PhD is the abbreviation for “doctor of philosophy,” a phrase that understandably causes confusion. Like “arts,” this use of “philosophy” usually has nothing to do with studying the discipline of philosophy. The basic meaning of “doctor of philosophy” is that you have acquired the highest possible degree in your academic field. Highest degrees in any field are known as “terminal degrees.” Jobs may stipulate that you hold a terminal degree: this distinguishes the doctorate from the master’s degree, which is usually an intermediate degree, and thus commands less authority.
A degree with the word “doctor” in the title is also called a “doctorate.” You may know that universities often award “honorary doctorates”—this means the recipient has not completed a doctoral program, but has achieved something (like inventing something beneficial to society) that deserves to be honored. The opposite of an honorary doctorate is an “earned doctorate.” You see that phrase in job ads; its purpose is to indicate that if you have a merely honorary doctorate, you cannot apply.
There are many doctorates, and the PhD is one of them. Technically, the abbreviation ought to be written with periods: Ph.D. with the “h” in lower-case. However, countries have different terms and conventions, and plus, conventions change. Today, it is common to see the degree in all caps with no periods: PHD.
The PhD is one of the oldest doctorates, and bears the weight of tradition, history, and universal respect. PhDs are traditionally academic degrees, not professional certifications (not applied or vocational). However, this distinction is changing and blurring. Today, you can get a PhD in applied fields such as Management, Social Work, and Computer Science. You can also get a PhD in arts-related fields, such as Creative Writing, that formerly used the MFA as the terminal degree.
Benefits to having a PhD include prestige, the right to be viewed as an expert and authority, and the ability to apply for high-level jobs. The PhD signals advanced research skills and qualification to teach at the university level. Living in this age of information and technology, within a globalizing economy, means that the need for more education and specialization is much higher than in the past.
Completing a PhD can be immensely rewarding if you are a serious intellectual who passionately loves learning. Nevertheless, if you are considering getting a doctoral degree for personal satisfaction, you should weigh this decision very carefully. Entering a PhD program is difficult, and a very serious commitment. Admission is rigorous, and may or may not require you to already hold a master’s degree. Doctoral programs typically begin with coursework covering theory and methodology. Eventually, you take qualifying exams and perhaps also an oral exam. Some programs mandate fieldwork or supervised clinical experience, often several hundred hours. The culminating project is called a thesis or dissertation, which is a professional-level publishable project in your discipline. This project often begins with a formal proposal, takes years to complete, and ends with an oral defense before a committee.
PhD programs usually require at least three years to complete, and sometimes as many as nine. There is often a maximum time limit of 8-10 years. The reason they take so long is not so much the difficulty of the work, but rather, life often intervenes. Doctoral students are usually at a life stage when they are marrying, raising children and undergoing major personal events. Also, in some countries you will likely receive only small funding during your PhD, and need to earn on the side, which slows your ability to concentrate on your studies.
Funding for doctoral programs varies wildly depending on discipline and country. The ideal situation is to enter a program “fully funded,” which means the university waives your tuition and you receive either a living stipend and/or guaranteed employment, usually as a teaching or research assistant. Many scholarships or “fellowships” are also available; a scholarship is monetary, whereas a fellowship usually implies a job, like an internship, which forms an excellent foundation for your resultant career.
These days, you can complete your PhD online. An online doctoral program has some obvious advantages: you can access your courses on your own schedule, and balance your work and family life without having to commit to a class schedule or move to a faraway campus. Online degree programs are much cheaper for a university to offer, since they do not need to pay for building upkeep, physical facilities, and so forth; the savings are passed to students as lower costs.
Online degrees are gaining popularity and respectability. Some employers still consider an online PhD inferior to a traditional one, but others understand that the versatility of the internet is part of contemporary life. Online doctoral programs are no less rigorous than traditional ones (or at least, you should ensure they are not), and involve substantial interaction with professors and peers.
Top doctoral programs will have well designed career centers to help you seek a job, as well as excellent support during your student years. Another marker of a good program is the ease with which you can find a professor to act as your mentor.
A PhD will provide you advancement in your career, usually a hefty salary differential, and prestige. You should thoroughly research career prospects before you commit to a program: some fields, such as the humanities, are increasingly glutted with PhDs, making it near impossible to land a job at all, especially if you are seeking a job as a professor. Other fields are expanding. Logically, if a field is growing in its need for research, and is connected with powerful policy decision-making, then a PhD in that field will be an asset. PhDs in economics, finance, marketing, and development studies, just to name a few, are solid bets for future job and salary prospects.
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