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What is a PhD? All you need to know for 2024

When I started my PhD, I went in without a lot of thought. I had finished a master’s. It seemed like the logical next step, especially since I had no idea what to do with it. And my grades were pretty solid.

Whatever your background, if you’re looking at going into a PhD program, it’s a big decision. In this article, I’ll walk you through what is a PhD, talk about what to consider if you’re thinking about pursuing one, and share some career options.

What is a PhD?

A PhD, or Doctor of Philosophy, is a degree awarded to individuals who have demonstrated expertise in a particular field of study. This degree is the highest level of education one can achieve in many fields.

To earn a PhD, one must complete a rigorous program of study that typically takes several years to complete. This program usually includes coursework, research, and the completion of a dissertation or thesis. The dissertation is a significant piece of original research that contributes to the body of knowledge in the field.

PhD holders are qualified to hold academic or industry positions. They can also hold a lot of different non-academic jobs; most PhD holders will work outside of academia, largely because of the mass overproduction of the degree. I’ve talked in the past about my work in government and now I work in tech.

Understanding the PhD

Definition of PHD

A PhD, which stands for Doctor of Philosophy, is the highest academic degree awarded by universities in most countries. It is a research degree that requires the completion of a thesis or dissertation based on original research.

The PhD program is designed to develop a student’s ability to conduct independent research and contribute to the advancement of knowledge in their field of study. Students typically spend several years completing coursework, conducting research, and writing their dissertations.

What does PhD stand for?

PhD stands for Doctor of Philosophy. But even though the title “Doctor of Philosophy” suggests a focus on philosophy, Ph.D. degrees are given in many different fields including science, health, and the humanities. In the UK, the alternative DPhil (Doctor of Philosophy) is sometimes used.

There are other degrees at the level of the PhD with different titles, for example:

  • Doctor of Medicine (M.D.)
  • Doctor of Dental Medicine or Doctor of Dental Surgery (D.M.D. or D.D.S.)
  • Doctor of Jurisprudence (J.D.)
  • Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (D.V.M. or V.M.D.)
  • Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm.D.)
  • Doctor of Education (Ed.D.)
  • Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.)
  • Doctor of Business Administration (D.B.A.)
  • Doctor of Engineering (Eng.D.)
  • Doctor of Physical Therapy (D.P.T.)
  • Doctor of Occupational Therapy (O.T.D.)

How many PhDs are produced each year?

It’s tough to know exactly how many PhDs there are worldwide–at least several million are minted each year. There were over 52,000 PhDs produced in the U.S. in 2021.

Should I get a PhD?

I’ve done some more in-depth writing on whether a PhD is worth it, so please read that too if you’re considering a PhD.

Right now, there is a mass overproduction of PhDs for academic jobs. The numbers vary but a very small number of PhDs will get permanent jobs in academia, despite the majority hoping for them. 67% of PhD students want a career in academic research but only 30% are working in academia 3 years after finishing–AND those are not necessarily tenure-track roles. A study from Canada that tracked 10,000 PhDs found something similar–only 20-30% ever stayed in academia, and those were not always tenure-track professorial jobs.

I’ve seen numbers closer to 2-5% of PhDs will ever get tenure-track jobs with estimates as high as 12%.

I started this website after my own journey into academia and then back out, and I’ve realized that thousands of PhDs who start programs end up burnt out, miserable, in debt, and nearly unemployable. There are few jobs in academia, and in many fields having a PhD outside of academia can be okay for a career, but isn’t likely enough to give you the earnings boost you’d want.

Here are some of the common reasons not to get a PhD:

  • It’s unlikely you’ll work in academia and most non-academic positions don’t require PhDs.
  • Many PhD students take on huge debt levels in the hopes of a return, but it’s unlikely. Even if they get a tenure-track professor job, the average salary is about $64,000/year. Considering few PhD graduates will even land an assistant professor job, it’s just not worth it.
  • Academia is a notoriously toxic place to work and study because of the terrible power dynamics (your future is in the hands of one person), archaic systems, and messed up personalities.
  • Many people have pointed to systemic racism, sexism, ableism, and other problems with academia. While academic institutions often appear progressive, the workplace culture is often unhealthy.
  • Academic institutions are notoriously exploitative, relying on extremely cheap labor by adjunct professors (part-time, temporary teachers).
  • The opportunity cost of a PhD is high. If you spent 5-10 years in any other career, you would likely be well-established. After 5-10 years in academia, you might still find yourself unemployed.

