A doctoral degree (Ph.D.) is the highest degree a student can receive at a university, after the bachelor’s degree (the usual “college degree”) and the masters degree. It is awarded only after extensive research in a particular discipline and the publication of a major research project called a dissertation. “Ph.D.” comes from the Latin for “doctor philosophiae.” Ph.D. students may take between four and seven years to earn their degree, and often get generous funding packages to support their research.
Application and Funding
Each level of academic study involves increasingly severe academic requirements. PhD applicants typically have A averages in their undergraduate or masters-level coursework and may even have a publication to their credit before applying, although this is not required. In the United States, a high score on the Graduate Records Examination (GRE), a standardized test similar to the SAT for college entry, is also a regular requirement.
Whereas undergraduate college students tend to be admitted en masse, the PhD application process is much more individualized. A smaller pool of applicants is evaluated, and applicants often name one or more professors as potential supervisors. It is quite common for doctoral scholarships and research or teaching positions to compensate students with something approaching a living wage. Large scholarship packages are not universal, but they are certainly not uncommon.
Coursework and Examinations
PhD students begin their studies with coursework similar to or even the same as that given to masters students. In many American universities, all new PhD students are actually technically considered masters students until they have completed these courses and the requisite exams.
Completion of the coursework requirements is often followed in North America by several comprehensive examinations, colloquially known as “comps” or occasionally “prelims.” The specific formats vary. In general, however, doctoral students write several of these exams in specific fields after reading a lengthy list of influential books and articles. Some schools require master’s-level students to write similar exams. In these cases, the PhD exam is much longer and more intensive. Students who fail may be given an opportunity to rewrite the exam. If they fail again, they are usually dismissed from the program, effectively ending their academic career.
Once the comps are completed, students move on to write a lengthy research report called a dissertation (sometimes referred to as a thesis). The dissertation is the defining component of a doctoral degree. It must be based on independent research, advance an original argument, and often stretches to several hundred pages long. In some disciplines, most students then condense the dissertation into a book which becomes their first major publication. In all cases, the dissertation research is carried out by the student, but advised by a committee consisting of several professors, one of whom is designated as the supervisor and takes the most active role.
Completion of the PhD dissertation, like completion of the master’s thesis, is followed by a final examination called an oral defence. The student presents their work and is then closely and critically questioned by their committee and by an independent external examiner. The committee and external examiner, together, then decide whether the student has passed, will be allowed to pass after making some changes or has failed. Very few supervisors allow their students to proceed to the defence unprepared, so it is almost unheard of for students to fail their oral defence. Most students pass with instructions to make certain changes.