PhD, or Doctor of Philosophy, is the most common postgraduate academic degree. It is awarded at the end of doctoral studies. In this article, we will look at its advantages, disadvantages and how to enroll in a PhD program abroad.

What is a doctorate degree

A doctorate is the final stage of university education in the Bologna process. Upon graduation, you are awarded a degree, PhD is just one of the possible ones. You can also get an EdD, DML, JSD and other qualifications. All such programs fall into two broader categories: PhD and professional doctorate.

Doctor of Philosophy — PhD

What differentiates PhD programs from ‘professional doctorates’ is that they focus on original research and analytics. During your studies you will learn how to work with scientific literature and interact with the academic community. This does not mean that a graduate with a PhD is obliged to pursue an academic career. PhDs work as researchers in large companies. There are also areas where a PhD degree is required to hold a high position in the organization, such as jurisprudence or public administration.

PhDs are awarded not only in the field of Philosophy. This degree can be obtained in Arts, or in natural, social and even technical sciences: Economics, Biology, Engineering, Physics, and others. The name "Doctor of Philosophy" is just courtesy of tradition.

History of PhD

"What does it have to do with philosophy?" is the first question asked by any person first learning the meaning of the abbreviation. The word “philosophy” came from the ancient Greek φιλοσοφία. Literally, it means “love of wisdom.”

If we look at the works of the philosophers of Ancient Greece, we will find amusingly broad research fields. There are treatises on public administration, reflections on the nature of God and law, the first concepts of the Universe, works on physiology, medicine, and much more. As you can see, the original understanding of the word "philosophy" was extremely vague and included absolutely everything science-related.

Only in the Middle Ages, three independent sciences separated from it: theology, medicine, and law. The rest of the disciplines were still called ‘philosophy,’ and its subject was still vague — from astronomy to literature. At that time, university students were awarded doctoral degrees (from Latin Doceo, "I teach") in four disciplines: philosophy (PhD), theology (DD), medicine (MD), and law (JD). The names of these degrees have survived to this day.

Professional doctorate

Professional doctorates prioritize practice but do not exclude the element of research. Unlike classic PhD programs, a professional doctorate teaches the skills required in a particular specialty. The difference is clearly visible in the names of the degrees. "Doctor of Philosophy" sounds vague, but the titles of professional doctoral studies’ alumni are more specific and reflect their exact field of activity. For example, a Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) or a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD).

Professional doctoral programs are designed for people who, as a rule, already have experience in a particular field. Of course, this is not universal. People with PhDs also can get a job in non-scientific areas, and after a professional doctorate, you can work in academia. Overall, a professional doctorate will better suit someone looking for a more practice-oriented education.

Types of doctoral degrees abroad
  • PhD — Doctor of Philosophy;
  • EdD — Doctor of Education;
  • DSc — Doctor of Science;
  • DMSc — Doctor of Medical Sciences;
  • DBA — Doctor of Business Administration;
  • DPA — Doctor of Public Administration;
  • JSD — Doctor of Juridical Sciences;
  • DDes — Doctor of Design;
  • DA — Doctor of Arts;
  • DArch — Doctor of Architecture;
  • DFA — Doctor of Fine Arts;
  • DEng / DES — Doctor of Engineering.

Advantages of a Doctorate

  • Deep understanding of the subject. Even if you are not interested in becoming a scientist, the knowledge gained in doctoral studies will help your future career. A good specialist must see their business not only through the eyes of a practitioner but also as a scholar. This is the aspect lacking in many fields of work. For example, political science.
  • Career prospects. Not only in teaching and research, but in other areas as well. A PhD in math or computer science increases your chances of getting a job at Google or Microsoft.
  • Potentially high salary. PhD holders earn more than masters. But the difference in salary depends on the field of work. For example, in the United States, doctors receive 30,000 USD more when working in Physics, Engineering, natural and social sciences. But in fine arts, journalism, and liberal arts, the difference is not as big — 15,000 USD[1].

Disadvantages of a Doctorate

  • Financial and time losses. Doctoral studies cost time and money. The average price in Europe is 2,620 USD/year, and in the USA — 18,000 USD/year. There are countries, however, where doctoral studies are cheaper than Bachelor's degree programs. For example, Italy, Canada or France. It takes no less than three years to obtain a doctorate. Sometimes writing a dissertation takes up to five years or more. Of course, there is always the possibility to find external funding — after all, people might be personally interested in your research.
  • Difficult to combine with work. Typically, doctoral studies take up all the time of the student. It is painstaking work that requires a complete focus on research. For those who want to save time for their personal life and work, there is the option of an online doctorate.
  • Stress. Writing a scientific paper is emotionally tiring and poses a lot of pressure on the psyche. Research has shown that doctoral students are more likely to experience mental health problems than undergraduate and graduate students[2].