I’ve heard people tell others “you should only get a PhD if you have a passion for the subject,” but that’s garbage advice. Many PhDs have a passion for their research and still end up psychologically and financially ruined.

My advice would be that unless you’re shooting for a non-academic science or tech job, a PhD probably isn’t worth it. OR if you’re independently wealthy or established and want to do a PhD for the personal gratification, go to it!

How long does it take to get a PhD?

The duration of a Ph.D. program can vary a lot, but on average programs are usually designed to last anywhere from 3 to 7 years at institutions worldwide–but research from the National Science Foundation shows that it takes an average of 7-12 years. In the U.S. a master’s degree is sometimes built into the PhD. In the UK, a PhD is traditionally shorter (3 years).

Here are some key factors that influence the duration of a PhD:

  1. Field of Study: Fields of study have different lengths, often accounting for things like lab work and field research. The longest PhD program is Education, with a median completion time of 12 years.
  2. Research Complexity: The complexity of the research project can impact the duration. But even more so, changing directions and switching topics can add a ton of time to completion.
  3. Funding and Resources: Ph.D. students who secure full funding or research grants can often finish faster because those without funding will have to teach or RA to pay for their expenses.
  4. Advisor and Research Group: The availability of a supportive and accessible advisor, as well as the dynamics of the research group, can influence progress. Ideally you’ll have an awesome advisor, but I’ve heard horror stories of bad advisors who added years to their mentee’s completion times.
  5. Publication Requirements: Some Ph.D. programs require students to publish their research in peer-reviewed journals before graduation, which can extend the timeline.
  6. Thesis or Dissertation: The time required to write and defend the doctoral thesis or dissertation varies. This stage can take several months to a year or more, depending on the complexity and length.
  7. External Factors: Personal life events, health issues, or unforeseen circumstances can also impact the duration of a Ph.D. program.

Where do PhD holders work?

As I said above, in many of these fields you don’t need a PhD. But here are some of the places that PhD holders often work:

  • Academia: Many Ph.D. holders want to work in academia, and some will, working as professors, lecturers, or researchers at universities and colleges.
  • Research Institutions: Research institutions and think tanks employ Ph.D. holders to conduct research in various fields, including science, social sciences, and humanities.
  • Government Agencies: Ph.D. holders can work for government agencies, such as the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in research, policy analysis, or advisory roles.
  • Nonprofit Organizations: Nonprofits hire Ph.D. holders to lead research initiatives, analyze data, and contribute to policy development and advocacy efforts.
  • Industry R&D: Private companies often have research and development (R&D) departments that employ Ph.D. scientists and engineers to drive innovation.
  • Healthcare and Pharmaceuticals: Ph.D. holders in fields like biochemistry, pharmacology, and genetics can work in pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, or research organizations.
  • Consulting Firms: Management and strategy consulting firms hire Ph.D. consultants to provide expertise in specific areas, such as economics, data analysis, or science. Or PhDs can set up their own consulting businesses.
  • Publishing and Journalism: Ph.D. holders can work as science writers, journalists, or editors for newspapers, magazines, or online publications.
  • Technology and IT: Ph.D. computer scientists, engineers, and data scientists can work for technology companies, startups, or in software development.
  • Education Administration: Ph.D. holders may work in educational leadership roles, such as school principals, superintendents, or university administrators.
  • Policy Analysis: Ph.D. holders can contribute to the development of public policy by working in roles related to policy analysis and research.
  • International Organizations: Organizations like the United Nations (UN), World Bank, or World Health Organization (WHO) hire Ph.D. experts in various fields to address global issues.
  • Environmental Conservation: Environmental scientists and ecologists with Ph.D. degrees can work for conservation organizations, national parks, or environmental agencies.
  • Museum Curator or Archivist: Museums and archives may employ Ph.D. holders to curate collections, conduct research, and manage exhibits.
  • Data Science and Analytics: Ph.D. holders with strong quantitative skills are in demand in data analysis, machine learning, and artificial intelligence roles.
  • Entrepreneurship: Some Ph.D. holders become entrepreneurs, starting their own companies or consulting businesses based on their expertise.
  • Market Research and Consumer Behavior: Ph.D. holders in psychology or related fields can work in market research firms, analyzing consumer behavior and trends.
  • Financial Analysis and Economics: Ph.D. economists and financial analysts can work in banks, investment firms, or economic research organizations.
  • Agricultural Research: Ph.D. holders specializing in agriculture or related fields can work for agricultural research institutions or agribusiness companies.
  • Healthcare Administration: Ph.D. holders in healthcare fields may work in healthcare management, policy, or hospital administration.

