What is a PhD? Information to help you get started and plan for graduation

Find out what a PhD or doctoral degree is and everything else you need to know before starting or planning your higher education

⏲16 minutes read
Table of Content
PhD degree certificate and research notes with a graduation cap to know what is a phd
PhD degree certificate and research notes with a graduation cap [Credit: Canva]

If you are passionate about a subject and want to settle down with a higher education degree or well-paying jobs in the field, you have come to the right place to find out what it is and how to plan your doctoral studies.

This comprehensive guide will help you briefly understand what a PhD is, enable you to make a solid decision about pursuing the PhD program, and prepare you for life afterwards.

Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.

Nobel laureate Marie Curie

What is a PhD?

PhD is the highest degree one can earn. But you know, not all the PhD you have seen are not same. Explore what it is, how to get, and benefits of PhD degree. Lets start!

What does PhD stands for?

PhD stands for Doctor of Philosophy. It can be earned in many fields of study, including science, humanities, and social sciences. A PhD program typically involves several years of coursework, research, and the completion of a dissertation or thesis.

It is the degree given to anyone who meets the requirements set by the Committee of Members. The PhD full form is Doctorate in Philosophy, or PhD, Ph.D., or DPhil for short. 

Doctoral degree holders address themselves by putting “Dr.” or “Dr.” before their name as a prefix (pre-nominal letter) or by putting the letters PhD, Ph.D., or D.Phil. after their name as a suffix (post-nominal letter).

Definition of a PhD and what it means

A PhD or Doctor of Philosophy is the highest academic degree one can earn. It is a research degree that focuses on original, independent research and the development of new knowledge in a particular field. A PhD degree is designed to prepare students to become experts in their field and to contribute to the advancement of knowledge through their research.

The difference between a PhD and other degrees

Although the Ph.D. is often confused with other doctoral degrees such as MD or JD, there are important differences. A PhD is a research degree, while other PhDs focus on professional practice. For example, a MD is a doctor of medicine, while a JD is a doctor of law. These degrees prepare students for careers in medicine and law, respectively, while a PhD is focused on careers in academia or research.

The history and evolution of the PhD

The PhD has a long and rich history, dating back to the Middle Ages in Europe. Originally it was a degree in theology, but over time it has been extended to other disciplines. The modern doctorate as we know it today was developed in Germany in the 19th century and quickly spread to other countries around the world.

Understanding the definition and history of the doctorate will give you a solid foundation as you set out to earn your degree. In the next section, we’ll go over the different types of doctoral degrees that exist.

Types of PhD Degrees

Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.

Malcolm X

There are several types of PhD degrees, each with its own unique characteristics and requirements. The list of PhD degrees are:

  1. Traditional PhD programs:  These programs are the most common type of PhD program and typically require 3-5 years of study. Students in traditional PhD programs conduct original research and write a dissertation on their findings.
  2. Professional Doctorate programs: These programs are designed for professionals who want to further their knowledge and skills in their field. Professional doctorate programs include degrees such as Doctor of Education (EdD) and Doctor of Business Administration (DBA).
  3. Joint or Dual Degree programs: These programs allow students to earn two degrees simultaneously, such as a PhD and a Master of Business Administration (MBA).
  4. Online PhD programs: Online PhD programs provide flexibility for students who need to balance their studies with work or family obligations. These programs often have the same requirements as traditional PhD programs, but students complete coursework and research online.
  5. Honorary Doctorate degrees: Honorary doctorate degrees are awarded to individuals who have made significant contributions to their field or society, but have not completed the traditional academic requirements for a PhD. These degrees are often awarded by universities as a way to recognize exceptional achievements.
Professor handshaking a PhD graduate student on graduation ceremony
Professor handshaking a PhD graduate student on graduation ceremony [Credit: Getty / Canva]

Qualifications for Joining a PhD Program

Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think.

Albert Einstein

If you’re interested in pursuing a PhD program, it’s essential to know the qualifications you need to meet to apply. Here are the main qualifications you’ll need to consider.

Educational Qualifications

Generally, a master’s degree is required for admission to a PhD program. Some programs may accept exceptional students with only a bachelor’s degree, but they may be required to take additional courses.

