A PhD is the crowning achievement of anyone’s academic career. Every one of us starts at the same point – preschool, to elementary school to middle and high school. Some of us go on to college or university, and some of us get passionate and interested enough in a subject to stay there even longer than a basic bachelor’s.
Because let’s face it – in today’s job market, a bachelor’s degree gets you through the same door that a high school degree could 50 years ago. A bachelor’s degree is what most employers prefer – whether you’re applying for a receptionist position or an entry-level job in a specialized field.
In fact, according to Northeastern University, as much as 80% of jobs that are advertised online require a bachelor’s degree. This is why a lot of students decide to make themselves more employable by choosing to continue their education through a master’s degree and then a PhD.
A PhD is a Doctor of Philosophy in a given subject – it is earned by students who research, write and complete a thesis – an original body of research that significantly contributes new knowledge, learning, and data to their field of study. It is the highest academic degree that a person is able to achieve.
It’s not an easy education funnel for most students- a few will actually pursue a degree after degree because a lot of them pursue careers and only later decide to “go back to school”. This is common sense – you have to taste the real world before you decide to commit to something that most people consider one of the hardest personal challenges of their lives.
In fact, the average age of a PhD graduate in the United States is 33 years old, and it takes the average student about 8.2 years to complete their degree. Since this is the “average”, it means that a lot of people are well into their middle age by the time they start to realize that a PhD is what they want to pursue. Sometimes, people don’t stop at one PhD and decide to get another.
This is usually frowned upon, as a PhD often makes you an absolute expert in one narrow field – it’s not often that people can make these two degrees complement each other – this is usually done if a person wants to completely change their field and pursue a completely different area of research.
Tip: How should you spell PhD? This can be written as a Ph.D. or PhD – both are correct ways of spelling. There are some guidelines that state that Ph.D. should only be used in North American English, while PhD is the correct spelling for the European continent. Having said that, there are sources from both geographical locations that write both Ph.D and PhD in their publications and websites.
Now that you know WHAT a PhD IS… Let’s move forward into the nitty gritty! Use these Page Jumps to navigate this page!
- What is an honorary PhD?
- History of the PhD
- History of the PhD in the United States
- From philosophy to the Ig Nobel Prize – What areas of study can we become doctors in?
- So you want a PhD – How to get started
- PhD funding and getting your education paid for
- Additional PhD FAQs
What is an honorary PhD?
An honorary PhD, or honoris causa, is given to a person who often already has a PhD, but did not matriculate in a given institution, has taken no courses or done formal studies there. It is meant as a way to honor a body of work, research, and achievement of a particular person – very often a visitor or a guest of a particular institution.
An honorary PhD is meant to recognize a person’s efforts and accomplishments without them going through a full curriculum. Wondering if you’ll ever get your honorary PhD? Take a look at these recipients and see if you might fit in their ranks:
Benjamin Franklin – Honorary master’s from The College of William and Mary in 1759 and honorary PhD from the University of St. Andrews and from Oxford for his scientific research.
Maya Angelou – Received over thirty honorary degrees for her writing, as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
J.K. Rowling – Honored by the University of Edinburg for her writing after she published five books from the Harry Potter series.
Yoko Ono – Was awarded an honorary PhD from the Pratt Institute.
Hillary Clinton – This American politician got awarded two honorary doctorate degrees – one from the Trinity College Dublin and the other from Queen’s University Belfast.
History of the PhD
To have full appreciation on any subject, it’s worth to take a look at its history and evolution throughout time. Let’s start in Medieval Europe. If you look at what people are studying now, you’ll see a lot of STEM subjects – Science, Mathematics, Biology, Genetics, Computer Science, and so on.
In Medieval times, there were four main courses of study, and they were open to men. The subject of studies was theology, medicine, law, and the arts. These represent the four most important scholarly topics a serious person could engage in Europes to Universities, like the University of Paris, the University of Oxford or the University of Bologna.
In fact, it was the University of Paris or the Sorbonne, that first introduced doctoral degrees in theology and philosophy at first in the Middle Ages. Theology was very important to people’s studies at the time, because most educational institutions, the Sorbonne included, were connected to cathedrals and religious orders. These schools were established to educate future priests, but the nobility and wealthy merchants would send their sons there in order to gain a valuable education.
