What is a PhD?

PhD stands for Doctor of Philosophy, and is often the highest degree awarded by a university or other academic institution. Philosophy in this sense does not refer to the academic discipline, but rather to its Greek meaning, which roughly translates to “love of wisdom.” Though there still exists vast variation in the specific nature of degrees granted at this high level, many countries have begun to standardize the titles being awarded to conform to international criteria.

In general, doctoral studies last between three and eight years and result in the completion and defense of a dissertation, which is an in-depth research report on a specific topic in the field in which the degree is being awarded. In some countries, such as the United States and Canada, PhD candidates generally enroll in structured programs offered by a specific department within an institution. In much of Europe and elsewhere, doctoral students tend to work much more independently and do not engage in coursework but focus solely on their dissertation. This is changing, however, as many countries begin to offer more structured programs similar to those found in the U.S.

Not all countries view a PhD as the final pre-requisite to working as a professor. Some countries, such as Germany, traditionally require a further step, which includes more in-depth independent research, before one can become a full professor and teach courses at a university. As standardization is taking hold, however, there are other options in place for those interested in professorships directly following doctoral studies.

Why earn a PhD?

While many people argue that you only need a PhD if you plan to work in academia, there are some clear benefits to earning this degree, regardless of where you work. For instance, it has been shown that there is a strong correlation between highest degree earned and level of income. Moreover, unemployment rates are also much lower for those who hold a PhD.

Outside of the academic arena, a PhD presents you as an expert in your field in a way that other degrees do not. For instance, if you would like to conduct research in either the public or private sector, it is nearly unheard of for lead researchers to hold any degree other than a PhD. Although work experience can sometimes substitute, generally only a small minority of listed positions in research institutes or think tanks accept applicants without a PhD, yet many research positions require merely one year or less of work experience.

Where should I study?

Before beginning the process of applying for doctoral studies, take the time to familiarize yourself with your options. Depending on the country where you would like to study and the discipline you would like to pursue, the steps necessary towards becoming a PhD candidate can vary widely.

Are you looking for a structured program? Would you like to spend 2-3 years taking courses and gaining expertise in a field before you embark on your dissertation? Do you have a specific professor with whom you would like to work? Do you want to stay in your home country? Do you already have a project you’re ready to begin? These are the questions you need to ask yourself in order to begin narrowing your options.

Outside the U.S.

If you already have a solid knowledge base in a given discipline and have a strong idea of how you would like to structure your dissertation, applying for doctoral candidacy anywhere other than the United States might be for you. Across most of Europe, Latin America and Asia, doctoral studies take a very strong research focus and can be entirely free of coursework. In many European countries, such as Germany, one can apply either as an independent candidate working under a particular advisor, or else as part of a more structured program. In general, in order to begin doctoral research one must have completed a Master’s degree or its equivalent, and often only applicants with high marks are considered for doctoral candidacy. The applicant must also show that he or she is fully capable of completing a strong dissertation within the given timeframe, which tends to be 3-4 years in countries outside the U.S.

In the U.S.

If your highest degree is a Bachelor’s and/or you are unsure about the focus your dissertation but know you would like to continue studying in a particular field, applying to schools in North America might be a good option for you. American doctoral programs are generally at least twice as long as those elsewhere and include a few years of courses at the front end, after which students must pass comprehensive exams in order to move forward. While the length of time is much longer, this also allows students to gain expertise in their given field before deciding upon a specific dissertation project.

What can I do after I earn my PhD?

Once you’ve made it through your doctoral studies and you’re standing on the other side of the dissertation mountain, though it may seem daunting to jump straight into something else, it’s certainly recommendable to know where you might be headed.

A very common first step following a PhD is a Post-doc position, which might not bring in much more cash than your doctoral stipends did, but it’s a great way to gain further research experience. Alternately, if you’ve earned a PhD in the U.S. or another country in which there are no further steps necessary towards becoming a professor, many people immediately begin the hunt for professorships. If you are in this position, do not forget to examine all of your options, including public, private and community schools. There are also many options outside the world of academia, including researcher positions at institutes and think tanks, jobs within the government, at consulting firms or with NGOs.