Doctor of Philosophy

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Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), an abbreviation for the Latin "Philosophiæ Doctor" (or alternatively Doctor philosophiæ, D.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.

The degree was popularised 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, as do German and Scandinavian universities.

Some ability to carry out original research must 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.


The successful completion of a doctoral program typically takes 3 to 6 years depending upon the specific field of study, prior experience and/or training, and the progress made by the doctoral candidate in his or her studies. 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 postdoctorate positions.


The doctoral candidate's progress is usually overseen 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 US 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 doctoral students.

In Australia, PhD students are quite often offered a scholarship to study their PhD. The most common of these is the Australian Postgraduate Award (APA) scholarship, which provides a living stipend to students of approximately AUD$20,000 a year (tax free). Most universities also offer a similar scholarship that matches the APA amount, but is funded by the university. In recent years, with the tightening of research funding in Australia, these scholarships have become increasingly harder to obtain.

In addition to the more common APA and University scholarships, Australian students also have other sources of funding in their PhD. These could include, but are not limited to, scholarships offered by schools, research centres and commercial enterprise. For the latter, the amount is determined between the university and the organisation, but is quite often set at the APA (Industry) rate, roughly AUD$10,000 more than the usual APA rate.

Oral defense

In some countries, a Ph.D. candidate is required to present an oral defense of his thesis, known in the UK as a viva (short for viva voce, Latin for "by live voice") before a committee. In France, Norway, Sweden, Denmark 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 (anyone who does is called an "opponent ex auditorio"—an opponent from the auditorium). 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 theory, also the points raised by oppenenti ex auditorio affect the grade. It has happened, that such opponent has caused the committee not to pass the respondent, although this would be extremely extraordinary nowadays.

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. This is also true in the Netherlands, where the oral defense ("promotie") typically happens after the thesis has been approved by examiners. The oral defense is ended after a preset amount of time by the University-appointed 'pedel' or custos who is in charge of the protocol and will end the dissertation with the words "Hora est!" (latin for it is time or the hour has come). In contrast, viva voces in British universities are by no means a rubber stamp. Whilst many (perhaps most) theses are passed with some minor corrections or revisions required by the examiners, very few are passed with no corrections whatsoever, and indeed a pass-without-correction is considered a particular honour. Moreover, it is not uncommon for British theses to be failed, as well -- in which case, either major re-writes are required, followed by a new viva, or else the thesis may be awarded the lesser degree of M.Phil (Master of Philosophy) instead.

Comparative value

A Ph.D. does not confer commensurate advantage in every sphere. For example, many commercial organizations regard a professional Master's degree, such as an MBA, or professional designation, such as CPA, as the highest level of education that is desirable. Traditional views of the value of academic study in commerce are changing Template:Inote but scepticism about the commercial value of a Ph.D. prevails. 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.


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.


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 medicinæ - which is not equal to a Ph.D., "Dr.rer.nat - doctor rerum naturalium (Doctor of Science), "Dr.phil." - doctor philosophiæ. 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.

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 advanced 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 a Master of Philosophy (MPhil) degree; in others, the MPhil (sometimes Candidate in Philosophy, CPhil) is conferred on an ABD student who has been advanced to candicacy for the Ph.D., having completed all requirements except the doctoral thesis or dissertation.

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


  • MacGillivray, Alex; Potts, Gareth; Raymond, Polly. Secrets of Their Success (London: New Economics Foundation, 2002)

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