What is a PhD?

A PhD is short for a Doctor of Philosophy and is the most common type of doctorate degree in the U.S. Most doctorate degrees like the PhD are referred to as terminal degrees, which means that it is the highest level of education that can be attained in a field of study. Therefore, the best PhD programs are usually highly competitive.

Although only certain disciplines award a Doctor of Philosophy, most do have doctoral degree program. Although the PhD is only 1 kind of doctorate degree, the 2 terms are often used interchangeably in the academic sphere since the PhD is by far the most common type of doctoral degree.

In most cases, PhDs prepare students to conduct research and analysis and to possibly teach at the college level. Other doctorate level degrees place less emphasis on research and more on the practical use of existing research and knowledge.

For example, if you choose to study education, you can earn a PhD in education or a Doctorate of Education, which is commonly written as EdD. Although both of these are doctorate degrees, the PhD in education focuses on giving students the tools and foundational knowledge that they need to produce their own research and contribute to the scholarly debates in their specialty fields. In contrast, the EdD in education promotes the use of existing research to improve education systems.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, around 5% percent of all college-level degrees awarded in the U.S. were doctorate degrees. This includes not only PhDs but also MDs, EdDs, DDSs and law degrees. In the 2009 to 2010 academic year, there were more than 10 times as many bachelors degrees and about 4 times as many masters degrees awarded as doctoral degrees.

Why earn a PhD?

There are several reasons why you should consider enrolling in a PhD program, but your career choice is often the most important. If you are interested in teaching at the college level, almost all traditional 4-year colleges and universities require you to have a PhD in the field in which you wish to teach. Most students who earn a PhD in liberal arts disciplines like literature, history and philosophy become professors after they graduate. This is not the only career path open to you if you have a PhD in liberal arts. However, it is by far the most common.

If you decide to earn a PhD in a field outside the liberal arts like mathematics or the natural sciences, you may find that you may have more career options after you graduate. PhD graduates from math, physics, chemistry, geology and biology programs often find jobs with government agencies or private companies as well as research and teaching positions at colleges and universities.

Doctoral degrees significantly improve your chances of finding employment and can often raise your level of income. According the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average unemployment rate for all professions is around 7.6% while the average unemployment rate for graduates of doctoral or professional degree programs is around 2.5%. And the weekly median income for holders of doctorate degrees is almost twice as high as the national average.

However, you should be aware that PhDs and professional degrees require a large investment of time, energy and sometimes money. In general, PhD programs last between 5 and 7 years, although some professional degrees like law degrees can be earned in less time. In many programs, PhD students must not only take classes, research and work on their dissertation but also teach classes for undergraduates.

If you already know which profession you would like to enter, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics provides a convenient online tool to help you find the minimum degree requirements that you need to find an entry-level job in your field. It also displays the projected job growth rate and median pay for each profession.

Pros and Cons of a PhD?

The pros and cons of earning a PhD most likely depend on your reasons for earning the degree as well as your personal preferences.


Higher Income and Lower Unemployment
With a PhD from an accredited university, you are far more likely to find a job than people at other education levels. And as an expert in your field, you will also likely to earn better pay for your knowledge and skills. A PhD does not necessarily guarantee higher income and full-time employment, but it can greatly improve your chances of having both.
Prestige and Recognition
Prestigious professions like physician, attorney and professor all require you to earn a doctorate degree. PhD programs are competitive, rigorous and time-consuming, and people who earn PhDs are usually recognized as experts in their field of study.


Some PhD students are able to pay for their studies with federal and private grants, fellowships and teaching and research assistantships. However, not all students are able to find this kind of funding and must instead take out student loans to pay for their degree. Although there is no fixed price for a PhD education, 5 to 7 years of graduate study can easily cost over $100,000 dollars. And if you use student loans to pay for this, you may be paying back the cost of your education for many years after you graduate.
Not Everyone Finishes Their PhD
Most PhD programs will take you between 5 and 7 years to complete and require you to complete a significant research project or dissertation. Given the pressures of academia, some PhD candidates choose to drop out of their programs once they earn their masters degrees. There is nothing wrong with deciding that a PhD is not right for you, but this decision can often limit your career prospective.