s an outlandish amount of money … and it was really rather opaque,” said Nijem, who did not participate in the survey. “It’s still too early for me to tell whether it was worth it.”

Is graduate school worth the debt?

There’s a widespread belief that graduate school is a surefire path to a better professional life. And generally speaking, program participants are happy with that choice. Most of the Third Way survey’s 1,000 participants said their graduate studies met or exceeded their expectations and thought highly of the programs’ quality.

Yet despite the financial burdens these students take on, the programs don’t always lead to the jobs and incomes those students envision when deciding to enroll. One in 4 participants gave their program a negative mark for overall worth. 

Though some students pursue graduate education to expand their knowledge or because they’re unsure of what they want to do next, most do so primarily with practical goals in mind: They want a better job with better pay, to advance in their field.

But roughly a third of the survey’s participants said they hadn’t fulfilled those objectives: 30% of recent completers have not been consistently employed in the field they studied, and 35% earn less than they had expected. 

“These two measures – career advancement and higher income – are where we see the largest gaps between what recent graduates are hoping to get out of their grad school experience vs. how well their school actually delivered for them,” the researchers note in a slide deck shared with USA TODAY. 

In fact, separate research published last year showed many graduate programs producing students who are worse off financially than they would have been had they not pursued those advanced studies. Students are often left with unmanageable levels of debt and jobs whose salaries are not enough to pay it off. 

The survey results, published Thursday, confirm these trends: One in 10 respondents said they don’t think they will ever be able to pay off their student debt. 

The cost of grad school: New research shows students left with unmanageable debt

The key to a successful graduate program: Good jobs

Nijem's motivations for grad school extended beyond the financial benefits. 

“I’ve always liked to bill myself as a lifelong learner,” said Nijem, a 33-year-old father of three, the youngest of whom was born two days before he began his program. “I had this vision of going to grad school – finding the right one at the right time was what I was stuck at. I just knew it was going to happen sometime.” 

Nijem, who had majored in public relations and advertising as an undergraduate and tended to shy away from math, was drawn to the data analysis emphasis of the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy Evening Master’s Program. “It really took me out of my traditional skill wheelhouse,” he said.

Still, as the sole provider for his kids and a first-generation American, he didn’t just want to expand his knowledge base. He wanted to make himself competitive in an evolving workforce. A lot of the jobs he had eyed listed a master’s as a preferred qualification. “I saw this as a way to make myself more marketable,” he said. 

Graduate education is an especially diverse sector. Some programs, such as those in health fields, are seen as the default option for the respective profession – and in many cases are a prerequisite for those careers. Some are treated as a means of leveling up in salary. For example, educators who hold master’s degrees often have higher starting salaries than their counterparts with bachelor’s degrees. 

“There's such a wide spread of the programs they’re attending; there are so many different outcomes based on that; and students are going to graduate school in so many different points in their professional careers, in their journeys,” said Ben Cecil, a senior education policy adviser at Third Way. 

Survey participants’ take on grad school is informed by how they’re faring now that they’ve completed their programs. Of those who are employed full time, 56% said their education was "definitely" worth it. Fewer than one-third (32%) of those who are unemployed or only partially employed said the same.

“Employment is really shaping how students feel in terms of whether their program was even worth attending to begin with,” said Chazz Robinson, an education policy adviser at Third Way. 

Nijem remains in the job he had when he started the program and doesn’t have any active plans to make a switch. He’s still “fresh” in the role and getting his “bearings." Even with the embellished resume, all his personal responsibilities make a professional change difficult at the moment. Plus, his position with the city of Chicago is eligible for Public Service Loan Forgiveness, a federal program that after a decade of payments relieves the student debt for people who work in government jobs and similar positions. 

Gainful employment: White House issues much-anticipated rule to weed out high-debt, predatory colleges

Students: Not enough reliable information about grad school

One major takeaway from the Third Way findings: Graduate programs ought to be clearer and more transparent about cost and outcomes, a belief held by people across the political spectrum. 

“There was resounding support for transparency,” Cecil said, including on graduation and employment rates and on income and borrowing amounts. Even when presented with compelling arguments against greater transparency – such as the cost to institutions and administrative burdens – survey participants said they supported it. 

Though significant progress has been made on cost and outcome information for undergraduate programs as well as career-training ones, according to Cecil, “graduate education has kind of been like the Wild West.”

One reason could be assumptions about graduate students. Before he enrolled in his master’s program, Nijem tracked down data on how much it cost per quarter, but that was pretty much it. He didn’t know how that money would be divvied up, for example, information he later realized was necessary for him to apply for tuition reimbursements through his job.

That kind of nuanced information, he later learned, also could have been used to negotiate a larger aid package than the one he originally received. Eventually, after consulting with an admissions officer, he was able to get $4,000 a semester from the university, up from the $2,000 initially offered. 

“It seemed like a lot of the onus was on me” to figure out the cost, he said. “I guess at the graduate level, they're expecting that you might have a skill set to acquire scholarships and things of that sort.”

Cecil said frustrating experiences like this are common. Fewer than 2 in 5 of the Third Way respondents reported having “a lot” of information about their programs’ recent employment rates and income data, and fewer than a quarter said they had “a lot” of information about how graduates’ incomes compared with the amount of debt they had taken out. 

“The conventional wisdom has always been graduate students are more educated, so therefore they're more able to find information that's going to help them make the best decision about enrolling in graduate school,” he said. “But what we really found here is that it's hard to be an informed consumer when you have very little information going in and even more limited information about what you can expect on the other side of a graduate degree.” 