I told the story of my post-PhD journey in a video a few years back.

How to get a PhD?

This is the process of getting a PhD. Different institutions and countries have different PhD processes, but here’s a common outline of what this looks like:

1. Become eligible

To be eligible for a PhD program, a candidate must have completed a master’s degree in a related field with a minimum GPA of 3.0. Some universities may also require relevant work experience or a specific score on a standardized test such as the GRE.

2. Apply

The application process for a PhD program typically involves submitting transcripts, letters of recommendation, a personal statement, and a resume or CV. Some programs may also require a writing sample or an interview.

3. Write a research proposal

Once accepted into a PhD program, the candidate ususally develops a research proposal outlining their intended area of research and methodology. This proposal will be reviewed and approved by a committee of faculty members.

4. Complete coursework and exams

PhD candidates must complete a certain amount of coursework, typically in the first two years of the program. They must also pass comprehensive examinations, which test their knowledge of the field and their ability to conduct research.

5. Thesis Development and Defense

The bulk of a PhD program is devoted to the development and completion of a thesis, which is a significant original contribution to the field of study. The thesis must be defended in front of a committee of faculty members, who will assess the candidate’s research and ability to communicate their findings.

Challenges in a PhD

Time Management

One of the biggest challenges in pursuing a PhD is managing time effectively. PhD students are required to carry out extensive research and complete their dissertation within a specific timeframe.

Here are a couple things I’ve seen a lot that hurt PhD time management:

  • Teaching loads: If you don’t have good funding, you need to teach or RA to pay the bills–and this can take a toll on productivity.
  • Self-directed work: Many PhDs require self-directed study, and if they aren’t able to self-motivate it can be a challenge.

Financial Constraints

PhD programs are often expensive, and students may face financial challenges while pursuing their degree. Many students have to take out loans or work part-time to support themselves during their studies.

The rule of thumb I was taught was to never enter a PhD program if it’s not funded, but this is tough to follow. Even those with funding might find that it’s not enough–especially with a cost of living soaring and many funding packages staying pretty flat.

Academic Pressure

PhD programs are academically rigorous and demanding. Students are expected to produce high-quality research and meet the standards set by their supervisors and academic institutions. This can lead to stress, which can affect the mental and physical health of students.


In conclusion, a PhD is the highest academic degree that a person can earn in a particular field of study. It requires a significant amount of time, effort, and dedication to complete.

Whether or not a PhD is the right move is a personal decision, but note there are a lot of things that make it difficult to be successful in academia. If you are going to pursue a PhD, make sure to build a support system, apply for all the funding you can, and work hard at preparing for a career outside of academia.


What is a phd vs doctorate?

A PhD is a type of doctorate. All PhDs are doctorates, but not all doctorates are PhDs (for example, PharmD, MD, etc.)

What is a psyd vs PhD?

Psy.D. (Doctor of Psychology) emphasizes clinical practice, with less research focus. Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) in Psychology is research-intensive, preparing graduates for research, teaching, and clinical roles. Psy.D. programs are shorter, typically 4-6 years, while Ph.D. programs are longer. Both degrees lead to licensure opportunities in psychology, but with different career paths.

Is a PhD a doctor?

Since PhDs have doctorates, they can be referred to as “Doctor _NAME_.” So yes, technically a PhD is a doctor. But since the word “doctor” is most commonly used to refer to a medical doctor, most people use the word “doctor” for someone who practices medicine.

It leads to a ton of fun jokes about “there being a doctor on the plane.”

What is a PhD vs MD?

A Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) is a research-focused doctoral degree in various fields, including science and humanities. An MD (Doctor of Medicine) is a professional medical degree focused on clinical practice. Ph.D. holders conduct research and often teach, while MDs diagnose, treat, and care for patients, typically in clinical settings. However, some people do PhDs in health-related fields.

What is the PhD abbreviation?

Like I said above, PhD stands for Doctor of Philosophy.

What is a PhD dissertation?

A Ph.D. dissertation is a comprehensive research project and a significant requirement for earning a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree. It represents an original contribution to the field of study and demonstrates the candidate’s ability to conduct independent research. A dissertation typically includes a thorough literature review, research methodology, data collection and analysis, discussion of findings, and conclusions. It is usually a lengthy document that is defended orally before a committee of experts in the field, and its successful completion is a key milestone in obtaining a Ph.D.

Should you write Ph.D. or PhD?

Technically, Ph.D. is correct because the abbreviation combines the two words. But I use both interchangeably, because PhD is faster.

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