What Are PhD Programs?

A Ph.D. is the highest academic degree that a student can earn in the United States. These doctoral programs allow students to focus their research on an area of interest and can prepare them for careers as researchers, teachers and scholars.

View Popular Schools

Individuals who are interested in taking advanced courses and conducting academic research in a specific field may enroll in a Ph.D. program.

Ph.D. Program Overview

A Ph.D. is a terminal doctoral degree that originated in Europe. Its name derives from the Latin word docere, which means 'to teach'. A Ph.D. is a common research degree, and while it stands for Doctor of Philosophy, candidates are not required to study this field. In fact, this degree is offered in a variety of subjects within the sciences, humanities and liberal arts fields. Individuals who earn Ph.D.s often use the honorific title 'Doctor' and can qualify for teaching or research positions at colleges and universities.


Ph.D. programs generally include a mixture of coursework and research. Students often begin Ph.D. programs by taking extensive coursework that provides the educational foundation for advanced research. Before advancing to Ph.D. candidate status, they may be required to pass a comprehensive examination and/or qualifying examination, depending on the program.

In the later years of the program, students typically focus on conducting research in a particular subtopic of interest, under the supervision of a faculty mentor with similar interests. They may also be required to fulfill teaching requirements alongside this work. Based on their research, Ph.D. candidates write a doctoral dissertation. Prior to graduation, students must defend their dissertation before a panel of faculty members.

In total, Ph.D. programs can take as few as three years to complete, or they can last for longer than six years. During this time, the candidate's work is typically supported by a fellowship, so they earn a stipend rather than paying tuition for their education.

Admissions Requirements

Candidates can enter Ph.D. programs with only a bachelor's degree, but those with a master's degree generally have an advantage in meeting the competitive admissions requirements. Schools typically look for applicants who have high GPAs, strong references and acceptable standardized test scores. Specific admissions requirements vary by program, but typical application materials include:

  • Completed application and fee
  • Official transcripts
  • Statement of purpose
  • Letters of recommendation
  • GRE test scores
  • Writing sample

Other Types of Doctoral Degrees

Unlike Ph.D. programs, which typically prepare graduates for academic research careers, professional doctoral degrees prepare students for specific jobs. For instance, the Juris Doctor (JD) is for aspiring lawyers, and the Doctor of Medicine (MD) is for aspiring physicians. However, it is important to note that some schools provide programs that combine Ph.D. studies with professional degrees.

Honorary doctoral degrees are awarded by some universities, usually to individuals for their humanitarian efforts or other noteworthy accomplishments. An honorary doctorate is not an academic credential, since coursework and research requirements are waived by the school. Some schools, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Cornell University, do not award honorary degrees.

In Ph.D. programs, students spend years taking advanced courses and conducting research in their field of expertise before defending their dissertation. Ph.D. studies differ from professional doctoral degrees and honorary doctoral degrees.

Next: View Schools

Popular Schools

The listings below may include sponsored content but are popular choices among our users.

Find your perfect school

What is your highest level of education?