Very often, students who studied at these universities were afforded special protection – if they got in trouble with the law they were treated as a member of the clergy because they were considered almost like temporary clergymen. Universities were considered places of refuge and safety for many.
In some countries, a “cathedral” is the governing body of a certain group of scholars at a university. The term can also be used when referring to a lecturing pulpit.
The first doctoral degree recorded was given in Paris, around the year 1150. In the UK, the first doctorates were given out in the 1800s at Durham University, and later at Cambridge. These were DS – or ScDs. In the “olden times” it wasn’t necessary to produce independent research like it is now – it was enough to simply study a lot and become a scholar.
History of the PhD in the United States
The United States was always relatively isolated from the rest of the world, and a doctoral degree was not required to teach and lecture at any of its major universities until the early 1900s. The fact of the matter is that American universities were slow to start awarding PhDs, with first the first PhD in the US being awarded by Yale in 1861.
In the early 1900s, there were six universities that awarded PhDs, but only about one-third of the PhDs awarded were considered in alignment with legitimate expectations of what a PhD program should be. At this time, it was popular to study in Europe, at British and German universities. American schools lacked the clout and reputation that could match most European universities – and their level of education was questionable to say the least.
What was the problem? Like many students today will agree, funding is probably the most important factor behind a successful PhD program. In Europe, governments were more eager to fund graduate schools and research done in their walls.
It wasn’t until American schools got private funding that things started to take off. Fellowships like the Rockefeller Foundation and other privately funded fellowships and awards contributed to the amount of serious and quality research being done at American institutions, especially ones that would later be known as the Ivy League.
Today, the US has some of the best schools and universities in the world, and getting a PhD here is a challenging but rewarding and very structured experience. There are over 282 American academic institutions that are authorized to award a PhD degree. Of course, their admission, funding and difficulty varies from one university to another. Some may offer part-time studies while others concentrate on full-time PhD studies.
From philosophy to the Ig Nobel Prize – What areas of study can we become doctors in?
Is it possible to get a PhD in a little known field? The answer is yes – there are of course the “typical” or most common areas of study and research. There are doctoral programs in areas like
- J.D. degree (Doctor of Jurisprudence)
- Criminal Justice
- International Law
- Doctor of Juris Utriusque
- Legum Doctor (LL.D.)
- Doctor of Juridical Science
- Doctor of Canon Law
- Education and Development
- Engineering Education
- Science Education
- Art Education
- Individual Interdisciplinary
- Physical Education
- Educational Administration
- Doctor of Engineering
- Social Science
Here are the different types of doctoral degrees you can get and their academic abbreviations:
Honorary Degrees or Higher Degrees:
Dsc/ScD – Doctor of Science (STEM)
DLitt/LitD – Doctor of Science (Arts and Humanities)
DD/DDiv – Doctor of Divinity (Religious Studies)
Th.D – Doctor of Theology (Theology)
DBA – Business Managment
EngD/PhD – Engineering
EdD/D.Ed – Education
DSocSci – Social Sciences
DArch – Architecture
PhD – Doctor of Philosophy (all subjects)
If you’re wondering if your niche is too narrow, too overlooked or too out there for a PhD – think again. You don’t have to look through PhD programs in STEM or literature in order to get fulfillment. Erich von Daniken who committed his life to the exploration of ancient aliens and a recipient of the infamous Ignobel Prize has received an honorary PhD from La Universidad Boliviana.
In fact, here are some of the strangest PhDs known to higher education – all complete with intensive original research and academic achievement:
- Do Woodpeckers Get Headaches? This study might sound strange but the research is in fact very valuable to people who study brain damage and research how our brains react to trauma. Woodpeckers literally hit their heads against trees over 12,000 times a day, and have developed a sophisticated system to keep their brains protected from the constant stress – take that, computer science!
- Do Cabbies Have Bigger Brains? This is a London – based study that includes research on a dying breed of people who actually have to remember every street and intersection in London. It takes about three years to become a London cabbie and work as a driver. You can’t use online maps or GPS units. The academic study takes a look at the neuron connections in the cabbies’ brains in order to determine if all that time spent studying actually made their brains bigger.
If you want to take a moment to read about more crazy Ph.D. degrees, read our article on unusual PhD doctorate degrees – it’s worth some thought. Maybe you’ll become inspired and your academic idea won’t seem so crazy after all. After all – what is a PhD degree if not a completely new discovery of knowledge and possibilities?