Research Experience

Research experience can be a significant factor in the admission decision. Relevant experience can include research conducted during your undergraduate or graduate studies, research assistantships, internships, or independent research projects.

Personal Qualities

Admission committees will also consider personal qualities, such as motivation, determination, and ability to work independently. Other essential personal qualities may include intellectual curiosity, creativity, communication skills, and critical thinking skills.

Applicants may be required to submit letters of recommendation, essays, and other application materials. Admissions committees use these materials to evaluate applicants’ qualifications and suitability for the program.

Skills Required to Qualify for a PhD Program

To be successful in a PhD program, you need to have a variety of skills that will enable you to navigate the academic landscape and conduct your research effectively. Here are some essential skills you’ll need to qualify for a PhD program:

Skills required for PhD admission
Skills required for PhD admission

Research skills

A PhD is all about conducting original research, so you need to have strong research skills. This includes the ability to gather and analyze data, interpret research findings, and identify gaps in existing research.

Analytical skills

In addition to research skills, you’ll need strong analytical skills. This involves the ability to think critically and logically, to identify patterns and trends in data, and to draw valid conclusions from your research.

Writing skills

Writing is a critical part of any PhD program, and you’ll need to be able to communicate your research findings effectively through various forms of academic writing, such as journal articles, conference papers, and your dissertation.

Time management skills

PhD programs are rigorous and demanding, and you’ll need excellent time management skills to balance your coursework, research, and other obligations. This involves setting priorities, managing your time effectively, and staying organized.

To summarize, to be successful in a PhD program, you’ll need strong research, analytical, writing, and time management skills. By developing these skills, you’ll be better equipped to navigate the academic landscape, conduct your research effectively, and achieve your academic and career goals.

The research is about discovering answers to questions, but it is also about discovering what questions need to be asked.

Derek Bok

Benefits of Earning a Doctoral degree

Pursuing a PhD can be a rewarding and fulfilling experience, but it’s not just the degree itself that offers benefits. Here are some of the advantages you can expect from earning a PhD:

Career opportunities and salary potential

Earning a PhD can lead to numerous career opportunities in academia, research, and industry, which often require a PhD degree. Having a PhD can also result in higher salaries and job security, and can help candidates stand out when applying for jobs. PhD holders are sought after by many industries, leading to potential career advancement and increased salary. The average salary for PhD holders is typically higher than those with other degrees.

Successful PhD holder with lot of potential skills
Successful PhD holder with lot of potential skills [Credit: Getty / Canva]

Development of research and critical thinking skills

Earning a PhD requires you to engage in independent research and critical thinking, which can help you develop a range of skills that are highly valued in many different professions. You’ll learn how to analyze complex problems, design experiments, and interpret data, skills that can be applied to a wide range of fields. Additionally, you’ll learn how to communicate your findings effectively, both in writing and through presentations, a valuable skill in many different careers.  These skills can make you a more attractive candidate for jobs in any industry.

Opportunities to make meaningful contributions to your field

PhD programs are designed to push the boundaries of knowledge in a specific field. As a PhD holder, you will have the opportunity to make significant contributions to your area of expertise, whether through original research, publications, or teaching. These contributions can have a lasting impact on your field and help shape the direction of future research.

Personal growth and fulfillment

Earning a PhD can be a deeply rewarding experience, allowing you to pursue your passion for a subject and make a meaningful contribution to society. It can also help you develop as a person, increasing your self-confidence, improving your communication skills, and teaching you to be a more effective leader. Moreover, completing a PhD program is a significant accomplishment that can give you a sense of pride and fulfillment that lasts a lifetime.

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.

Nelson Mandela

Requirements for Earning a PhD

Earning a PhD is a challenging but rewarding experience that requires dedication and hard work. In this section, we will explore the requirements for earning a PhD, including coursework and research requirements, dissertation requirements, and defense requirements.

Coursework and Research Requirements

To earn a PhD, you must first complete a significant amount of coursework in your chosen field of study.

So, What is the PhD coursework?

The coursework typically includes advanced classes in your field and research methods. You will also have to complete a research project as part of your coursework, which will give you the opportunity to gain hands-on experience in your area of study. The research project may be completed individually or as part of a research team.

