More than 54,000 students earned doctoral degrees in 2016, the latest year for which figures are available, a 30 percent increase since 2000, according to the National Science Foundation. A Ph.D., also called a doctorate, is a "Doctor of Philosophy" degree, which is a misleading moniker because most Ph.D. holders are not philosophers. The term for this increasingly popular degree derives from the original meaning of the word "philosophy," which comes from the ancient Greek word philosophia, meaning "love of wisdom."
What Is a Ph.D.?
In that sense, the term "Ph.D." is accurate, because the degree has historically been a license to teach, but it also signifies that the holder is an "authority, in full command of (a given) subject right up to the boundaries of current knowledge, and able to extend them," says FindAPhD, an online Ph.D. database. Earning a Ph.D. requires a hefty financial and time commitment-$35,000 to $60,000 and two to eight years-as well as research, creating a thesis or dissertation, and possibly some teaching duties.
Deciding to pursue a Ph.D. can represent a major life choice. Doctoral candidates require additional schooling after completing a master's program to earn their Ph.D.: They must complete additional coursework, pass comprehensive exams, and complete an independent dissertation in their field. Once completed, though, a doctoral degree-often called a "terminal degree"-can open doors for the Ph.D.holder, especially in academia but also in business.
Core Courses and Electives
To obtain a Ph.D., you need to take a group of core courses as well as electives, totaling about 60 to 62 "hours," which are roughly the equivalent of units at the bachelor's degree level. For example, Washington State University offers a Ph.D. in crop science. Core courses, which make up about 18 hours, include such subjects as introduction to population genetics, plant transmission genetics, and plant breeding.
Additionally, the student must make up the remaining required hours through electives. The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health offers a doctoral degree in Biological Sciences in Public Health. After core courses such as laboratory rotations, biological sciences seminars, and core principles of biostatistics and epidemiology, the Ph.D. candidate is required to take electives in related fields such as advanced respiratory physiology, advanced respiratory physiology, and ecological and epidemiological control of parasitic diseases. Degree-granting institutions across the board want to ensure that those who earn Ph.D.s have broad knowledge in their chosen field.
Thesis or Dissertation and Research
A Ph.D. also requires students to complete a large scholarly project known as a dissertation, a research report-usually 60-plus pages-which signifies that they are able to make significant independent contributions to their chosen field of study. Students take on the project, also known as a doctoral thesis, after completing the core and elective coursework and passing a comprehensive examination. Through the dissertation, the student is expected to make a new and creative contribution to a field of study and to demonstrate her expertise.
According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, for example, a strong medical dissertation relies heavily on the creation of a specific hypothesis that can be either disproved or supported by data collected through independent student research. Further, it must also contain several key elements starting with an introduction to the problem statement, conceptual framework, and research question as well as references to literature already published on the topic. Students must show that the dissertation is relevant, provides new insight into the chosen field, and is a topic that they can research independently.
Financial Aid and Teaching
There are several ways to pay for a doctoral degree: scholarships, grants, fellowships, and government loans, as well as teaching. GoGrad, a graduate school information website, provides such examples as the:
- Science, Mathematics, and Research for Transformation (SMART) Scholarship for Service Program, which provides full tuition and an annual stipend of $25,000 to $38,000.
- National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship, a three-year graduate fellowship that is designed to support doctoral students across 15 engineering disciplines
- National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program, a three-year program that provides an annual stipend of $34,000 and a $12,000 cost-of-education allowance for tuition and fees
As it does for bachelor's and master's degrees, the federal government also offers several loan programs to help students finance their Ph.D. studies. You generally apply for these loans by filling out the free application for federal student aid (FAFSA). Students planning to go into teaching after obtaining their doctoral degrees often also supplement their income by teaching undergraduate classes at the schools where they are studying. The University of California, Riverside, for example, offers a "teaching award"-essentially a stipend applied toward tuition costs-for Ph.D. candidates in English who teach undergraduate, beginning-level, English courses
Jobs and Opportunities for Ph.D. Holders
Education accounts for a large percentage doctoral awards, with elementary education, curriculum and instruction, educational leadership and administration, special education, and counselor education/ school counseling topping the list. Most universities in the United States require a Ph.D. for candidates who seek teaching positions, regardless of the department.
Many Ph.D. candidates seek the degree, however, to boost their current salaries. For example, a health, sports, and fitness educator at a community college would realize a bump in annual pay for obtaining a Ph.D. The same holds for educational administrators. Most such positions require only a master's degree, but obtaining a Ph.D. generally leads to an annual stipend that school districts add to the annual salary. That same health and fitness instructor at a community college could also move on from a teaching position and become a dean at a community college-a position that requires a Ph.D.-boosting his pay to $120,000 to $160,000 a year or more.
So, the opportunities for a doctoral degree holder are wide and varied, but the cost and commitment required are significant. Most experts say you should know your future career plans before you make the commitment. If you know what you want to get out of the degree, then the years of required study and sleepless nights may well be worth the investment.