A PhD is short for Doctor of Philosophy and is an advanced degree that demonstrates a student’s mastery of a subject.

The PhD is the highest academic degree a student can earn. It is often called a “terminal degree” and is considered the pinnacle of learning and knowledge in a discipline.

There may not be a more simple, yet exact, definition than Matt Might’s The Illustrated Guide to a PhD. In a nutshell:


The Illustrated Guide to a PhD
The Illustrated Guide to a PhD


Those who earn PhDs are given the title of “doctor.” PhD work demands extended study, focused commitment, and intense intellectual effort.


What does it take to get a PhD?

While the process of getting a PhD varies amongst universities, it usually involves the following steps:

  • Although some people obtain an honors degree, higher degree by diploma, or master’s degree before applying to a PhD program, it is not necessarily a requirement. In some programs, you can apply directly for admission to a PhD program after completing your undergraduate degree.
  • Complete required coursework covering your selected field of study. This includes researching scholarly publications and journals, pursuing individual research projects, and developing critical thinking skills. You’ll also attend residency with peers and faculty to help you identify, develop, and build your research plan.
  • You may be required to complete a comprehensive examination. Also referred to as a preliminary or qualifying exam, it may be written as well as oral. Your knowledge and expertise in your chosen field will be examined in depth. Once the qualifying examination is completed successfully, you will receive advanced doctoral learner status.
  • Write and defend a doctoral dissertation, which is an independent, original research study that has scientific merit within your chosen field. You will present your dissertation in writing to the faculty and defend your work in front of a committee made up of faculty, advisors and even peers.

Other doctoral degrees place less emphasis on research and more on the practical application of existing research and knowledge.


Why get a PhD?

Completing a PhD requires commitment and hard work, but the rewards are great. The two most common reasons to get a PhD are to teach at the university level (in the U.S.) and to pursue further research in your selected area of study, but you also might consider getting a PhD for the following reasons:

  • A sense of achievement. Working towards and ultimately defending your PhD involves long hours, a thick skin and tenacity. If you’re ambitious and love challenges, then pursuing a PhD forces you to push yourself to new heights and achieve your difficult goal.
  • Discovering something new. Pursuing a PhD involves research in the hopes that you’ll discover something no one else has. If you enjoy exploring and learning new things, then you may love research and find a doctorate is perfect for you.
  • Boosting your career. Having a PhD does not automatically mean you’re going to make more money. However, if you want to improve your abilities to understand and solve problems, increase your confidence, make yourself a better communicator and gain skills that may lead to a successful career and, hopefully, a better paying job, then a doctorate may be right for you.

Capella University offers PhD and professional doctorate degree programs ranging from business to education and health to technology. Learn more about Capella’s online PhD programs.