Dissertation Requirements

The dissertation is the most important part of earning a PhD, and it represents the culmination of your years of hard work and dedication. The dissertation is an original research project that contributes to the body of knowledge in your field. It typically takes several years to complete and involves conducting research, analyzing data, and writing a lengthy document that presents your findings. The dissertation must be defended before a committee of experts in your field.

Defense Requirements

The defense is the final step in earning a PhD and involves presenting and defending your dissertation to a committee of experts in your field. The defense is an oral examination in which you present your research findings and defend your conclusions. The committee will ask you questions about your research and may challenge your findings. If you successfully defend your dissertation, you will earn your PhD.

PhD student in the presentation session
PhD student in the presentation session [Credit: Getty / Canva]

Preparation Procedures

Identifying a research question or topic

The first step in preparing for a PhD program is identifying a research question or topic that interests you. This should be an area that you are passionate about and want to explore in depth. Conducting preliminary research on your chosen topic can help you determine whether it is a viable area for a PhD dissertation.

Finding a supervisor, mentor or advisor

Once you have identified your research question or topic, the next step is to find a supervisor, mentor, or advisor who has expertise in that area. This person will provide guidance throughout your PhD program, helping you to develop your research skills and providing feedback on your dissertation. You can find potential supervisors through university websites, research institutes, or professional associations in your field.

Writing a research proposal

A research proposal is a document that outlines your research question or topic, your proposed methodology, and the significance of your research. It is an important step in the PhD application process, as it demonstrates your research skills and helps you to communicate your ideas effectively. Your potential supervisor can provide guidance on how to structure your proposal and what information to include.

Applying for funding

PhD programs can be expensive, and many students rely on funding to cover their tuition, fees, and living expenses. There are a variety of funding options available, including scholarships, grants, and fellowships. You can find funding opportunities through university websites, professional associations, and government agencies.

Including the steps mentioned above in your preparation process can help you in getting closer to your dream of earning a PhD. 

Young PhD aspirant looking for doctoral vacancies in internet
Young PhD aspirant looking for doctoral vacancies in internet [Credit: Getty / Canva]

Finding PhD Positions

Once you’ve decided to pursue a PhD, the next step is to find a program or institution that fits your interests and goals. This section outlines some of the best ways to find PhD positions.

Researching programs and institutions

Start by researching different programs and institutions that offer PhD programs in your field of interest. Look for information on their faculty, curriculum, and research opportunities. Check out their websites, attend online information sessions, and read reviews and rankings from reputable sources to get a sense of the quality of their programs.

Networking with professionals in your field

Networking is an important part of finding a PhD position. Attend conferences and seminars in your field, join professional organizations, and connect with experts in your field on social media platforms like LinkedIn. You can also reach out to alumni from the programs you’re interested in to get their perspective on the program and its strengths and weaknesses.

Consulting with your academic advisor

Your academic advisor can also be a great resource for finding PhD positions. They may have connections with professors or institutions that could be a good fit for you. They can also help you prepare your application materials and provide guidance on the application process.

Applying to programs and positions

Once you’ve identified programs or positions that interest you, it’s time to start the application process. Make sure to carefully review the requirements and deadlines for each program, and tailor your application materials to each institution. Be sure to highlight your research experience, academic achievements, and other relevant qualifications in your application materials.

PhD Positions, Jobs, vacancies around the world, Universities
List of PhD Positions, Jobs, vacancies

Success is where preparation and opportunity meet.

Bobby Unser

Application Procedures

If you’ve decided to pursue a PhD, the application process can seem overwhelming. However, with proper planning and organization, the process can be manageable. This section outlines the various aspects of the application process to help you prepare and navigate the process with ease.

Application deadlines and requirements

Each program and institution has its own application deadline and requirements. Before applying, it is important to research and familiarize yourself with the application process of each institution you are considering. Start the process early and plan accordingly to ensure that you submit all required documents on time.

Admission tests and examinations

Some PhD programs require standardized tests such as the GRE, GMAT, or MCAT as part of the application process. These tests assess your academic readiness for a PhD program. Be sure to check with each institution to see if they require any specific admission tests and prepare accordingly.

