What is a PhD and is it really worth my time? This is a common question among professionals across a variety of fields, both within and outside academia, who contemplate grad school at some point in their journey. If you’ve ever wondered what a doctorate is and whether you should pursue one to advance your career and gain access to better job opportunities, read on.
This comprehensive guide will walk you through key definitions, including what a PhD actually is, the common requirements you need to complete a PhD degree, and the best degree programs available for a wide range of industries. It will also discuss the main benefits of becoming a Doctor of Philosophy, as well as the most common ways to fund your studies.
What Is a Doctorate?
A doctorate is a research-based academic degree. It is considered a terminal degree in most disciplines, meaning it represents the highest level of education a student can obtain in their chosen field.
A doctorate is awarded to students who have undergone a lengthy research process and made a significant contribution to the body of knowledge in their field of study. It takes multiple years to complete, during which students work closely with a supervisor and focus on a specific dissertation topic. Completing a doctorate might also involve teaching and comprehensive examinations.
A doctorate serves as solid proof of a person’s level of knowledge and expertise. It demonstrates that you have mastery over your chosen subject, and helps establish you as an expert. This level of expertise comes with top-tier job opportunities and the potential to earn top salaries in your chosen profession.
Doctorate vs PhD: Key Differences
While many people use the terms doctorate and PhD interchangeably, there are key differences between the two. These differences have to do with the application of these degrees. However, both terms refer to terminal degrees, so they hold the same value.
A Doctor of Philosophy degree, or PhD, is a research-oriented degree that demonstrates a person’s ability to contribute new knowledge to their chosen field. A student who pursues a PhD usually does so to answer a specific question, conduct original research to provide an answer, and use their findings to advance their field.
On the other hand, the term doctorate is broader and typically refers to a professional or clinical degree. This means that a person who obtains it has demonstrated an ability to apply advanced knowledge in a particular field in their professional life. Professional doctorates of this kind are awarded, for instance, to medical doctors or doctors of juridical science.
PhD Requirements: How to Get a PhD
While each PhD degree program will have unique requirements depending on the school and field of study, there are some common requirements you need to complete to get a PhD. Keep reading to find out about the most common requirements to earn your advanced degree.
PhD Statement of Purpose
A PhD statement of purpose is a document that clearly outlines your goals for your PhD, your academic credentials, and the reasons why an academic committee should approve your project. It is typically between 500 to 1,000 words long and gives prospective students an opportunity to explain how their research project will make a relevant contribution to their field.
How Many Credits Is a PhD?
Typically, it takes between 90 and 120 credits to complete your PhD studies. However, this number can be as low as 60, depending on the degree type, area of study, and state, regional, or institutional requirements. Credit hours for graduate students are usually divided between course work, research hours, and dissertation work.
Other Common Requirements for a PhD
- Coursework. While coursework is not the main focus of a PhD, students will usually have to enroll in a few core courses during their first or second year of grad school. They might also have the opportunity to enroll in elective courses, which offer a chance to learn about other fields of study.
- Qualifying exams. A common component of many PhD programs is a set of qualifying exams. Students must successfully pass these comprehensive exams toward the end of their degree in order to demonstrate their level of competence in their field. These tend to be oral exams.
- Teaching. Many PhD programs include a teaching component. Students are required to teach basic courses, typically to fresh undergrad students, which helps them develop teaching skills.
- Research. Conducting original research on a particular subject is typically the main component of a doctorate program, and takes up the bulk of doctoral candidates’ time.
- Dissertation. Throughout their program, PhD candidates need to complete a dissertation based on the original research they’ve conducted. Graduate students do this under the guidance of a qualified faculty member.
- Dissertation defense. Once the dissertation is approved, PhD students need to successfully defend their research in front of a panel of experts in their field before they are awarded their degree. This is the final step in the dissertation process.
How Do PhD Programs Work?
Typically, PhD degree programs work based on a mix of coursework and research conducted over three to four years, although this can last longer depending on the program and the pace at which a student completes their research. Coursework is typically completed towards the beginning of the program, and towards the end, the dissertation or thesis becomes the main focus.
In addition, students must fulfill other program requirements throughout this period. This might include teaching undergraduate students, completing a residency, passing qualifying exams, or attending conferences or colloquia. The final step is usually an oral defense in front of a panel of experts, who are selected to evaluate the quality of the research and the value of the results obtained.
Do You Need a Master’s to Get a PhD?
No, a master’s degree is not always required to pursue PhD studies. Many programs in the US allow students to apply to a PhD program straight after completing their bachelor’s degree. Other programs offer dual degrees, meaning that you will obtain a master’s degree while you work toward your doctorate.