Reasons to apply for a PhD

People applying for PhD programs do it for several reasons:

  • The desire to contribute. Many postgraduate students are really passionate about science and want to develop it further.
  • Academic career. If a person seeks to become a professor, then there is no way around a PhD.
  • Career prospects. Doctoral studies are needed not only for those who plan to develop science. The knowledge gained during training will be advantageous for any profession.
  • High salary. This is not true everywhere, but there are countries and specialties where the PhD qualification gives the chances of an increased salary.
  • Pure enthusiasm. This also happens — there are people who just enjoy learning and constantly receiving new knowledge[3].

Cost of a PhD

Doctoral studies can be notably more expensive than Master's and Bachelor's degree programs or can be much cheaper. It all depends on the country. For example, in France, license for foreigners costs 2,903 USD/year, and the doctorat — only 395 USD/year. In the United States, doctoral studies are also about 5,000 USD/year cheaper than undergraduate programs. However, there are also examples of the opposite. In China and the UK, studying in the last academic stage is consistently more expensive than in the first one.

In general, the cost of doctoral studies abroad varies from 400 USD/year to 40,000 USD/year. But there are options that allow you to study for free.

How to fund a PhD degree

  • Assistantship. The first opportunity is to receive payments for teaching, assistance in research and around the department. Similar programs are common in many foreign universities. They are found in the USA, Germany, Japan, and other countries. Usually, several candidates apply for the position of assistant. To get it, you must have a high level of knowledge and experience within the discipline, as well as find a scientific advisor in advance. The decision to conclude an assistantship contract relies on how well the student's research interests and project correspond to those of the department.
  • Private and public scholarships. The advantage of doctoral studies over other degrees is the greater number of scholarships available. For example, if you want to study in France, you can find government grants in your home country, in the host country (Eiffel), or you can get help from special funds (grants from the Francophone University Agency). The competition for them is also high. To qualify for a scholarship, you must have a good academic record, a promising research project, and prove that you are serious about studying.
  • Choose the correct country. Some states offer free tuition, but usually in the national language. For example, Germany, Finland, Czech Republic, and others. Doctoral students pay nothing there. There are always living costs, of course, and in many European countries, they are not negligible. Getting a PhD in Germany does not cost anything, apart from semester fees of 157-210 USD/year. But you will need 838 USD per month for living expenses, not even accounting for rent.

Cost of doctoral studies abroad

CountryMin. cost per yearAvg. cost per yearLanguage of instruction
USA18,000 USD25,000 USDEnglish
Great Britain18,135 USD24,180 USDEnglish
Canada7,313 USD10,969 USDEnglish,
Australia17,437 USD26,728 USDEnglish
GermanyFree7,336 USDGerman,
France395 USD6,288 USDFrench,
Czech Republic


4,925 USDCzech,


9,956 USDFinnish,
China4,400 USD5,500 USDChinese,
Japan5,874 USD6,342 USDJapanese,
Malaysia2,352 USD8,343 USDEnglish
United Arab Emirates35,393 USD54,451 USDEnglish

How to apply for a PhD program

The process of admission to a PhD program depends on the specific university and country. In most cases, students submit documents directly to the university’s specific department (through their personal account on the university website). We advise you to carefully familiarize yourself with the teaching staff, read their scientific works, and find information about available laboratories and ongoing university projects in advance.

Documents for admission

The general list of documents for admission to PhD is as follows:

