What is a Ph.D.?

When someone gets a law degree (JD), becomes a medical doctor (MD), or gets a master’s degree in business (MBA), we know, for the most part, what they’re going to do. On the surface, a Ph.D. isn’t as clear. You can be addressed as ‘Doctor’ but it’s very different than a medical doctor.School of Engineering - Graduate Graduation ceremony

The letters stand for Doctor of Philosophy, but that isn’t necessarily what your doctorate degree is in. Here the philosophy part refers to the Greek meaning of the word: love of wisdom. You can get a Ph.D. in any subject including, but not limited to, engineering, chemistry, computer science, biology, physics, and also in social sciences such as political science, anthropology, literature, business, and environmental design.

Getting a doctorate degree takes, in general, between six and ten years depending on the field of study. Upon acceptance into a program, students are called doctoral or Ph.D. students. The initial requirements include coursework and comprehensive examinations. Once the exams are completed, they are often referred to as a Ph.D. candidate. The next steps are conducting original research and then putting the research into a thesis – also called dissertation - that is written and then defended orally before a supervisory panel of experts.

“A Ph.D. is a ‘license to learn,’” said Philip Stark, Professor of Statistics. “Because I have a Ph.D. and teach at U.C. Berkeley, almost anybody I approach is willing to tell me a bit about what they do. I love learning from other people, and occasionally I can contribute something useful.”

 So, what do you do with a Ph.D.? Many people decide to pursue this highest of scholarly degrees because they’re interested in research, want to teach at a college or university, or want to be a scientist.  

Portrait of SIlvia Bunge, UC Berkeley Psychology, holding a plastic skull with a model of a brain inside.

“Because a Ph.D. teaches you how to identify important problems and imbues you with the skills of how you would solve these problems, there is a wide range of careers that one can embark on after receiving a Ph.D. in organic chemistry,” Professor Richmond Sarpong of the Department of Chemistry said. “Many students that receive a Ph.D. in my laboratories go on to work with pharmaceutical companies, where they are involved directly in making new pharmaceuticals to cure human disease! Some of the students choose to become teachers and professors so that they too can be at universities and colleges and train the next generation of scientists. Yet, others go on to work at consulting firms where they can design solutions to problems that are posed by their clients. In some cases, students have also chosen to meld their chemistry degrees with other degrees such as medicine (to become medical doctors) or law (to become patent attorneys).”