Many people use the terms “PhD student” and “PhD candidate” interchangeably. However, these terms actually mean something quite different, including a different status level at universities.
We’re here to define the differences between a PhD candidate vs student, as well as other essential information, before you continue your educational journey.
Table of Contents
What Is a PhD student?
A doctoral student is anyone who is enrolled in a doctorate degree, also referred to as a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) program. PhD students are typically required to complete a certain number of course credits and sit qualifying exams. Next, they can move on to conduct research and present it in the form of a dissertation.
A PhD is centered around self-directed research and possibly teaching/running tutorials, but they typically also involve a substantial amount of coursework and require attending classes, either online or in person.
Unlike candidates, PhD students are in the process of completing the required coursework for the degree. They haven’t passed the relevant qualifying exams yet.
What Is a PhD Candidate?
A PhD candidate has completed the required coursework and passed the qualifying exams for their doctorate program. They are currently working on their dissertation.
Most PhD students need to go through an application process and show they meet certain requirements such as a relevant master’s degree. To become a PhD candidate, doctoral students need to pass an internal application process, typically involving a set of exams.
This stage involves significant research usually in innovative areas and incorporating this into a dissertation (this stage is sometimes referred to as “all but dissertation” [ABD]), as they’ve completed all other aspects of the program and satisfied these requirements. To complete their doctoral journey, a PhD candidate must defend their dissertation. Once they’ve successfully done this, they will be awarded their degree and move from PhD candidate to doctor of their chosen field.
PhD Candidate vs Student: 6 Key Differences
There are a number of key differences between a PhD student vs PhD candidate, from their status to the structure and nature of study.
Note: Some universities have recently started adopting hybrid approaches (where there is no clear difference between PhD students and PhD candidates). These programs don’t involve any qualifying exams and students typically begin the dissertation as part of their coursework. Most schools, however, continue with the traditional distinction between a PhD candidate and PhD student.
1. Program Stage
A PhD student could be at any stage of the doctoral program. Coursework still needs to be completed and qualifying exams must be passed. Students may be in the initial stage of the program or about to complete the coursework (before beginning their research).
On the other hand, a PhD candidate has completed all coursework and has at least started their research. They may have completed their dissertation and are preparing to defend it.
2. Research Progress
A PhD student may not have selected their research topic or settled on a particular research question. A candidate’s research is in progress and they should already have a clear research question.
3. Relationship with Advisors
A PhD student may not yet have an advisor. A candidate has an established working relationship with their advisor and works closely with them to complete their research and dissertation.
4. Level of Support
Although they work closely with an advisor, a PhD candidate is generally expected to work more independently than a student enrolled in a doctoral student. Once candidates reach this stage of their doctorate, they typically won’t receive as much direction or supervision.
5. Flexibility and Structure
Understandably, PhD candidates have more freedom and flexibility in their work. Most candidates choose their area of research, as well as the methods used to conduct their work. As part of their coursework, PhD students usually have to work within a set structure (e.g., completing core subjects, meeting deadlines).
Being a PhD candidate comes with a certain degree of status. If they’ve demonstrated a degree of expertise through completing qualifying exams, candidates can put the letters PhD(c) after their name.
Tips for PhD Candidates
A PhD is an advanced degree designed to demonstrate expertise in a given field, as well as high-level skills and abilities in various areas (including research and writing). As such, earning a doctorate can be a challenging process.
The following tips for doctoral candidates will help you put your best foot forward and set yourself up for success.
Because PhD candidates have to balance many competing priorities, organization is essential. Using organizational tools such as calendars, note-taking apps, and project management software can help you keep track of deadlines and meet your targets.
Focus on Your Research
PhD candidates likely have busy schedules with plenty of demands (such as teaching commitments and crafting a dissertation). As it’s the backbone of any doctoral program, be sure to prioritize this part of your work and monitor progress to stay on track.
Actively Seek Out Feedback
Because PhD candidates often work independently, there’s a risk of feeling isolated. Ask your advisors, mentors, and fellow candidates for feedback and advice. This will help ensure that you’re considering all aspects of your research question and multiple solutions, rather than focusing too intensely on a single area.