  • Diploma of previous education. To enroll in doctoral studies, you must hold a Master's degree, usually in the same scientific field. There are countries that allow admission immediately after undergraduate studies, such as the United States and Canada. Another option is doctoral studies mixed with master's degrees, in a ‘3 + 1’ format. In this case, the students first take a one-year course and receive a Master's degree, and then continue their studies as a PhD student. Such academic routes are available in the USA, Canada, Germany, and Denmark.
  • High GPA. The GPA from your previous diploma should be as close as possible to an “excellent.” The exact score depends on the country since all of them have different evaluation systems.
  • Language certificate. If you are applying to a foreign university, you need to confirm the level of language proficiency. The exact requirements are set by the university itself, but most often they are not lower than C1-C2. For English, you must pass the TOEFL iBTat exam with 90-100, or IELTS at 7.0-7.5 points. The same goes for any other foreign language used in your chosen country. To study in France, you need DALF, in Germany — , in Spain — DELE, and so on.
  • Standardized tests. If you are considering a program in one of the Anglo-Saxon countries (USA, UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand), or in most of the Asian countries, you will most likely need a GRE or GMAT exam results. These are two nearly identical exams that test math and analytical skills. Some countries have additional tests as well. For example, candidates to medical schools in the United States must pass the MSAT, and prospective law students — LSAT.
  • Research proposal. Another condition for those who enroll in doctoral studies. Exactly how detailed it should be, as well as other special requirements, depends on the university. But in any case, we advise you to approach the plan responsibly: carefully formulate the key ideas, research goals and methods, hypotheses, and so on. Consult with your current academic advisor or peers.
  • Recommendations. For admission, you will need 2-3 letters of recommendation, one of which must be written by your academic supervisor. If you are applying for a professional doctorate, you should ask your boss for a recommendation. The content of such a letter is not regulated, but should describe you from their perspective: evaluate your skills, attitude to work, leadership qualities. Do not be afraid if the recommendation states your negative traits — they give the text objectivity.
  • Resume or CV. These two documents are slightly different. Which one is needed, and whether it is needed at all, should be checked on the university website. Typically, a resume does not exceed one page and briefly describes the candidate's academic and professional experience. CV is a more detailed document without restrictions, which reveals your achievements and scientific interests.
  • Motivation letter. Its purpose is to present yourself and tell what the goal behind your research is. The letter should indicate why you have chosen this field, why it interests you, and how studying in this particular department will help you achieve your ambitions. A motivation letter is a chance to demonstrate your personality and let the admissions office get to know you.

Additionally, some programs require interviews. E.g., if you are applying for a doctorate in management, work experience will most likely be required.

Legalization and recognition of a diploma

For admission to doctoral studies at a foreign university, you will likely have to go through the procedure of legalization — the official recognition of your previous degree. It’s necessary because different countries have different education systems and curricula. Even within the same specialty, for example, International Politics, the exact study programs can be radically different from country to country.

The recognition procedure is not mandatory everywhere. There are states between which agreements on its cancellation have been concluded. Your country might have such agreements with the one where you want to study — check it with your government body handling international affairs.

Studying for a PhD

There are no uniform timetables when it comes to PhD studies. Students are given a lot of "free" time to work on their dissertations. The exact curriculum depends on several factors:

  • The field of research. Humanities students tend to spend a lot of time reading related literature. Sociologists work with big data, create polls, and communicate with people. And natural scientists experiment in laboratories more. Note that “more” does not mean “always.” Natural scientists also have to work with literature, and humanists can hold experiments — although not of the same sort. Applying methods from other sciences is extremely important — interdisciplinarity contributes to the development and expansion of every research field.
  • The year of studies. The first year is the time for making up a dissertation plan, attending seminars, and working with volumes of literature. This is the period when the student gains extra theoretical knowledge and understands the topic deeper. In the second year, they can get a job as an assistant and help at the department. The student receives an ‘assistantship’ — a salary for teaching, the amount of which covers the cost of training. This is a good experience for those planning to pursue an academic career. The third and fourth years are the most important and cover the actual writing and defense of the dissertation.
  • The supervisor. Meetings with the academic supervisor are a mandatory part of a PhD student’s schedule. But how often you will see each other depends personally on you and the professor. Some insist on regular interaction, while others just write a letter every six months.

Doctoral studies end with the defense of a dissertation. The requirements are approximately the same in all countries:

  • The dissertation is based on original, independently conducted research. Its topic is usually agreed upon before admission or in the first year of study with a supervisor.
  • The graduation work should be relevant. Quite often, books and scientific articles are written later based on doctoral dissertations.
  • The volume of work is 100-300 pages. At least a third of those pages have to be devoted to synthesis, that is, not an analysis of the sources, but the author's unique ideas regarding the researched issue.

Not all students complete their doctoral thesis. And many stretch the process up to five or even eight years instead of the expected three.