Interviews and application review process

Some programs require an interview with the applicant to assess their suitability for the program. The interview may be conducted in person or virtually. The application review process can take several weeks to several months. During this process, the admission committee evaluates the applicant’s qualifications, academic record, and suitability for the program.

To increase your chances of success in the application process, it is important to start early, do your research, and seek advice from faculty or advisors in your field. Additionally, be sure to prepare well for admission tests and interviews.

Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.

Winston Churchill

What to Know About PhD Student Life?

As a PhD student, life can be both rewarding and challenging that requires dedication and discipline. In this section, we’ll discuss what you can expect from PhD student life and provide tips for managing the academic and personal demands of this journey.

Academic Demands

PhD programs are rigorous and demanding, requiring a significant amount of coursework and research. Time management is key to success, and it’s important to prioritize tasks and stay organized. Establishing a routine can be helpful in balancing coursework, research, and personal life. It’s also important to stay engaged with your field of study by attending seminars, lectures, and workshops.

Personal Demands

PhD programs can be emotionally taxing, and it’s important to prioritize self-care. Taking breaks, getting enough sleep, and maintaining healthy habits are essential to staying motivated and focused. Developing a support system with peers, faculty members, and family and friends can also be helpful during challenging times.

Time Management Tips

  • Create a schedule and prioritize tasks
  • Take breaks and practice self-care
  • Learn to say “no” to activities that don’t align with your goals
  • Stay organized by using tools such as calendars and to-do lists

Opportunities for Networking and Professional Development

Pursuing a PhD offers opportunities to attend conferences, present research, and participate in workshops and seminars. This can help you build valuable connections, gain feedback on your work, and stay up-to-date on the latest research in your area of expertise.

To take advantage of these opportunities, you should consider attending academic conferences and participating in workshops and seminars. Your academic advisor can also help you identify potential networking opportunities and guide you on how to present your research effectively.

PhD researcher presenting research outcome in conference (1)
PhD researcher presenting research outcome in conference [Credit: Canva]

Semester Fees

One of the biggest concerns for students pursuing a PhD program is the cost of tuition fees. The tuition fees for a PhD program can vary widely depending on the institution, the program, and the location. It is important for prospective students to research and understand the fees associated with the program before applying.

Tuition fees for a PhD program can be expensive, but there are several funding options available to help students pay for their education. Many universities offer scholarships, fellowships, and grants to qualified students. These funding options can help cover tuition fees, living expenses, and research expenses.

In addition to university funding, there are several external funding options available for PhD students. These include government grants, private scholarships, and research grants. It is important to research and apply for these funding options early to increase the chances of receiving financial assistance.

Overall, while the cost of tuition fees for a PhD program can be high, there are several funding options available to help students pay for their education. Prospective students should research and understand the funding options available to them to make an informed decision about pursuing a PhD program.

Salary or Stipend Availability for PhD Students

One of the benefits of pursuing a PhD is the opportunity to receive a salary or stipend during your studies. Many universities and research institutions offer financial support to PhD students in the form of stipends, fellowships, or research assistantships. These can cover the cost of tuition and living expenses, allowing students to focus on their studies without the financial burden.

The amount of funding available can vary widely depending on the field of study, the institution, and the country. In some cases, funding may be limited or competitive, so it’s important to research and apply for funding opportunities early in the application process.

It’s worth noting that in some countries, such as the United States, PhD students may be required to work as teaching or research assistants in order to receive their stipend. This can provide valuable experience in teaching or research, but it also means that students must balance their coursework with their work responsibilities.

Overall, the availability of salary or stipend options can make pursuing a PhD a more feasible option for students who may not have the financial means to do so otherwise.

scholarship funding support for phd graduate
Scholarship funding support for PhD graduate [Credit: Canva]

Duration of PhD Studies

A PhD program is a significant investment of time and resources, so it’s important to have a clear understanding of the typical length of the program and the factors that can affect its duration.

Typical Length of a PhD Program

  • The length of a PhD program can vary depending on the field of study, the specific program, and the individual student’s progress.
  • In general, most PhD programs take between 4-6 years to complete.
  • However, some programs can take as little as 3 years or as long as 8 years to complete.

