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Doctor of Philosophy

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), an abbreviation for the Latin "Philosophię Doctor", or in non-Anglo-Saxon (e.g. German and Scandinavian) usage Doctor philosophię, Dr. phil.) was originally a degree granted by a university to a learned individual who had achieved the approval of his peers and who had demonstrated a long and productive career in the field of philosophy. The appellation of "Doctor" (from Latin: teacher) was usually awarded only when the individual was in middle age. It indicated a life dedicated to learning, to knowledge, and to the spread of knowledge. Philosophy was, however, considered the lowest of the faculties, and the Ph.D. died out in many universities.

The degree was revived in the 19th century at the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin as a degree to be granted to someone who had undertaken original research in the sciences or humanities. From here it spread to the U.S., arriving in the UK at the start of the 20th century. This displaced the existing Doctor of Philosophy degree in some Universities - for instance the D.Phil. (higher doctorate in the faculty of philosophy) at the University of St Andrews was discontinued and replaced with the Ph.D. (research doctorate). However some UK universities such as Oxford and Sussex retain the D.Phil. appellation for their research degrees.

Some ability to carry out original research has to be documented by producing a dissertation or thesis. The degree is often a prerequisite for permanent employment as a university lecturer or as a researcher in some sciences, though this varies on a regional basis. In others such as engineering or geology, a doctoral degree is considered desirable but not essential for employment.

Oral defense

In some countries the thesis must be given an oral defense, known in the UK as a viva (short for viva voce, Latin for "by live voice") before a committee. In Sweden and Finland, before a degree can be granted, the dissertation has to be defended in what is, using a medieval term, called a disputation: an expert in the field, often from another university, is appointed who will present the dissertation, subject it to a critical examination and discuss it with the author. In the context of the disputation, the critical examiner is termed the opponent, and the author of the dissertation the respondent. The dissertation has to be generally available in its final or at least in a preliminary published form a few weeks before the disputation, which is open to the public; after the opponent is finished, anyone present is allowed to ask critical questions. The final grade is decided after the disputation in a meeting between the opponent and a grading committee of three or (sometimes) four people. In the United States a final defense before one's committee is typical, although it is rare that at this stage the thesis would not be accepted.

A doctoral candidate is typically educated by a thesis advisor, or supervisor, who chairs a thesis committee which supervises the doctoral candidate. In the US, doctoral programs typically require a series of required and optional courses at the beginning of the program, but education in the latter portion of the program tends to consist of informal discussions with the thesis advisor and individual research by the student. Many universities separate the program into two portions (doctoral student and doctoral candidate) with a required doctoral examination before allowing a student to be formally admitted to a doctoral program. Alternatively, a student may be admitted to the program, but is still required to complete a comprehensive examination on his or her field before progressing to the dissertation state. See the discussion of ABD, below.

The funding of students varies from field to field, and many graduate students in the sciences and engineering work as teaching assistants or research assistants while they are a doctoral student.


It typically takes several years of full time work to complete a doctoral program. In some fields such as some specific branches of physics, a doctoral degree is practically essential for employment. In some sciences, a newly graduated doctoral student is unlikely to find work as a tenure-track professor and must undertake one or a series of postdoc positions.

In several countries (U.S., Australia) most postgraduate students doing research at this level complete a Ph.D. degree, regardless of the subject area, though there are many other doctoral degrees with different designations, e.g. D.A. (Doctor of Arts), D.M.A. (Doctor of Musical Arts), Ed.D. (Doctor of Education), Th.D. (Doctor of Theology), etc. Johns Hopkins University was the first university in the United States to confer doctoral degrees. First Ph.D in Business was granted by the University of Chicago in 1920s. In the United Kingdom, Ph.D.s are distinguishable from higher doctorates (such as D.Litt. (Doctor of Letters ) or D.Sc. (Doctor of Science), which are issued by a committee on the basis of a long record of research and publication). In German speaking countries and most eastern European countries, the corresponding degree is simply called "Doctor" and is further distinguished by subject area with a Latin suffix (e.g. "" - doctor medicinę - which is not equal to a PhD, "Dr.rer.nat - doctor rerum naturalium (Doctor of Science), "Dr.phil." - doctor philosophię. For a full list of these titles, see the German entry for Doktor ).

While the Ph.D. is the most common doctoral degree, and even often (mis)understood to be synonymous with the term “doctorate,” the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) recognize numerous doctoral degrees as equivalent, and do not discriminate between them.

The Ph.D. is often the topic of scholarly debate and criticism, given its almost exclusive concern with research and publication to the alleged neglect of numerous other faculty responsibilities that include teaching, collegial evaluation, collective and individual curricular planning, etc. Solutions have met with varying degrees of success. In the 1960s, the prestigious Carnegie Foundation helped promote and establish the Doctor of Arts degree as an alternative to the Ph.D. The D.A. degree, with its focus on content specialty, curriculum design, and pedagogy, was designed to help prepare expert teachers in various fields. Its well-defined disciplinary focus makes it different from the Ed.D. (Doctor of Education) while still embracing the Ed.D.'s concern for issues in education. The D.A. continues to be offered in many universities across the United States and in other countries, though a few D.A. programs have since been converted to the Ph.D. model. Still, the D.A. has many steadfast supporters. Other solutions include a re-thinking of the Ph.D. in order to address its perceived shortcomings.

Sometimes a university grants an honorary Ph.D. or D.A., or other doctoral degree, with the added designation of honoris causa (Latin for for the sake of honor), or Dr.h.c.

In recent years, the term Ph.D. (ABD), an abbreviation for "All But Dissertation", has also come into usage. Seen primarily in the US where significant prerequisite coursework is often a part of the doctoral program, the Ph.D. (ABD) is not an official degree. As an unofficial designation, however, it serves to note when a Ph.D. student has completed all graduate coursework for the doctorate, has passed the cumulative and/or qualifying examinations, has been formally admitted to final candidacy and may have conducted original research, but has not submitted a dissertation to satisfy the final requirement for formal conferral of the Ph.D. degree. In some schools a student can write an additional thesis at this point and receive an MPhil degree.

A Ph.D should not be confused with a professional master's degree, such as an MBA, or professional designation, such as CPA. In some settings, it may be inappropriate to compare the relative value of a Ph.D to that of an MBA or CPA. For example, in certain professions, such as Accounting, a Ph.D. may provide little, if any advantage. In such settings, academic research skills are no substitute for professional competencies and experience. However, in an academic context, the Ph.D., as with all doctoral degrees, is considered more advanced than an MBA. Medical schools may offer research Ph.D. degrees as part of their M.D. programs, although an M.D. by itself is frequently enough to teach medicine.

See also


  • Estelle M Phillips and Derek.S. Pugh How to Get a PhD: A Handbook for Students and Their Supervisors ISBN 033520550X,

External links

Last updated: 08-04-2005 17:56:10
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