What's Up, Doc?
What is a Ph.D., anyway?
James Hayes-Bohanan, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Geography
Revised: June 29, 2004

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.

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 common.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Propose a thesis project, which will require a semester to a full year to complete.
  5. "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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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).
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. 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.
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.

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 specialty.

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 jhayesboh@bridgew.edu.
James Hayes-Bohanan, Ph.D.
Bridgewater State College