Take Advantage of Networking Opportunities
Networking is one of the biggest benefits for PhD candidates, so take full advantage of these events. Use this time to build a strong network of professors, advisors, fellow candidates, and other professionals you meet at conferences and events.
Take Care of Yourself
A PhD program can be taxing, and it’s easy for your mental and physical health to take a backseat. Make sure you exercise, eat well, and get enough sleep. Remember: Resting and recharging is crucial for working on your dissertation.
How Long Is a Typical PhD Candidacy?
Most PhD students require 1-2 years to complete their coursework and pass their qualifying exams. However, the length of a PhD candidacy is much more open. In most cases, programs take between two and five years, depending on:
the complexity of the field of research
the candidate’s other commitments, such as teaching load
other abilities, such as a candidate’s level of organization.
Once a PhD candidate has completed their dissertation, they have to defend it successfully before a panel of faculty members before they can earn their doctorate degree. This process of defending a PhD dissertation can take several months.
Some universities specify a maximum length for PhD candidacy duration. For example, Carnegie Mellon University limits this to six years.
Benefits of Being a PhD Candidate
Being a PhD candidate can be rewarding for several reasons:
1. Research Opportunities
You’ll be exposed to vast research opportunities in your field. You may contribute to valuable discoveries while developing advanced knowledge and skills.
Through your PhD candidacy, you’ll also be in a great position to build gain a stronger network of fellow professionals.
3. Critical Thinking
A PhD candidacy can help you develop high intellectual independence and critical thinking skills.
4. Career Opportunities
A PhD is an advanced degree that allows you to build a rewarding career in the academic, government, and private sectors. PhD-holders can also expect to earn more than other graduates and are most likely to find a job.
According to Northeastern University, professionals with a doctorate degree earn an average annual salary of $99,290 on average (and much more for the highest-paid PhDs) and have a 1.5% unemployment rate. For master’s degree holders, the average annual salary is $81,867 average annual salary and a 2.6% unemployment rate.
6. Personal Fulfillment
Being a PhD candidate can help you pursue your passions. This advanced qualification will allow you to become a specialist in your chosen field, allowing you to hone in on the exact subject thatl fulfills you the most.
Qualifying Exams to Become a PhD Candidate
While requirements vary by program, to become a PhD candidate, most students will need to pass a set of exams. These will test students’ knowledge in the field, measure their research skills, and ensure they’re ready to start their dissertation research.
Traditionally, qualifying exams for PhD candidates involved a written test and an oral exam. These will cover a range of topics related to your field of study, with the oral component designed to demonstrate your level of understanding.
Some universities have recently started to issue doctoral students with a set of questions and have them submit the answers within a set timeframe (usually around two weeks). Other schools ask prospective doctoral candidates to submit a dissertation proposal instead of an exam.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can a PhD Candidate Be Called a Doctor?
In most cases, a doctoral candidate cannot be called a doctor until after they successfully defend their dissertation and receive their doctorate.
Can I Put ‘PhD Candidate’ after My Name?
Once you’ve passed qualifying exams and embarked on dissertation research, you’re technically entitled to put “PhD candidate” or “PhD (c)” after your name. However, this is uncommon and not always recommended. It is generally more acceptable to mention that you are pursuing a doctorate (along with the field of research and university) or that you expect to complete your PhD in a certain year (on your CV and online profiles).
How Long Can You Be a PhD Candidate?
There isn’t a set length of time that a person can be a PhD candidate. The length of candidacy depends on a range of factors, including the subject of research and program requirements. Most PhD candidates complete this phase in around 3-5 years (where some university programs have set limits).
Do PhD Students Take Classes?
Yes, most PhD students must take classes and complete coursework as part of the first 1-2 years of their doctorate program. Once they’ve completed this coursework and passed qualifying exams, they move on to work on their research dissertation. At this stage, they’ll be considered a PhD candidate.
Now that you know the differences between PhD candidates vs. students, you’ve got a deeper understanding of how to obtain a doctorate. However you slice it, both will help you build your knowledge and skills to become an expert in your field.
However the program is structured, a PhD is a highly valuable degree that allows you to become a high-level professional and build a successful career.
If you know a PhD candidate who’s celebrating their accomplishments soon? Take a look at this guide to the best PhD graduation gifts.