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Question: What Is a PhD Degree?

Answer: PhD stands for Philosophiae Doctor, which is Latin for Doctor of Philosophy. A PhD is the terminal or highest attainable degree in most academic disciplines. Graduates from PhD programs are considered to have reached the top level of formal scholarship in that field.

PhD Degree Programs

A PhD degree is often referred to as a doctorate. Graduates from PhD programs are formally addressed as “Doctors” and entitled to use the “Dr.” prefix before their name. Earning a PhD is a lengthy and arduous process that typically entails four or more years of academic work, culminating in a thesis project or dissertation, which consists of original research in the field for which the PhD is awarded. PhD candidates must then typically defend their work in front of faculty or a thesis committee. Students who are accepted into PhD programs may receive payment in the form of tuition reimbursements and stipends for work they do in academic fellowships as research and teaching assistants, which is considered an important part of PhD training.

A PhD is in some cases a requirement for upper-level research and tenure-track faculty positions at colleges and universities. There are PhD programs that cover nearly every academic discipline and many areas of professional study in the arts, the sciences, and the humanities, including but not limited to:

  • Anthropology
  • Business Administration
  • Computer Science
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Earth Science
  • Economics
  • Education
  • Engineering
  • History
  • Mathematics
  • Music
  • Nursing
  • Philosophy
  • Physics
  • Psychology
  • Social Work
  • Sociology

Admission to PhD Programs

Admissions to PhD programs is generally selective, although this varies by discipline and by program. There are essentially two paths to earning a PhD, both of which begin with the completion of a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university. In many disciplines, it is possible to go straight into a PhD program after completing an undergraduate degree, in which case students may be looking at five or more years of intensive study and training before completing the program.

Applicants to a PhD program in a particular discipline or field who hold a master’s degree in that area of study are generally eligible for admissions, and their time to completion is usually closer to four years. There are some fields in which earning a master’s degree before entering a PhD program is recommended or preferred, and in other cases admission to a PhD program is contingent upon the applicant holding master’s in the same field or a related field. For example, a PhD in Social Work program may require applicants to hold a master’s degree in social work or in a field like health and human services. PhD programs that accept candidates directly from bachelor’s degree programs often allow students to earn a master’s degree as part of the PhD program. In those programs, the master’s degree is conferred when the crediting and coursework for the master’s degree is completed.

Other Types of Doctoral Degrees

The PhD is not the only type of doctoral degree. There are a number of fields in which there are terminal doctoral degrees other than the PhD, often in areas of professional practice like medicine, law, and education. Some of the more common terminal degrees in professional fields include:

  • DMD (Doctor of Dental Medicine)
  • DNP (Doctor of Nursing Practice)
  • EdD (Doctor of Education)
  • JD (Juris Doctor)
  • MD (Medical Doctor)
  • PsyD (Doctor of Psychology)
  • DSW (Doctor of Social Work)

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