Doctoral Student: What is It and How to Become One?

Are you considering getting a PhD? A common term you may have come across in your search is “doctoral student.” What exactly is a doctoral student? In this post, I’ll answer this question and provide additional information about the topic.

What is a doctoral student? “Doctoral student” is generally used as an alternate name for “PhD student,” although there is a small difference in the definition of the terms. A doctoral student, or PhD student, is a student of any PhD or doctoral program. A PhD is a postgraduate course leading to a doctoral degree.

One of the main goals of a doctoral student is to complete a thesis or dissertation that could provide new and updated information about that field of study. A PhD is the highest educational attainment that you can achieve from the academy.

Doctoral programs can be in the field of biological sciences, social sciences, mathematics, and other similar major subjects. Read on to learn more about what a doctoral student is and how you can become one.

What is a Doctoral Student?

When you’re pursuing a doctoral degree or PhD, you’re called a doctoral student. So, you’re like any other student, except that you’re pursuing a postgraduate course.

If you have completed your academic units and are working on your dissertation or thesis, you are considered a PhD candidate or a doctoral candidate for the degree you have enrolled in. An example would be a doctoral candidate for a PhD in social sciences.

Therefore, you can say that a doctoral student can be a PhD student. However, not all doctoral students are PhD students.

What’s the Difference Between a PhD Student and a Doctoral Student?

There’s a slight difference between a PhD student and a doctoral student. All PhD students are doctoral students; however, not all doctoral students are PhD students. 

There are doctoral students in education that are addressed as EdD (Doctor of Education), which refers to a doctoral degree in education. Thus, they are doctoral students but not PhD students.

Examples of PhD programs include a PhD in Nursing, PhD in Psychology, and PhD in Counseling. Take note of the distinction so that you won’t get confused later on.

How Many Years Is a PhD or an EdD Program?

The length of study would depend on the specific PhD that you want to pursue. It also depends on whether you opt for an accelerated program or not. With accelerated programs, it can take 2-4 years, but with non-accelerated programs, it can take from 8 up to 10 years.

Here’s a comparison table to make it easier to understand:

Required Academic Units or Credits9060
Program FocusResearchPractice
Must Be a Bachelor’s Degree HolderYesYes
Length of Study4 years2 years
Requires a Dissertation or ThesisYesNo
Offers Accelerated ProgramsYesYes

What’s the Difference Between a Doctoral Student and a Doctoral Candidate?

The difference between the two is that a doctoral student is still not done with academic units, and not yet qualified to conduct a dissertation. On the other hand, a doctoral candidate is a doctoral student who has completed all the required academic units and is ready to conduct a dissertation or thesis.

The required academic units or hours for completion of your doctoral degree could vary from one doctoral program to another. Often, 90 academic units or credits are required from a doctoral student before starting a research thesis.

Benefits of Pursuing a Doctoral Degree

what is a doctoral degree

The following are the benefits of pursuing a doctoral degree:

1. Highest Educational Attainment

You’re on the top list of probable employment, as you would have the highest educational attainment. There are other factors that companies use as a gauge for hiring their employees, but with your level of education, you’d likely be on the top candidates for hire.

I’m not saying that experience doesn’t count. Of course, it does. So, if you have experience aside from your impressive educational qualifications, you would, most probably, land the job.

2. Titles Do Count

Many find it impressive to have the added title before or after your name. John Doe, Ph.D., or Dr. John Doe is more impressive than simply John Doe. The reason is that having a ‘title’ indicates that you have special skills and knowledge in your field of study.

3. Substantial Knowledge in Your Field

The biggest benefit of graduating with a doctoral degree is that you have gained substantial knowledge in your field of discipline and that you could share your expertise with your colleagues at work.

Discovering new knowledge or updates in your profession through your thesis or dissertation is also contributing positively to society as a whole. People could utilize your research and discovery to benefit them, too.

What Are the Requirements for a PhD in the U.S.?

Before thinking of pursuing your PhD, you have to ascertain that you’re truly interested in that postgraduate course. You should know beforehand that studying and researching for a doctoral degree is no joke. You will need perseverance, diligence, and hard work to obtain the degree successfully.

Once you have committed yourself, choose your doctoral degree cautiously. It’s recommended that you pursue a doctorate in the same field as your master’s degree. This way, you’ll continue discovering more knowledge aside from what you have gained throughout your postgraduate years.

Although some PhD programs don’t require a master’s degree, it’s best to enroll in a program that’s in line with your previous course.

Go over various schools offering the doctoral program you’re interested in and compare the basic requirements, such as the length of study, requirements for graduation, and the projected cost. You should choose the best school that meets your preferences while providing the best education you could get.

