What Does a PhD Degree Stand For?

Post-graduate education is filled with jargon and terminology. Parsing the meanings of MCATs, LSATs, M.S., FAFSA, GREs and more can make navigating the world of higher education a daunting task. The Ph.D. or doctorate degree is the academic degree achieved after completing the highest level of study in a particular discipline.

What Does "Ph.D." Stand For?

Though the name of the degree might indicate otherwise, this does not suggest that the holder of a Ph.D. is a philosopher, necessarily, or that this degree is for people hoping to become philosophers (although some do). "Doctor of Philosophy" is simply the term created to indicate the doctorate-level title bestowed on a person who has completed a largely research-based degree program in his selected field of study. To be eligible to be a Doctor of Philosophy in your desired subject area, all scholars need to have already completed any academic prerequisite requirements for study in their respective fields. Ph.D.s can be earned in a variety of disciplines, from humanities like history, literature, anthropology, education, public policy and political science to hard sciences like molecular biology, physics, environmental science, geology and chemistry. By far, the most well-known doctorate is a Doctorate of Medicine, which is the Ph.D. earned by a medical doctor. It is a requirement for medical doctors to practice in the United States.

Is a Ph.D. a Degree?

A Ph.D. is a type of academic degree earned at the doctorate level of study. The doctorate level of study is the highest attainable level of study in virtually every discipline and field. It is typical to pursue studies at the doctorate level after completion of a master's degree in the same or a related discipline. However, there are some cases in which a candidate advances to a Ph.D. program after completing undergraduate bachelor's studies. Although some programs allow students to begin Ph.D. studies without a master's degree, in almost every case you cannot earn a Ph.D. without previously earning a bachelor's degree. Depending on the discipline, the university and the amount of time that the student is able to devote to her studies, a Ph.D. program can take anywhere from three years to eight years and possibly longer. A Ph.D. is a degree that confers a level of expertise upon the holder. There are certain positions that require a Ph.D. for employment or for licensing. Doctors, for example, must have a Ph.D. before they are licensed to practice medicine. Many universities require that professors have a Ph.D. in their field in order to teach at the university level.

Is a Ph.D. and a Doctorate the Same?

A Ph.D. is a type of doctorate degree, but a doctorate degree doesn't simply mean a Ph.D. It can be confusing to parse the two, since people often use Ph.D. and doctorate as interchangeable terms. The fact is that at the highest levels of academic study, there are two degrees attainable at the doctorate level. The first is a Ph.D., which is a Doctorate of Philosophy. The other is a Psy.D. The Psy.D. is a doctorate-level degree specifically granted to students who are planning to pursue a professional practice in psychology. Some schools who train future psychologists offer the more traditional research-based Ph.D. degree, which emphasizes both research projects and the completion of a doctoral dissertation. A Psy.D. degree, by contrast, is more focused on providing the degree candidate with clinical training, which will make up the bulk of the work he engages in during post-graduation. In that way, a Psy.D. degree can be seen as the more practical alternative to earning a Ph.D. in psychology.

Ph.D. Degree Requirements

Requirements for Ph.D. degrees vary by institution and by academic discipline. The greatest variation between programs, universities and disciplines is length of time. Some Ph.D. programs last for three years, while others last for as long as seven to eight years. A medical doctorate requires both academic study and hands-on clinical work for a matter of years. This is the exception, but it still bears consideration. However, there are certain common requirements for most Ph.D. programs that all candidates will have to satisfy before earning a degree. These are typically a certain number of years of full-time study, an advancement to candidacy upon completion of research and study requirements and, finally, the production and defense of a dissertation on a topic related to the candidate's area of focus and study, which demonstrates thorough research and outstanding scholarship. While every discipline will define outstanding scholarship differently, the expectation is that a candidate's dissertation is an exceptional piece of study and demonstrates an expert level of commitment to the field of study.

The completion of a dissertation and a successful defense of said dissertation are the final pieces of earning a Ph.D. You may hear people use the acronym "ABD," meaning "All But Dissertation." This refers to a Ph.D. candidate who has completed her coursework, research and any necessary field work and is only concerned with the remaining dissertation. For many students, the dissertation is a very long, drawn-out and complex project which is generally the length of a book. For that reason, some students spend years working on their dissertation, delaying the end of their scholarship and keeping them in a kind of limbo. They are unable to attain professorships because they do not yet have a Ph.D.