Factors that Affect the Duration of a PhD Program

  • Research topic: Some research topics are more complex and time-consuming than others, which can affect the duration of the program.
  • Advisor/Supervisor: Having a supportive and helpful advisor can make a significant difference in the speed of progress and completion of the program.
  • Funding: Availability of funding can affect the ability to dedicate more time to research.
  • Personal circumstances: Life events, such as marriage, family, and job commitments, can affect the time and energy available to devote to the program.

If you have any additional questions or concerns about the duration of a PhD program, reach out to the program advisor or faculty members for more information.

Job Prospects after PhD Graduation

After completing a PhD, you may be wondering about the career opportunities that are available to you. Fortunately, there are many career paths that value and require a PhD. Here are some career options that may interest you:

Academic Careers

Many PhD graduates pursue careers in academia, working as professors, researchers, and lecturers in universities and colleges. These positions require a strong research background and excellent communication skills. Teaching and research positions can be highly competitive, but they offer opportunities for professional growth and intellectual challenge.

Industry Careers

PhD graduates are also highly sought after in various industries, such as healthcare, biotech, and finance. Many industries need highly skilled individuals to conduct research, develop new products, and design new technologies. PhD graduates with expertise in a particular field can bring valuable knowledge and experience to these industries.

Government and Non-Profit Careers

PhD graduates can also find fulfilling careers in government and non-profit organizations, such as think tanks, research institutes, and NGOs. These organizations need professionals who can conduct research, analyze data, and develop policy recommendations. Many government and non-profit careers offer opportunities for work-life balance and a sense of purpose.

The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.

Eleanor Roosevelt


In conclusion, pursuing a PhD is a challenging but rewarding journey that can lead to exciting career opportunities. It requires dedication, hard work, and a passion for research and innovation. We hope that this guide has provided you with a comprehensive understanding of what a PhD is, the benefits and challenges of pursuing one, and the different factors to consider before applying for a program.

Thank you for reading!

What is the difference between a PhD and a professional doctorate?

A PhD is a research-focused degree that requires the completion of a dissertation. A professional doctorate, such as a Doctor of Medicine (MD) or a Doctor of Education (EdD), is designed for practitioners who want to advance their skills and knowledge in their field.

How long does it take to complete a PhD program?

It usually takes between 3 and 7 years to complete a PhD. The length of a PhD program varies depending on the field and the progress of the individual student.

What is the cost of a PhD program?

The cost of a PhD program varies by institution and field of study. It is important to research funding opportunities such as scholarships, grants, and assistantships to cover the cost of tuition and living expenses.

What kind of career opportunities are available to PhD graduates?

PhD graduates can pursue a variety of career paths, including academia, research, industry, and government. They can work as professors, researchers, consultants, and managers, among others.

Can I complete a PhD program in 3 years?

Yes, it is possible to complete a PhD program in less time than usual, but it often requires extraordinary dedication, concentration, and hard work.

Can I take longer than 7 years to complete a PhD program?

Yes, it is not uncommon for students to take longer than the usual time to complete a PhD program, especially if they have significant life events or challenges.

Are PhD graduates in demand in the job market?

Yes, PhD graduates are highly valued in various fields such as academia, industry, government and non-profit organizations.

What skills do doctoral graduates bring to the job market?

PhD graduates bring advanced research skills, critical thinking skills, and specialized knowledge in a particular field to the job market.

Can PhD graduates find jobs outside of academia?

PhD graduates can find work in a variety of industries and sectors, including healthcare, biotechnology, finance, and government.

Is PhD degree the highest degree?

Yes, the doctorate is the highest academic degree that can be earned through study. There are other professional degrees that can be earned based on contribution to society or the field, such as the Doctor of Science (DSc).

Can I get a PhD without having a master's?

Yes, you can join PhD programs even if you don't have a master's degree. But you have to take more classes and get credits to complete PhD graduation. This is referred to as an MS-PhD combined program, which is offered by a number of universities.

profile picture of nViews Career Editorial Team

Editorial team at nViewsCareer is made up of experts from several academic disciplines who produce blog posts about career development and organize job openings.

Leave a Comment