The next step after obtaining a master's degree is called PhD, which stands for Doctor of Philosophy. The entire European and North American university education system recognizes this title as the highest level in academic expertise (Bachelor's — Master's — Doctoral). In this article we will look at what the PhD degree is and how to enter a PhD program.

What does PhD mean?

"What does it have to do with philosophy?" is the first question that anyone who learned what PhD stands for asks. The question is quite legitimate because in the modern world this word has a rather definite meaning. But it was not always so. The word “philosophy” came without many phonetic changes from the ancient Greek φιλοσοφία. Literally, it means “love of wisdom,” where wisdom is a general category, whether it be wisdom as common sense or scientific wisdom. In general, the philosophy of Ancient Greece may seem rather strange to a modern person, since in essence it was a science about everything. If you peek at the creativity of the philosophers of that time, you can be surprised to find the breadth of the research field that is inadmissible for us: there you will find both thoughts on the issue of public administration, and reflections on God and law, the first concepts of the structure of the Universe, even works on the subject of physiology and medicine. But you need to understand that these were one of the first attempts of a person to know the world around him and it was two and a half millennia ago.
So, the initial understanding of the word "philosophy" was extremely blurred, and only with the advent of the Middle Ages, three independent sciences finally separated from it: theology, medicine and law. The remaining disciplines were still called philosophy; its subject was still extremely uncertain — from astronomy to literature. At this time, students of ancient universities (of which at that time there were about a dozen, including Oxford, Cambridge, Bologna, Sorbonne, etc.) were awarded doctor’s diplomas (from Latin doceo “I teach”) in four disciplines: Philosophy (PhD), Theology (DD), Medicine (MD) and Law (JD). Oddly enough, the names of these degrees have survived to this day and are still in use in the modern academic system.

Doctoral studies

The main purpose of doctoral studies is to write a dissertation, which in most countries is called doctoral thesis. Of course, in addition to working on a dissertation, students of doctoral programs are also involved in other matters, but first things first.
The requirements for a doctoral dissertation, as a rule, are approximately the same in all countries. First, a dissertation is written on the basis of an original (i.e., independently conducted) study. In fact, it is this study that PhD student conducts during three years of a doctoral program. The topic of the dissertation is usually agreed upon before admission or in the first year of study with a supervisor, the main condition, regardless of the subject, is the breadth of the field being studied. If you can still choose a rather narrow topic for graduate work at the master's level, then at the doctor's level you will need to do quite a lot of work: for example, to study the bibliography or serious work of an important author, to develop a program based on a large amount of data, to plunge deeply into relevant issues within your disciplines. Quite often, books or scientific articles are written on the basis of doctoral dissertations, so the resulting work should be relevant and in demand.

The volume of a doctoral dissertation varies from 100 to 300 pages, of which at least a third will be synthesis, i.e. not a retelling of sources, but the author’s thoughts on the issue under study. Statistically, not all students of doctoral programs complete their work on the doctoral thesis, and many stretch the writing of work from the prescribed 3 years to 5 or even 8. All this quite accurately reflects the seriousness of training in doctoral studies, so if you are not ready for such workloads, then you should seriously consider not obtaining a PhD.
In addition to writing a dissertation, the student of the doctoral program has enough other worries. Firstly, you still need to attend lectures and seminars at the doctoral level, though the information presented to them is much more complex than one in bachelor’s lectures, and the lesson time is much shorter since the main priority is still given to writing a thesis. Secondly, quite often doctoral studies should be combined with teaching or assistant activities. This, first of all, applies to those who apply for a scholarship. In this case, the student receives the assistantship — a salary for teaching or assistance in the department, the size of which covers the cost of training. In addition to the obvious financial advantage, it also serves as a serious experience for further career in the academic community.

Financing doctoral programs

The cost of studying in doctoral programs is usually higher than the cost of studying in master's and bachelor's studies, and the difference can range from hundreds of euros (for example, in France or Germany) to several thousand dollars (in Australia and the USA). The exact cost depends on the country of study and the type of university, so it’s difficult to give even approximate figures here: they range from 471 USD to 40,000 USD. However, it is absolutely possible to find ways that allow one to do doctoral studies for free.
The first opportunity has already been briefly mentioned above — this is a scholarship for teaching or research assistance. Similar programs exist in any major university, regardless of the country. The main difficulty here is that usually several applicants apply for such financial assistance, so the chances of receiving it depend on the competitiveness of the candidate. To receive a scholarship from the faculty, it is important to have a good level of knowledge within the discipline, and also find a supervisor in advance. The decision to award scholarships is made on the basis of how much the students' knowledge and research interests correspond to the activities of the department staff. Accordingly, if you find a potential mentor a couple of months before submitting documents and convince him that you can and want to work with him, then the assistant's scholarship is almost guaranteed.
The second option is scholarships from private and public funds. One of the main perks of doctoral studies is that at this cycle there are much more scholarship options from independent sources. A future doctor can look for grants both in his native country and in the country of the university (usually the departments competent in this matter allocate funds for foreign specialists), or look at scholarships of funds in various disciplines. However, there is competition here too: to qualify for a scholarship, one must have good academic performance, a promising research project and be able to present his candidacy as an interested and serious person.