What to do after a PhD

Academic Career

One of the classic post-PhD scenarios is to pursue an academic career. Many graduates stay to work at the same university where they studied. Foreign countries differ in the number of steps in an academic career, but in general, the path from a "green" PhD to a seasoned professor looks like this:

  • Postdoc / junior researcher. In some countries, the postdoctoral fellow signs a temporary contract for work, teaches and receives a salary, in others — studies on a scholarship or grant. The postdoctoral student continues their research, publishes research papers, and gains experience. This takes 2-3 years.
  • Teaching Assistant / Associate Professor. The first proper position at the university. As a rule, an associate professor conducts lectures and seminars for undergraduate students and can become their scientific supervisor. But not for Master’s students, which requires greater competence.
  • Professor. The highest step in an academic career. It is achievable after 5-7 years of teaching, active research,scientific publications (monographs and articles), as well as the successful defense of undergraduate and PhD students under the guidance of the candidate.

Apart from these academic ranks, there are others, specific to the particular country. For example: lecturers, senior researchers, distinguished professors, and others. You can also work as a visiting teacher and give lectures part-time, combining them with other work[4].

Employment options

After a doctoral program, it is not at all necessary to become an academician. This is especially true for those who have graduated from the professional doctorate. According to British company Prospects, in 2020, only 22% of PhD students in England went on to an academic career. The others got an industry job[5]. There are enough employment options, here are a few as an example:

  • Consulting. You can become a consultant or advisor — in business, politics, or other spheres. Many “practical” fields of activity are in constant dire need of a theorist's perspective.
  • Analysis. The ability to work with a large amount of data, organize it, critically assess problems, model the outcome of events — all these skills are expected from a person who graduated from doctoral studies. And they will come in handy in the work of an analyst. This can be a full-time position in a company or in a think tank.
  • Entrepreneur. Creating your own business is also an option — either in the same field in which you received your degree or in a completely different one. Business has no strict boundaries.
  • Civil service. You can use the knowledge gained in doctoral studies for the good of the people and work for the government. You don’t have to be a DPA. For example, one of the former prime ministers of Belgium, Elio Di Rupo, has a degree in chemistry.
  • Journalist in scientific publications. Also a great option for those who are no longer engaged in full-fledged research, but retained the desire to write about science and educate other people.

PhD is a great achievement in life, but not the only possible one. Unfortunately, not all employers value the theoretical knowledge and high level of education of such graduates. There are positions where experience is most important. How do you convince them to give you a chance? The lack of practice can be partially covered by developed soft skills. Pay attention to this while studying at the university. Do not only focus on science, but also develop the ability to interact with people, creative thinking, time management, conflict-solving, teamwork, and other skills. They are guaranteed to come in handy in life, whichever career path you choose.

Doctorate in Russia

Though Russia participates in the Bologna process, its higher education still has unique characteristics. One of them is the two-tier system of academic degrees. Whereas in most countries, only PhD studies exist, in Russia it is divided. First, there is аспирантура, and only then — a Doctorate. The first allows you to get the Candidate of Sciences degree, and the latter — the Doctor of Sciences degree.

If you obtained your PhD abroad, in Russia you will be called not a Doctor, but a Candidate. The Russian ‘Doctor’ degree has no direct foreign equivalent. The ‘Habilitated Doctor’ is the closest one — Dr.habil. This qualification is available in some European countries (Germany, France, Austria, and others). It is awarded to a PhD for their research activities and doesn’t require the defense of a second dissertation, unlike in Russia.

Enrolling in an aspirantura is quite similar to the same process for a Master’s degree program. Admission to Russian doctoral programs differs little from that to a normal PhD. For admission you will need:

  • a Candidate of Sciences degree;
  • a portfolio of published articles, research works, and other scientific papers;
  • recommendations from a previous place of study or work;
  • work experience;
  • CV;
  • research proposal.

When writing a dissertation, future candidates and doctors of sciences can receive a scholarship and work at the department: teach, participate in research, supervise students.

Program levelAspiranturaDoctorate
Admission requirements
  1. master/specialist degree;
  2. documents confirming individual achievements;
  3. interview;
  4. letters of recommendation.
  1. PhD/Candidate degree;
  2. scientific portfolio;
  3. letters of recommendation;
  4. work experience;
  5. research proposal.
Duration of studies3 years3 years
Tuition fee709-4,050 USD/year202-2,025 USD/year
Graduation requirementsScientific publications in VAK—accredited magazines,
Candidate’s thesis defense.
Scientific publications in VAK—accredited magazines,
Doctor’s thesis defense.
Awarded degreeCandidate of SciencesDoctor of Sciences