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  1. What Does 'PhD' Stand For?

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  2. Doctor of Philosophy

    A Doctor of Philosophy ( PhD, Ph.D., or DPhil; Latin: philosophiae doctor or doctor philosophiae) is the most common degree at the highest academic level, awarded following a course of study and research.

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    A PhD is often the highest possible academic degree you can get in a subject. Learn more about whether earning a PhD could benefit your career. A Doctor of Philosophy, often known as a PhD, is a terminal degree —or the highest possible academic degree you can earn in a subject.

  4. What is a PhD?

    PhD stands for Doctor of Philosophy. This is one of the highest level academic degrees that can be awarded. PhD is an abbreviation of the Latin term (Ph)ilosophiae (D)octor. Traditionally the term 'philosophy' does not refer to the subject but its original Greek meaning which roughly translates to 'lover of wisdom'. What is a doctorate?

  5. PhD Definition & Meaning

    ˌpē-ˌāch-ˈdē variants or Ph.D. plural PhDs or Ph.D.s : the academic degree, title, or rank of doctor of philosophy He was awarded a PhD in economics. Jane Smith, Ph.D. also : a person who has earned the academic degree of doctor of philosophy

  6. What is a PhD?

    A PhD, which is short for philosophiae doctor (doctor of philosophy in Latin), is the highest university degree that can be obtained. In a PhD, students spend 3-5 years writing a dissertation, which aims to make a significant, original contribution to current knowledge.

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  8. What is a PhD?

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  9. What Is a Doctorate or a Doctoral Degree?

    Ph.D. degrees are offered in a wide range of academic subjects, including highly technical fields like biology, physics, math and engineering; social sciences like sociology and economics; and...

  10. What is a PhD?

    What is the meaning of PhD? The term PhD or Doctorate of Philosophy is an abbreviation of the Latin phrase 'philosophiae doctor'. A PhD degree typically involves students independently conducting original and significant research in a specific field or subject, before producing a publication-worthy thesis. While some Doctorates include taught ...

  11. What is a PhD?

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  12. What is a PhD? Advice for PhD students

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  14. What's the Difference Between a PhD and a Professional Doctoral Degree

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  15. Master's vs PhD

    The two most common types of graduate degrees are master's and doctoral degrees: A master's is a 1-2 year degree that can prepare you for a multitude of careers. A PhD, or doctoral degree, takes 3-7 years to complete (depending on the country) and prepares you for a career in academic research. A master's is also the necessary first ...

  16. What Is a Postgraduate Degree? Your 2023 Guide

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  17. PhD vs Doctorate: What's the Difference?

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  18. What is a PhD Degree? [2024 Guide]

    What Is a PhD Degree? After earning a bachelors degree and a masters degree, you may be considering taking your education even further. Doctor of Education in Higher Education Leadership Maryville University Earn your Doctor of Education (EdD) in Higher Education Leadership online from Maryville University in as few as 32 months.

  19. What is a PhD?

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  20. What is a Postgraduate Degree? A Definition & Guide

    PhD A PhD (Doctorate of Philosophy) is the highest level of postgraduate qualification available that can be studied. This advanced postgraduate degree involves an element of both research and working at an institution. The majority of students who go on to complete a PhD have already undertaken a masters course in a relevant subject.

  21. PhD Degrees in 2024: Definition, Application Requirements, and Key

    Doctoral degrees, including PhDs, have been part of higher education ever since the first was conferred in the 12th century by the University of Paris (Noble, 1994). Before the existence of PhDs, the highest level of academic ranking was a master's degree.

  22. Ed.D. vs. Ph.D. vs. Ed.S.: What's the Difference?

    Degree Requirements: Both an Ed.D. and Ph.D. usually require a dissertation. The Ed.D. dissertation generally focuses on applied research topics. Ed.S. vs. Ed.D. The Ed.S. differs from the Ed.D. because it does not require a dissertation and is possible to finish in 1-2 years. For this reason, it is not considered a doctoral degree.

  23. What Is Public Administration? Skills, Degrees And Careers

    Defining Public Administration. Public administration is the planning, preparation and execution of policy meant to build and strengthen civil society. Public administration officials analyze and ...

  24. Best Ph.D. In Public Administration Online Of 2024

    The cost of an online doctor of public administration varies widely, as indicated by the three programs on this list. Tuition rates range from $254 to $827 per credit, and programs require between ...

  25. Is A Degree In Public Administration Worth It? MPA Careers To Know

    A public administration degree is worth it for individuals pursuing rewarding M.P.A. jobs in the public and private sectors. Candidates can explore M.P.A. careers in various settings, including ...

  26. Dual Degree vs. Double Major

    With a dual degree being two separate degree programs, a major difference between that and a double major is the number of credits you'll need. "A dual degree requires 15 additional institution credits for the associate program and 30 additional institutional credits for the bachelor's program," said Jenifer Chabot, academic advisor at SNHU.

  27. What Is a Doctorate?

    An academic doctorate, often called a PhD (short for Doctor of Philosophy), is a research degree that typically requires completing a dissertation. Students enrolled in a PhD program may be interested in working in academia as a professor or conducting research in their field.

  28. Student loans for grad school: Are they worth it? A look at the data

    Graduate education is an especially diverse sector. Some programs, such as those in health fields, are seen as the default option for the respective profession - and in many cases are a ...