When I tell my five-year-old that I'm a doctor she
laughs, because to her a doctor is somebody involved in medicine. I tell
people that she does not think I'm a doctor because if I were, we would have
a Saab in the driveway! Because the average adult is not much clearer on
this than is my lovely daughter, I decided to post this page.
On my Differences page,
I explain that college professors undergo a training program that is different
from that of primary or secondary teachers. (I do mean "different,"
not "better." I am not qualified to teach in high school, and having been
a K-12 substitute for a year, I admire those who can.) It is for this
reason that college professors are not commonly called "teachers," but rather
"professors," "faculty members," or "academics." On this page, I attempt
to describe the nature of the training for the academic doctorate.
Incidentally, doctorates are also given in law and
medicine; I'm not sure why the former never use the title Dr., though they
sometimes put J.D. (Juris Doctorate - Doctor of Letters) or Esq. (Esquire)
after their names. Medical doctors always use the term Dr. before their name
or M.D. (Medical Doctor) - or some specialty like D.D.S. after the name.
Judith Martin (Miss Manners) once noted that the
term Dr. is used only by medical doctors or by professors at colleges where
some professors have the doctorate and others do not. She exaggerates, but
there is some truth to this. Academic doctors use the title for a couple of
reasons, some of which they share with "real" doctors. These include:
All of this said, let me try to explain briefly what
is required to earn the Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy). The Ph.D. is the highest
degree awarded in most academic disciplines, including languages, history,
the sciences, economics, and many others.The requirements for the Ed.D. (Doctor
of Education) or D.F.A. (Doctor of Fine Arts) or D.L.S. (Doctor of Library
Science) would be broadly similar to those described here, though they might
have a greater emphasis on field practice.
- vanity (we should admit this up front),
- a desire to be recognized for our hard work
- a feeling that if academics are not going to be paid they should at least be respected,
- a recognition that the title "Dr." sometimes
gets one better service at restaurants, banks, and other places of business
(it is sad but true), and
- a desire to convince their students that they
have been entrusted to people who really know what they are talking about
(which is not the same thing as always being right, by the way).
To earn a Ph.D. in a discipline, one must complete
the steps listed below. This is based on my own experience. Other Ph.D.'s
might have a somewhat different path, but the pattern described here is fairly
Most people completing doctoral studies fund the work
through some combination of fellowships (that is, outright grants of money
from the institution), research assistantships (in which they are paid a
small salary for helping professors with research), and teaching assistantships
(in which they are paid a small salary for helping professors grade papers,
teaching small discussion sections, or teaching actual courses). The teaching
assistantship is the closest most doctoral students come to receiving any
sort of training as a teacher, and this can be quite variable. Doctoral students
who intend to continue at large, research-oriented universities or in private
industry will not concern themselves with this issue; those whose goal is
to work at a smaller college or university will often seek out opportunities
to further develop their teaching skills.
- Complete a bachelor's degree (B.S. or B.A.) in
that field. If the bachelor's degree is in another field, one must complete
the equivalent of a major in the field before proceeding to the master's.
- Complete 30 to 36 hours of graduate-level courses
(in which reading loads are typically two or three times those of senior-level
courses) in the field. These courses will include courses about the content
of the discipline as well as courses about the history of the discipline and
theoretical issues about the practice of the discipline.
- Complete a comprehenisive oral exam, typically
with three to five professors over the course of two hours, in which one
demonstrates adequate breadth and depth of knowledge of the field.
- Propose a thesis project, which will require
a semester to a full year to complete.
- "Defend" the thesis by submitting it to the
department and then answering questions about it from a committee and any
other observers in the audience.
- The completion and defense of a thesis completes
a master's degree (M.S. or M.A.). With this level of education one may be
considered a professional in the discipline (an historian, a geographer, a
physicist), and most non-academic people in the field stop at this level.
A master's degree is generally accepted as a credential to teach at a community
or junior college (two-year) or to teach undergraduates on a part-time basis
at a four-year college. Note: Most non-faculty professionals at Bridgewater
State College -- including counselors, librarians, and various managers --
have completed at least a master's degree. Some -- such as most of
the librarians -- have completed two master's degrees.
- A student without a master's in a field (or
a closely related field) will need to complete remedial courses before being
accepted into a doctoral program. The doctoral program begins with 36 credits
of graduate-level courses in the major (see above). For those who have completed
a master's degree (or any courses toward such a degree) within the past 10
years, up to 18 hours may be applied to the requirement of 36.
- Doctoral students must also complete a minor
in a field related to their interests. A doctoral minor comprises 15 to 18
credit hours at the graduate level. In my case, my major was geography and
my minor was Latin American studies, which focused on my region of primary
interest within geography.
- Most doctoral programs also require demonstrated
reading knowledge of a foreign language, through an exam or a completion of
courses. Often, the student must choose a language that is relevant to the
field of study. For example, a person who learned Italian as a second childhood
language could not use Italian for the language requirement unless some works
relevant to the major studies were written in Italian.
- After completion of the additional coursework,
the minor, and the language requirement, a student is ready for a preliminary
exam, as ironic as that name may seem.
- The preliminary exam is in two parts and is
administered by a committee of three professors from the major and two from
the minor. Each submits written questions, which the student has up to four
hours to answer in writing. This occurs on five successive days. Once these
answers have been accepted, the student completes an oral exam of two to
three hours over the same material with the same professors. At this point,
the doctoral student becomes a doctoral candidate, and is eligible
to submit a dissertation proposal to the entire department (and any observers
who care to attend).
- The dissertation proposal presents the existing
literature on a particular topic and then describes a question that has not
yet been answered about that topic. The proposal then outlines a methodology
for answering that question, which might involve a laboratory experiment,
library research, or new data collection through field work, the use of satellites,
or other measuring strategies. The project described in the proposal must
be original, important, and substantial, or it will be rejected by the department.
Often, the project is part of some larger research agenda being pursued by
the candidate's advisor, but this is not always the case.
- Once the project has been approved (and funding
has been arranged), the candidate begins the data collection and analysis.
After what may be two or three or more years of work on the project, the dissertation
is submitted for approval to a dissertation committee.
- If the dissertation committee approves the written
work, it will schedule a defense, to which the entire campus is invited (though
few typically attend). The defense includes a presentation by the candidate
and questions from the committee and any other observers. The defense is
also known as the final examination, and can last for several
hours. At the conclusion, the committee can either sign the dissertation,
reject the dissertation, or request that certain changes be made before it
is signed. Unless the dissertation is rejected, the candidate is considered
an academic peer -- a Ph.D. -- at the conclusion of this meeting, and can
be scheduled for the next available graduation date.
As a doctoral candidate nears completion of the dissertation,
he or she may begin searching for academic employment. Positions are usually
announced through newsletters for each discipline and through the Chronicle
of Higher Education. In either case, these searches are national in scope,
because professors are usually sought who can teach courses in a fairly narrow
One source of confusion in this field is the honorary
doctorate. This is awarded to any person who makes a commencement speech
at a college, and sometimes other people are so honored at the same ceremony.
These doctorates recognize scholarship, public service, and/or large financial
contributions to the college. The term "earned doctorate" is used to distinguish
between the degree described above and such honorary degrees. Most people
with honorary degrees do not use the title.
Return to my Not-the-13th-Grade page.
Any questions? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
James Hayes-Bohanan, Ph.D.
Bridgewater State College