What Comes After a Doctorate Degree?
In many fields, the usual step after a doctorate degree is a postdoc. This is an option for those wishing to pursue a career in academia and continue doing research in their field. However, an academic career is not the only option. Because a doctorate is a terminal degree, graduates can easily move on to professional positions in other types of organizations in their chosen field.
Best Online Master’s Degree Programs
PhD Dissertation vs Thesis
The main difference between a dissertation and a thesis is the scope of the research being conducted and the type of degree you are awarded after completing it. Often, the terms are used interchangeably, or they can hold different meanings in European countries, which causes some confusion regarding their nature. Keep reading to understand the differences between a PhD dissertation and a thesis in the US.
What Is a PhD Dissertation?
A PhD dissertation is a piece of scholarly work that presents the original research carried out by a doctoral student during the length of their program. It discusses the scope, methodology, results, and conclusions of the research at length. The end goal of a doctoral dissertation is to produce results that help advance human knowledge in a given field.
PhD Dissertation Defense
A PhD dissertation defense is the process in which a PhD candidate defends their research in front of a panel of experts in their field. During the defense, members of the panel ask questions regarding the information presented, providing the candidate an opportunity to back up their work and demonstrate the level of expertise they’ve achieved after years of dedicated work.
What Is a PhD Thesis?
In the US, as opposed to some European countries, the term thesis refers to a shorter academic paper that is usually presented for the completion of a master’s degree. It can also sometimes be a requirement for honors students completing a bachelor’s degree. The information presented in a thesis is usually drawn from existing sources, rather than from original research conducted by the student.
PhD Thesis Defense
A thesis defense is usually not a mandatory requirement for master’s students, although this varies according to your school and department. The thesis is still an in-depth piece of scholarly writing and serves as a testament to a student’s mastery of a given subject, and a defense serves as an opportunity to engage a panel of experts and defend the contents of your paper.
How Long Does It Take to Earn a Doctorate?
Most doctoral programs are designed to be completed in four to six years. However, it can take up to seven and a half years to earn a doctoral degree from the start of graduate school, according to data presented by the National Science Foundation.
A number of factors can affect how long it takes students to earn their PhDs. They include the structure of their chosen program, the type of research being conducted, and the support provided by the institution. On average, students completing doctoral programs in science and engineering fields finish faster than their counterparts in non-science and engineering fields.
How Hard Is It to Get a PhD?
It can be very hard to get a PhD. Working for several years on a particular dissertation topic can be very trying. Aside from the time commitment, the depth of research that is part of the dissertation process can also be challenging. Admissions to a top education institution can be extremely competitive, as usually there are only a handful of positions available for hundreds of applicants.
What Is the Easiest PhD to Get?
PhDs in the humanities, social sciences, and education are typically regarded as the easiest to obtain. However, this truly comes down to how interested you are in your chosen dissertation topic and your level of commitment to making a relevant contribution to human knowledge, both of which can greatly influence your perception of the difficulty of the degree.
How Much Does a PhD Cost?
According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the average yearly cost of graduate programs in the US is $19,792. Data from the QS World University Rankings suggest that the yearly cost of a PhD in the US ranges from $28,000 to $40,000. The total cost of a PhD can greatly vary depending on the university, length of the program, and funding options available for doctoral study.
Best PhD Programs
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Benefits of a Doctoral Degree: Why Do a PhD?
There are many concrete benefits to completing a doctorate, such as career advancement opportunities, expertise in your field, and the chance to earn better salaries. Keep reading to find out about some concrete reasons why you should do a PhD to advance your career.
Career Advancement Opportunities
Holding a doctorate can provide you with great opportunities to advance your career. Many top-tier jobs in various industries require applicants to be experts in their field. For instance, a PhD in Business Administration can make you a strong candidate for senior, managerial, or executive positions in world-class companies in the public or private sector, or help you launch an independent career as a consultant.
Even for jobs where this type of formal training is not required, you may still find yourself in fierce competition with other applicants. A PhD can help you stand out as a candidate, as it demonstrates your ability to conduct research, work independently, and succeed in pursuing your long-term goals.
Increased Earning Potential
One of the top benefits of completing your doctoral degree is the potential for earning better salaries. For example, the average yearly income for a professional with a Master’s Degree in Physics is $99,000, while someone with a PhD in Physics can expect to earn up to $119,000 yearly.
Expertise in Your Field
Earning a doctorate helps solidify your status as an expert in your field. If there is a topic that you are deeply passionate about, your PhD is your chance to fully immerse yourself in it. Through this process, you will be making important contributions and developing groundbreaking practices in your area.