So you want a PhD – How to get started
There are a few phases of getting a PhD. You can get started by reviewing them and getting an idea of what you’re signing up for.
Once you know what you want to research (remember that you will need to produce original independent research in your field), you will need to look over what institutions offer PhD programs in the field that you want. Often, students will travel significant distances in order to live near a school that matches their requirements and needs perfectly.
In a nutshell, getting a PhD will consist of several stages – a lot of people break it down into many, but it can be summed up in two parts:
Phase One – Exploration
This phase takes about three years. During this time you will take courses in your field and finish with a series of exams and possibly teaching positions at their institutions. In some fields, teaching undergraduate courses or working with members of the faculty will be a requirement. Other fields will require clinical practice or internships.
Phase Two – Active Consolidation
Phase two is spent on research and writing your dissertation and putting all of your experience and original research together. This is where you take your research and put it together. Dissertations may be as short as 50 pages and as long as 500 pages or more. A typical dissertation consists of:
- In-depth literature and resource overview
- Outline of methodology
- Oral Exam
One of the most important initial steps that PhD students take in their journey through research and academic challenges is picking the right PhD program for them. It’s an important decision because it will tie you to that institution for the rest of your life – and at least for several very important and strenuous years. If you’re wondering how to get a PhD, it’s best that you start here.
When you’re considering a PhD program, ask yourself these questions:
- What subject do I want to research?
- What university is considered a top choice for this niche?
- Who has the best funding in this niche?
- Where do I have the most freedom as a researcher?
- Is there a field of study that I’m interested in that needs new research? (These are often completely funded)
- Are there possible programs that offer their PhD studies online or part-time?
- If I can’t get full funding, how will I supplement my income?
These are just a few of the serious but basic questions you should ask yourself. Because a lot of PhD students start their PhD programs mid-career, they already have a family, children and responsibilities. They can’t dive into research head first – they have to consider others. This is why picking the right institution and program to continue your higher education is important if you want to maintain your work-life balance, even if it’s hard.
Read on about funding here:
PhD funding and getting your education paid for
Funding a PhD is surprisingly easier than funding your earlier degrees, and that’s true for any academic institution. The fact is, that PhD students do important work in their field – they research, teach, conduct studies and their work might contribute to a higher education institution to become attractive to other students.
Often, the research conducted at a university will become well known in the niche, and even well outside of it, attracting more funding, students and media attention. This is all very valuable, and good PhD programs will receive more attention and funding than your average bachelor’s degree.
How to get funding for your PhD? We have written an extensive report on how to get PhD funding, different sources or funding and where to apply, but let’s have a short summary.
How to fund your PhD:
- Most STEM PhD degrees are funded by the institution. They are needed and a “hot” subject, so it’s easy to find and fight for a spot that is entirely paid for.
- Crowdfunding – if you’re thinking about a thesis that has the potential to help a lot of people, has a human interest factor or is simply interesting, make a video about your research and try to get it funded through sites like Kickstarter, Patreon, or GoFundMe – here is a list of some of the best crowdfunding sites.
- Student loans
Another option is finding an institution that offers PhD programs as a part-time option. This is a path that is simply cheaper and allows you to work at a slower but more affordable pace.
Additional PhD FAQs
Is there a higher degree than a PhD?
No, the Doctor of Philosophy is the highest degree you can get at any academic institution.
Is it worth to get a PhD?
Yes, getting a PhD degree greatly improves your chances of employment and monetary compensation.
Do I need a Bachelor’s to apply for a PhD?
Yes, you do need a bachelor’s degree – unless you are being awarded an Honorary Doctor of Philosophy degree that doesn’t require academic work.
Do I need a Master’s to apply for a PhD?
Some people who decide to go for their PhD degree do not have a masters. They often start about 4 years after graduation and getting their bachelor’s degree.
Can I get a PhD in an unrelated field to my bachelor’s or masters?
Yes, although it’s relatively difficult, if only from an academic standpoint.
Are PhDs more employable?
Yes – especially in the areas of STEM and academic research. It’s easier to find high-level work when you have a PhD.
What are the most profitable PhDs?
Some of the most profitable PhDs, whether in-person or online are:
- Chemical Engineering