Demystifying the Doctoral Degree


What is a PhD?

The Doctorate of Philosophy degree, or PhD, is the highest academic degree awarded by universities in the United States and many other countries. Qualifications for the PhD vary widely from one university to another, but generally the degree requires significant course work, research, and writing beyond the Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. Doctoral candidates are accepted by university departments based on an excellent prior academic record, high Graduate Record Exam (GRE) test scores and several letters of recommendation attesting to the applicant’s skills and professional potential. Once accepted to a program, the doctoral candidate then engages in advanced academic study within his or her field, culminating in a series of comprehensive exams. A candidate’s final step toward earning the degree is writing and defending a book-length thesis commonly known as a dissertation. The completion of a PhD degree typically requires five to eight years of post-undergraduate study.

Who gets a PhD?

A common misconception is that Doctor of Philosophy students study only philosophy; however, “philosophy” in this case refers to the Latin “philosophiae,” meaning “love of wisdom.” Thus, PhD degrees are awarded in a broad array of academic disciplines. Highly motivated and intellectually curious students seeking to take their academic study to the highest level pursue the PhD. These scholars are expected to expand the body of knowledge in their fields by contributing original thought and inquiry. The doctoral degree is required in many professions, most notably for college and university professors as well as in the fields of scientific and medical research, law, economics, engineering, psychology and others. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, less than one percent of the American population holds a doctorate degree.

Why pursue a PhD?

The PhD allows a scholar to master a broad body of knowledge in a specific academic area and be considered a legitimate, highly-trained expert in his or her field. The attainment of the doctoral degree is extremely challenging, but this well-respected title gains the scholar access to numerous opportunities and the satisfaction of making major professional contributions. The financial benefits of the degree can also be significant, with most Doctors of Philosophy making $65,000-$100,000 annually. It is conventional to address an individual who holds a PhD as “Doctor” as a show of respect.