Aside from your ability to work independently and conduct research in your area of expertise, you will also develop a variety of transferable skills that will be useful to you no matter what you choose to do after graduation.
Throughout your program, you will be participating in committees, teaching, organizing conferences, publishing your work, and meeting other experts. As a result, you will develop multipurpose skills, including time and project management, communication and interpersonal skills, and leadership skills.
While you pursue your academic degree, you will be participating in academic conferences, workshops, seminars, and colloquia. This, in turn, means you will have ample opportunities to connect with other doctoral students in your field and in other areas of knowledge. The connections you make through your PhD can lead to career opportunities and expand your social circle in new and interesting ways.
How to Earn a Doctoral Degree
So, how do you earn a doctoral degree? While there is work to be put in, the process is actually quite straightforward. Keep reading to find out how you can embark on the path toward your PhD.
How to Choose a PhD Program
In order to choose a PhD program that is right for you, there are several factors you should consider. A PhD is a strong commitment both in terms of time and money, so the decision shouldn’t be made lightly. Keep reading to find out how to choose a PhD program.
PhD Acceptance Rates
The PhD acceptance rates of a university give you an idea of how likely you are to be admitted to your chosen program. This number is a reflection of how competitive a program is and the funding the department receives. Use this information to orient yourself to the selection process, as applying to a variety of programs with different acceptance rates can increase your chances of being accepted into one of them.
Keep in mind that acceptance rates are usually measured by department, not university. For instance, Columbia University has an acceptance rate of four to six percent for its psychology PhD program, and an acceptance rate of five to seven percent for its history PhD.
PhD Dropout Rates
PhD dropout rates are important to consider, as they give you an idea of how supported students are in a particular program and how likely you are to complete your doctorate. In the US, PhD attrition rates, or dropout rates, can range from 40 to 50 percent, so take your time to find a university and program with a high success rate to ensure you will be able to finish and obtain your degree.
One of the key relationships you will have during your time as a PhD student will be with your supervisor. You will also be working closely with other members of your department. As such, make sure to research the faculty to ensure that their interests and research projects align with your own. During the research stage, you can even reach out to them to find out about the department, ask about funding opportunities, and receive relevant career advice.
A PhD can be costly, but there are many ways to offset those costs to make it more manageable. Be it scholarships, grants, or work opportunities, make sure to research all funding opportunities available so you can select a program that aligns with your financial situation. Many universities offer fully-funded programs to outstanding students, so do your homework and find a program that doesn’t leave you financially crippled in the long run.
When you commit to a PhD, you are also committing to several years of work. Unless you are planning to complete your program fully online, you should take into account the place where you will be moving to continue your studies.
Do you prefer big cities or small college towns? Which part of the country would you be willing to relocate to? Take some time to reflect on your preferences so you can choose the best location according to your needs and preferences.
Best Online PhD Programs
What Can You Get a Doctorate In?
You can get a doctorate in a wide variety of topics. Below is a list of common fields in which you can pursue this type of degree:
- PhD in Psychology
- PhD in Education
- PhD in Nursing
- PhD in Social Work
- PhD in Economics
- PhD in Business
- PhD in Computer Science
- PhD in Data Science
- PhD in Business Administration
- PhD in Accounting
- PhD in Mathematics
- PhD in Statistics
- PhD in Engineering
- PhD in Cyber Security
- PhD in Information Systems
Best PhD Programs and Their Potential Jobs
The best PhD programs offer you the training you need to succeed in your field and access top jobs in your industry. Keep reading to find out about common programs in a variety of fields, both in-person and online, as well as the jobs you’ll have access to once you finish.
Can You Get a PhD Online?
Yes, you can get a PhD online. Many reputable universities in the country offer accredited online degree programs in a variety of disciplines. This education format is ideal for students who are unable to relocate or who prefer more flexible learning modalities.