If you’re committed to pursuing a doctoral degree in the U.S., below are the requirements you may have to comply with:

what is a doctoral student

1. Graduate Record Examination (GRE) Scores

Schools in the U.S. commonly require Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores. So, before attempting to apply, you have to take the GRE test, just in case your prospective school requires it before admission.

If you don’t want to, you may surf online for doctoral schools that do not require GRE scores for admission. But this would limit your chances of applying to the best universities in America.

2. Bachelor’s Degree

A bachelor’s degree is a primary requirement for all doctoral programs. You cannot proceed to a doctoral degree without graduating with a bachelor’s degree. Your bachelor’s degree would also help determine your doctoral degree. Ensure that you have your diploma or certificate of graduation as proof that you have completed your bachelor’s degree.

3. Master’s Degree

Most doctorate programs require a PhD for admission. You may want to visit your prospective school’s website and verify the requirements for incoming doctoral students. For example, a master’s degree is required for an EdD and other biological sciences programs.

4. IELTS and TOEFL Scores (For Foreigners)

If you’re an international student where English is not your native language, you’re usually required to pass an English language proficiency test, such as the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) and Test of English as Foreign Language (TOEFL).

These English proficiency tests determine whether you’re ready for graduate school in the U.S. or not. The acceptable score may differ for each school; thus, you should research first what your prospective school requires from your tests.

The standard scores needed by doctoral students are:

  • IELTS – A score above 7 or 7.5
  • TOEFL – A score above 95-100 on the online test and 600 on the paper test.

You will have to take these tests months before your application, so that you can have more time to retake them, in case you failed the first time.

5. Statement of Purpose (SOP)

Some schools require a doctoral student applicant to write a statement of purpose. Ensure that you comply with their guidelines by browsing this topic on their website. Make sure you know what to write for your SOP.

  • What do you need to write about? You have to provide a valid reason why you have decided to pursue that particular doctoral degree.
  • What’s your purpose? Write about what prompted your passion and interest in that specific program.
  • Include related classes, courses, or projects you have taken. You could include noteworthy activities that you have done and are related to your previous degree. Provide the details as to the date, venue, type of event, and goal of those activities.
  • What can you contribute? It’s also a good idea to include what you can contribute as a doctoral student to that postgraduate program.

6. Letters of Recommendation

You will be required to provide two or more letters of recommendation from your former professors or someone well-respected in your discipline.

These letters are typically sealed and may be sent directly to the university you’re applying to. Read the instructions from the school’s website, as to how the letter should be delivered and whom the letters should come from. Often, a letter of recommendation from the dean or a professor from your master’s degree is required.

Keep in mind that you won’t get a good recommendation from these people if you didn’t perform well in your graduate studies. So, you should aim high and respect your professors while pursuing your master’s degree.

7. Transcript of Records

The original copies of your transcript of records with the official seal are often required from your previous school. The doctoral school may need the registrar from your graduate school to mail your transcript of records in a sealed envelope.

Make sure to request two copies so that you can keep a copy, too. You may have to use them later for a different purpose, such as a job application.

8. Basic Knowledge of the School or University You’re Applying To

It is not a compulsory requirement of the school, but it’s only common sense that you should learn all the basic facts of your prospective doctoral school. 

  • What’s the mission and vision of the school? 
  • Who are the important figures on campus (president, vice president, and admin staff)? 
  • What about your field of discipline, who are the professors? 
  • What are their specializations? 
  • Who among them could work with you? 

You could also learn about the history of the school and other basic facts that they may ask you during a one-on-one interview. An unprepared person who’s going into battle would surely lose. Do your homework, and don’t be one of the casualties.

How Many Published Research Papers Must a Doctoral Student Submit?

The number of published research papers a doctoral student must submit varies from school to school and by discipline.

Some doctoral degrees don’t require published research articles, except for the thesis or dissertation. But others may require one or more research papers for their doctoral programs.

An example is a doctoral program for computer science and technology. The graduate school in this discipline may require doctoral students to submit published research, as this field is dynamic with continuous updates in technology.

Conclusion – What is a Doctoral Student?

So to revisit our initial question: What is a doctoral student? A doctoral student is a student of any doctoral program. Yes, a doctoral student can be a PhD student, but not all doctoral students are PhD students. Many schools or universities offer other doctorate degrees aside from PhDs.

A doctoral degree is the highest educational attainment you can obtain. Most doctorate degrees require the submission of a thesis or dissertation before graduating from the program. You’re called a ‘doctoral student’ while you’re still studying to become a PhD and called a ‘doctoral candidate’ when you’re already writing your thesis.

Again, take note that all PhD students can be called doctoral students, but not all doctoral students are studying for a PhD, such as the case of EdD. In EdD, you can be called a doctoral student, but not a PhD student.

If you’re taking the amazing journey to get a doctoral degree, you should know the distinction among these degrees to avoid confusion.