PhD candidate vs student – The REAL difference

Welcome to this comprehensive article on understanding the real difference between a PhD student and a PhD candidate. Both terms denote stages in a doctoral journey, but they imply different responsibilities, expectations, and milestones.

A PhD student is in the initial stages of their doctoral journey, undertaking coursework and preparing for exams. A PhD candidate, having passed these exams, focuses on original research and writing a dissertation. The difference between a PhD candidate and a PhD student becomes more evident at this stage.

As someone who is enrolled in a doctoral program, or considering earning a doctorate degree, it’s crucial to comprehend the clear difference between these roles.

PhD Candidate vs student

We’ll discuss everything from the process of becoming a PhD student to transitioning into a PhD candidate, the completion of coursework, the significance of qualifying exams, and the transition to dissertation research.

Your advisor may not even tell you this!

Our aim is to provide clarity and insight into these significant milestones of the doctoral journey and help you navigate your path to earning a PhD with confidence.

So, let’s dive into the world of doctoral programs and demystify the difference between a PhD student and a PhD candidate.

In a hurry? A typical PhD journey – Student to candidate

Here is a table highlighting the key differences between a candidate and student in a PhD program:

PhD StudentPhD Candidate
StageBeginning of PhD journeyAdvanced stage of PhD journey
CourseworkUndertaking required coursesCoursework is typically completed
ExaminationsPreparing for qualifying examsQualifying exams completed
ResearchParticipating in or learning about research in academiaFocused on independent dissertation research
Thesis/DissertationNot yet startedActively working on, or has completed
ObjectiveCompleting courses and passing examsCompleting and defending dissertation
StatusNot yet proven ability to contribute original research to the fieldHas proven ability to contribute original research to the field

What Is a PhD Student? The Doctoral Degree and Exams to Become a PhD

A PhD student is someone who has been accepted into a doctoral program and is in the initial stages of their journey towards obtaining a PhD degree. During this phase, the PhD student undertakes courses to develop comprehensive knowledge and skills within their chosen field. These courses often extend for about two years and require maintaining a certain minimum grade.

PhD students also participate in various academic activities such as teaching assignments, seminars, workshops, and initial stages of research.

They are expected to demonstrate high academic performance and the potential to contribute to their area of study.

Moreover, PhD students work on formulating a viable research proposal or topic for their thesis or dissertation.

Before becoming a PhD candidate, they are required to pass qualifying or comprehensive exams that test their understanding and the depth of knowledge in their field. The stress and effort involved in this phase serve as the transition point to becoming a PhD candidate, marking a critical difference between a PhD candidate and a student.

What Is a PhD Candidate or Doctoral Candidate

A PhD candidate is an individual who has advanced beyond the initial stages of a doctoral program and demonstrated their potential to contribute original and high-quality research to their field. The transition from a PhD student to a PhD candidate typically occurs after the completion of coursework and successful passing of comprehensive or qualifying exams.

These exams are rigorous evaluations that test the candidate’s depth of knowledge, research skills, and capacity to articulate and defend their ideas. They may include written and oral components, and in some cases, the submission of a research proposal or the first chapter of a thesis.

As a PhD candidate, the focus shifts from coursework to independent research, specifically the production of a doctoral dissertation or thesis. This work is intended to be a substantial and original contribution to their field of study. PhD candidates also commonly engage in teaching or other professional activities within their academic communities.

PhD Candidate vs Doctoral Student: What Are the Differences?

A PhD student and a PhD candidate are different stages in the journey towards earning a doctorate degree. As a PhD student, you’re at the start of this journey, having been accepted into a program and undertaking courses to gain in-depth knowledge of your field.

This stage typically involves a blend of coursework, research, and teaching responsibilities, with the primary goal being to complete required courses and maintain a satisfactory grade average.

Transition to the status of a PhD candidate occurs upon completing coursework and successfully passing a comprehensive or qualifying examination.

This examination assesses the depth of your knowledge, your research abilities, and your capacity to contribute original ideas to your field, distinguishing you from other scholars in academia. The transition from student to candidate signifies that you have demonstrated a readiness to produce independent, high-quality research.

As a PhD candidate, you are now focused on research and working towards your dissertation or thesis, the original contribution to your field that you’ve proven capable of providing.

The process concludes once you have successfully defended your thesis to a committee. In summary, a PhD student is preparing for their academic journey, while a PhD candidate is actively navigating it.

Is becoming a PhD candidate a big deal? Finishing the Qualifying Exam

Becoming a PhD candidate is a big deal! Pursuing a PhD is a long and challenging journey that requires discipline, dedication and hard work.

A PhD candidate must conduct original research, publish papers in academic journals, and defend their dissertation before a panel of experts in academia. It takes years of commitment and sacrifice to earn a Doctor of Philosophy, but the rewards are often worth it.

As a PhD holder, one gains prestige, respect, and career opportunities that would otherwise not be available.

PhD graduates can become professors, researchers, consultants, industry leaders, and entrepreneurs, among other things.

Pursuing a PhD is more than just a personal achievement. It contributes to the advancement of knowledge in one’s field, and it often translates into tangible benefits for society, such as new technologies, products, and services.

Wrapping up – stages of doctoral and PhD candidacy PhD Student vs Candidate

Understanding the journey from being a doctoral student to becoming a PhD candidate is crucial in successfully navigating a doctoral program.

The clear differences lie in the progression of responsibilities, academic milestones, and demonstrated ability to contribute original research in your field, highlighting the difference between a PhD candidate and a PhD student. Initially, as a PhD student and PhD candidate, you are enrolled in a doctoral program, completing required coursework and prepping for comprehensive exams.

The transformation into a PhD candidate happens post the successful passing of these exams, marking your readiness for independent research and dissertation writing. Earning a Doctor of Philosophy isn’t just about personal achievement, but also about societal contributions through the advancement of knowledge.

Becoming a PhD candidate is indeed a big deal, a testament to dedication, hard work and intellectual prowess. Your journey is unique and filled with learning that goes beyond books, setting you on a path of lifelong intellectual exploration and impact.

The Author

Dr Andrew Stapleton has a Masters and PhD in Chemistry from the UK and Australia. He has many years of research experience and has worked as a Postdoctoral Fellow and Associate at a number of Universities. Although having secured funding for his own research, he left academia to help others with his YouTube channel all about the inner workings of academia and how to make it work for you.