Best Online PhD Programs
|Doctor of Science in Computer Science
|Object oriented programming (OOP) skills; master’s degree; GPA of 3.0 or higher; statement of purpose indicating academic, professional, and personal goals
|PhD in Computer Science
|Statement of purpose, resume, three letters of recommendation, official transcripts, GRE test scores
|PhD in Information Systems
|Dakota State University
|Master’s Degree in Information Systems,
minimum GPA of 3.0, statement of purpose
|PhD in Education and Educational Leadership
|Minimum GPA of 3.25, official transcripts, GRE test scores, three letters of recommendation, writing sample
|PhD in Media and Communication
|Indiana University of Pennsylvania
|$516/credit (in state); $593/credit (out of state)
|Official transcripts, statement of purpose, two letters of recommendation, writing sample
|DBA in Project Management
|Master’s degree with 30 credits of graduate business courses, minimum GPA of 3.0,
official transcripts, online application, application fee
|PhD in International Business
|Southern New Hampshire University
|Master’s degree in related subject, three letters of recommendation, statement of purpose, official transcripts
|Doctor of Philosophy in Computer Science
|University of California, Berkeley
|$10,123.75/semester (in state); $17,674.75/semester (out of state)
|Bachelor’s degree or equivalent, minimum GPA of 3.0, three letters of recommendation, statement of purpose
|PhD in Information Technology
|University of the Cumberlands
|Minimum GPA of 3.0 in a relevant master’s degree, official transcripts, statement of purpose, online application, application fee
|PhD in Mathematics Education
|University of Wyoming
|$399/credit (in state), $1,018/credit (out of state)
|Master’s degree with 3.0 GPA, GRE scores, three years of P-12 teaching or other relevant professional experience, statement of purpose, online application
Most Affordable Online PhD Programs
- PhD in Education and Educational Leadership at Drexel University. Tuition: $140/credit
- PhD in Mathematics Education at University of Wyoming. Tuition: $399/credit (in state)
- PhD in Information Systems at Dakota State University. Tuition: $464.90/credit
- PhD in Information Technology at University of the Cumberlands. Tuition: $500/credit
- PhD in Media and Communication at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Tuition: $516/credit (in state)
Free Online PhD Programs
Unfortunately, there are no free online PhD programs. However, a multitude of funding opportunities do exist to help you cover the cost of your program. These include scholarships and grants, loans, and various forms of financial aid. Fully funded PhD programs also exist in a variety of universities and fields to support outstanding students looking to obtain their degrees.
How to Pay for a PhD
PhD programs are usually quite expensive. Fortunately, there are a variety of ways you can finance your studies. Keep reading to find out about the main ways to fund your PhD.
PhD Scholarships and Grants
Scholarships and grants consist of funds provided to students so they can cover the cost of their doctoral degrees. They can either be need-based or be awarded based on character or merit. Recipients of this type of funds usually do not need to pay the money back. They can be awarded by universities or other institutions, such as charities or research foundations.
PhD Financial Aid
Universities typically offer a wide range of financial aid options to prospective and current students to help them cover the cost of their programs. This might include, but is not limited to, tuition grants, stipends, computer or equipment subsidies, and access to funds for research or travel. Make sure to consult with your department to find out what forms of financial aid might be available to you.
Fully Funded PhD Programs
Many PhD programs are fully funded, meaning they waive tuition and associated fees entirely for outstanding students. Sometimes, the full funding can also include book stipends or funds for travel and research. While these tend to be highly competitive programs, they also offer the best option to complete your doctorate while avoiding the financial burden involved.
What Can You Do With a PhD?
With a PhD, you can gain access to senior, executive, or managerial positions in your industry. You can also have a successful career as a researcher in either the public or private sectors as you continue to expand the body of knowledge in your field. You can also choose to stay in academia and work as a college professor.
How Much Do PhD Professors Make?
On average, PhD professors earn an average salary of $143,823 per year, according to data presented by the American Association of University Professors pertaining to the 2021-22 academic year. This number can vary greatly depending on your field and whether you work for a public, private, for-profit, or not-for-profit institution.
What Jobs Can You Get With a Doctorate Degree?
- Senior Data Scientist | Average Salary: $128,060. Senior data scientists use data to create strategies and orient the growth of organizations. They also serve as team leaders.
- Senior Software Engineer | Average Salary: $121,578. Senior software engineers are experts in their field and are tasked with developing innovative information systems to help organizations reach their goals.
- Senior Research Scientist | Average Salary: $106,142. Senior research scientists work in laboratory settings across various industries. They conduct research and experiments, which can have industrial, commercial, or academic purposes.
- Top Executive | Average Salary: $98,980. The main task of a top executive, regardless of the industry they work for, is to devise strategies and policies to ensure their organization meets its goals.
- Postsecondary Teachers | Average Salary: $79,640. Postsecondary teachers instruct students beyond the high school level. The subjects they teach depend on their academic track and areas of expertise.
Conclusion: Is a Doctoral Degree Worth It?
Yes, a doctoral degree is worth it if you want to position yourself as an expert in your field, gain access to senior, executive, or managerial positions, and enjoy higher salaries. It is also a great option if you wish to contribute new knowledge to your field by conducting groundbreaking research on a particular topic.
Completing a doctoral degree requires endurance, commitment, and an ability to overcome obstacles. It involves a strong time commitment of several years, as well as a considerable financial commitment, but it usually pays off. Whether you plan to work in academia, a private research firm, or any other public or private organization, a PhD will arm you with the skills and knowledge you need to help your career flourish.
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