How Is a Ph.D. Dissertation Different From a Thesis?

There is often confusion, even in academic circles, about what constitutes a thesis and what constitutes a dissertation. Though both terms are often invoked and made to seem interchangeable, there are actually significant differences between the two. Though both papers are protracted essays that introduce a thesis statement or idea that is then supported by evidence and research, a dissertation and a thesis are two appreciably different documents for a number of reasons. A thesis is typically the final paper submitted upon completion of master's degree coursework. The dissertation, on the other hand, is the final paper produced after a program of doctoral study. The more advanced nature of the dissertation is one of the key differences between the two papers.

On a conceptual level, however, the papers are also very different. A thesis paper is written to prove that you have done in-depth research in your field of study and have a wide and comprehensive knowledge of the discipline on which you have spent your time. The thesis exists to prove to those evaluating you that you have done the work and the research required to hold a master's degree in the subject you have chosen to pursue. The study at the doctoral level is significantly more complex. More than simply regurgitating what you've studied or displaying knowledge of the scholarship that has come before you, a dissertation requires that the Ph.D. candidate who is writing it actually contributes to the scholarship of the discipline in one way or another. A dissertation is more than a glorified report; it is the opportunity for the doctoral student to come up with her own original idea, explain it, support it and ultimately defend its value as a contribution to the canon of scholarship on the subject.

Though a dissertation is a written document, the dissertation itself is defended in person. Typically, a dissertation committee tasked with reading a candidate's dissertation will prepare questions for the candidate that question the validity of his claims and the legitimacy of his scholarship. These questions are not intended to be abusive or defamatory or overly critical of the material. Rather, they serve to push the candidate to explain why he feels his scholarship is so valuable and to point out areas in which there may be a lack of scholarship or clarity in the support of the candidate's central thesis.

Why Get a Ph.D.?

There are a number of reasons for earning a Ph.D. The most common reason for pursuing a doctorate degree is employment eligibility. Certain disciplines, such as medicine and psychology, absolutely require a doctorate degree to be a practicing professional in either field. Students training to become professors or hoping to teach at the university level in many cases must earn a Ph.D. Ph.D. programs are time consuming, and in some cases they require the candidate to take out student loans in order to finance her lifestyle during the years spent in the academic program. For this reason, it's tough to make the case that getting a Ph.D. is a good investment unless you're planning to use it to further your career. However, some people who want to devote their life to the scholarly study of a particular field, discipline or topic may choose to get a Ph.D. in order to open doors to other opportunities in research with historical societies, museums or other institutions that depend on the fruits of scholarship. Many people who are passionate about a certain subject or field may simply want to study it for as long as they can. These people make up a small portion of the people who earn Ph.D.s every year, but they do exist.

Pros and Cons of a Ph.D.

While in a macro sense, spending an extended period of your time studying something about which you're passionate and about which you have a great deal of knowledge can never be a bad thing, in practical terms there are pros and cons to getting a Ph.D. On the pro side, you know that upon the completion of your degree, you will have delved deeply and thoroughly into your studies, and you can count yourself as one of the experts in your field. This is not without value. Having a Ph.D. means that you can command a significantly higher salary than someone with simply a master's degree in the same discipline. You will also be able to ascend to the highest ranks of your chosen field, as expertise is a valuable quality. You will also have the opportunity throughout your life to teach at the university level if that is your goal or if you should choose to do so in the future.

On the con side, Ph.D.s take a lot of time to earn. The time that you spent studying and working toward this advanced degree could have also been put to use in other more lucrative ways that would pay off more handsomely at an earlier point in your life. While professors teaching at the university level who hold Ph.D.s can command high incomes, many of the people who earn Ph.D.s struggle to find professorial positions. These positions are highly in demand, and there are always more candidates to fill the posts than there are posts available. If your chosen field does not require a doctorate degree to attain the highest levels, it may be wise to avoid the taxing, laborious program altogether. Getting a master's degree in a discipline can also put you in the running to teach, albeit not at as high of a level as a Ph.D. would allow.