Benefits of a PhD

  • Salary. Contrary to the archaic opinion that the academician earns a penny, in reality everything is quite the opposite: the holder of a PhD degree earns about 1.5 times more than a bachelor's graduate in the same specialty. Over the past few years, there has been a clear trend — the higher the degree, the higher the salary, not least due to the fact that getting a PhD status is becoming increasingly difficult. Depending on the discipline, the annual salary of a PhD holder in the USA ranges from 55,000 USD (humanities and arts) to 200,000 USD (management and business). In addition to the fact that the doctor’s degree itself is already adding a certain amount to the salary, the degree also opens up new employment opportunities — it is unlikely that with a PhD degree, the employer will offer you a junior’s salary.
  • New opportunities. Every year, the most common cases are people with a career that take a break from work for several years and go to university to obtain a PhD. This temporary departure from business to science is explained by the fact that every year more and more knowledge is required for a successful career since you need to be able to see your business not only through the eyes of the creator but also be able to analyze. Therefore, often for career advancement it is required to complete a doctoral program. And with regard to an academic career, everything is extremely simple: a doctor’s diploma is your way towards a serious scientific activity.
  • Competence. And of course, the main and most fundamental advantage of doctoral studies is not even career advantages, but rather the acquisition of invaluable knowledge. Imagine what kind of work writing a doctoral thesis is, and remember that not everyone succeeds. The doctor’s degree is awarded only to the best of the best and the labor invested pays off in full with a huge amount of extremely useful knowledge for life and work.

Requirements for admission to the PhD program


Finally we came to the most important question: what needs to be done to enter the doctor's program at a foreign university? Here we will consider the basic requirements for candidates, as well as the documents that are required upon admission.

First of all, in order to enroll in a doctor’s program, you must have a master’s degree, and in some cases it can be in a completely different discipline (for example, at universities in Canada). In fact, the candidate must meet the formal requirements of the educational cycle in order to qualify for PhD. Nevertheless, in many universities there are special programs that allow bachelor’s to enter a Phd immediately after graduation (again in Canada). Two options are available: either direct admission from the bachelor's degree to the three-year PhD program (only few can actually do this, as only highly successful graduates who passed the strictest selection will be admitted), or a four-year program, which essentially combines accelerated master’s and doctoral studies. The latter option is available in many countries, including the United States, Canada, Germany, Denmark, and is usually called 3+1.
If you are entering a university abroad, it is logical that you need to have an excellent knowledge of the language in which you will be taught. Usually, at the doctoral level, you can go through a program in English, but in many cases an applicant will need to be proficient in another language (this is especially true for students of all disciplines, one way or another connected with history, languages, art, philosophy, etc.). You need to know the language of instruction at a level no lower than advanced, which in the case of English is 7 points on the IELTS scale and 90 points on the TOEFL scale. To apply, you must have a certificate of one of these tests.
If you are considering a program in one of the countries of the Anglo-Saxon education system (USA, UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, as well as many countries in Asia), then you will probably need to pass the test GRE or GMAT. These are two almost identical tests aimed at testing general verbal, mathematical and analytical skills. These exams are passed by all applicants of doctoral programs in universities of the above countries (including local students). You will need to choose one of them, but it’s worth mentioning right away: both tests are quite hard, so you should start preparing at least six months prior to the test.

These two documents should be given special attention. Where other documents reflect your achievements in a more logical way, then in the essay you have the opportunity to demonstrate your personality, which can be crucial for the selection committee. A motivation letter is a short text where you must describe your motives and goals that you would like to achieve in the near and distant future, especially regarding the doctoral program. It is worth pointing out both personal reasons that were important to you when choosing a profession, and academic interests, with which you can once again prove your competence. An academic essay is already more official in nature and, depending on the requirements of the university, can be written in the form of a plan of a dissertation or future research, or an abstract description of interests in a certain field — abstract just enough for the commission to see your professionalism, adequate ambitions and ability to navigate in the academic environment.
Of course, when entering a good university you can not do it without recommendations. They can be from former teachers, your academic supervisor, in some cases from the employers. Theoretically, you can compose them yourself, but you need to take into account that the admission committee has its own rules for controlling authorship (for example, a notification to the author’s personal mailbox, a university seal, etc.), so it’s best to get a letter from mentors. Its content is not regulated, but should give an idea of ​​you from the outside: assessment of skills in the role of a student, attitude to a given job, leadership qualities. Do not be afraid if your recommendations describe your negative traits as well — it usually brings objectivity to the text and results in balanced feedback, so criticism is unlikely to negatively affect your chances of course if it’s not overwhelmingly negative.
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Doctoral degree
Duration3+ years
ECTS120-420
Varieties ofPhD / Dphil, EdD, rarely DSc, DMSc, DBA, DPA, DML, JSD, DDes, DA, DArch, DFA, DEng / DES
Previous cycleMaster's / Bachelor's degree with honours
Next cycleProfessional Doctorate
CountriesAll countries participating in the Bologna Process + most of the countries of the world