What is a Ph.D.?

Education, Home & Family
on August 20, 2011

The Ph.D. is a prestigious doctoral-level degree that is awarded by educational institutions in a number of different countries. In most cases, the Ph.D. is considered a terminal degree, which means that it is the highest degree that can be obtained in a given field. Not all academic fields have Ph.D. degrees. The Ph.D. lettering stands for Doctor of Philosophy. The word "philosophy" refers to the degree itself rather than the actual program, and students may obtain the degree in a wide variety of fields.

Different degrees. In addition to the Ph.D., many other doctoral degrees exist. Some of the more common doctoral degrees are the Ed.D. (Doctor of Education), M.D. (Doctor of Medicine), and J.D. (Juris Doctor). For many M.D. and J.D. programs, a research dissertation may not be required. In addition, the individual who obtains a J.D. degree is typically not referred to as “doctor,” while the person who has the Ph.D. will earn this title.

First steps to completion. Programs vary from school to school, but there are typically some standard educational components when getting a Ph.D. As noted by Norman Ramsey, a professor in the Department of Computer Science at Tufts University in Massachusetts, admissions committees of schools often look for good grades, high GRE (Graduate Record Examinations) scores and research potential. Once someone is admitted to the program, the first component is coursework. The coursework consists of a curriculum of classes that are more advanced but often similar in structure to courses at lower educational levels.

Post-coursework requirements. After completing coursework in a Ph.D. program, students must typically complete more educational tasks. Some schools require a comprehensive exam, while others may require a fixed amount of supervised practical experience in the given field. Most Ph.D. programs require a dissertation, which is an extensive research paper that is often overseen by a committee of faculty members. The dissertation will typically be approved in several stages.

Application of degree. A Ph.D. can be used for a variety of vocational purposes. Many individuals with Ph.D.s will pursue a career in teaching, often in a higher education setting. Others may work for think tanks, research organizations or consulting firms. The Ph.D. is intended to equip an individual to potentially be an expert or source of authority in his or her field when the degree is combined with practical experience over time.