In medieval times, when Martin Luther received his doctoral degree in theology in Germany, the populace held a torchlight parade, and gave him a golden ring signifying that he was the equal of a knight. To this day, having a Ph.D brings a certain amount of prestige to the holder, though the degree is much more common now, both in Europe and the U.S.
Ph.D., or PhD, stands for Doctor of Philosophy, but that does not mean all PhD candidates plan to study philosophy. PhD is a designation for a type of degree which is further qualified by a particular field of study; e.g., a PhD in History, Theology, Sociology, Chemistry, or Physics among others. There are other types of doctor’s degrees which tend to be specific, such as J.D., Doctor of Jurisprudence (Law); Ed.D, Doctor of Education; D.F.A., Doctor of Fine Arts, M.D., of course, for Doctor of Medicine. There are at least 25 other doctoral degrees.
The PhD is an advanced degree usually requiring three to eight years of study in a chosen major, during which the candidate also has to meet teaching and research assistance requirements. While doing coursework, students often must prepare for both oral and written examinations proving competence in their fields. Each must also complete a dissertation which is normally book-length, based on original research in the area of expertise. Prior to the conferring of the PhD, a dissertation committee must accept and approve this doctoral thesis, which can be a lengthy process.
“PhD work in any field is quite challenging. One must usually have a clearly defined major, perform well on the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) in both one’s specialty and in the general test, and have excellent grades, recommendations and scholastic history in order to get into a PhD program,” according to Tricia Ellis Christensen of WiseGeek.com. Many programs will not accept students who have not completed a prior Master’s degree, although some do.
A PhD. “is the highest academic degree anyone can earn. Because earning a PhD. requires extended study and intense intellectual effort, less than one percent of the population attains the degree.” “To earn a PhD, one must accomplish two things. First, one must master a specific subject completely. Second, one must extend the body of knowledge about that subject.” (Notes from the Department Colloquium of the Purdue PhD program.)
Who Wants and Needs a PhD?
A university professor needs a PhD. And, “the conventional wisdom is that you have to have a PhD to be a serious scientist.” says James Hrynyshyn, freelance science journalist, who comments that there are accomplished researchers out there that have managed to make significant contributions to their field without a PhD. But, “going the alternative route will almost certainly take longer and involve more sacrifice (though fewer loan payments).”
Research Careers for PhD’s
“Earning a PhD. is training for research. If a research position is your long-term goal, a PhD. degree is the standard path to your chosen career.” If all you want is a diploma to hang on the wall, there are much easier ways to obtain one. (Purdue Colloquium.)
Academic Positions for PhD’s
“A PhD is the de facto ‘union card’ for an academic position.” Yes, it is possible to have a career in academia without a PhD, but the chances are low. At major universities and most colleges, faculty members are increasingly required to have PhD’s and to stay involved in research. This forces them to remain current, and to be equipped to teach advanced courses. The U.S. State Department diplomatic protocol ranks the title “professor” higher than the title “doctor.” (ibid.).
Myths About Ph.D’s
Myth 1: PhD’s have automatic prestige in their working world. Actually Ph.D’s will probably work in a scientific or academic field in which everybody else is a Ph.D too. So, even though the degree is highly exalted, it is considered par for the course.
Myth 2: PhD’s opinions are automatically respected. A PhD certainly adds credibility to one’s opinions in his or her chosen field. But it does not follow that one’s opinions are given more credence in fields outside the specialty. In In the long run, respect must be earned by the ongoing work done after the Ph.D degree is completed.
Myth 3: PhD’s Have Guaranteed Earning Power. Actually Ph D’s in the world of research and development may be more vulnerable than those involved in production. In a slow economy in the marketplace, research budgets are often reduced before others, and PhD’s can be cut from staff. In academia, a professor with a PhD is usually qualified to be tenured. Once that happens, earning power is guaranteed.