What is right: PhD student OF or IN? [SOLVED]

When referring to yourself, or someone else, what is the right way to say that someone is a PhD student or has a PhD? It can be pretty confusing and troublesome because there are a load of different conventions in academia that not all people are aware of. Luckily, deciding whether to say PhD student of or in is relatively simple.

It is most common to say that someone is a PhD student in [topic/area] rather than say someone is a PhD student of [topic/area]. Saying someone is a “PhD student of” often means that you will be mentioning who their supervisor is.

Here are all of the things that you need to know when referring to PhD students’ area of study and how best to refer to a PhD student.

Is it PhD of or PhD in?

When you are trying to work out the preposition after the word PhD you have an option of using “of” or “in”.

In my experience, most people refer to their PhD being IN a particular subject. For example, I have a PhD in chemistry. It does not come naturally to me to say that I am a PhD of chemistry.

Colloquially, you might say that you did your PhD on a particular subject where the on means concerning.

Interestingly, if I was to use ‘of’ I would use it in the following ways:

  • I am a PhD graduate of the University of Newcastle.
  • I was a PhD student of Prof Erica Wanless.

Therefore, most of the time people refer to themselves as having a PhD “in” a particular subject rather than a PhD of a particular subject.

PhD on

Also, it is important to note that the preposition on is used when you are working on your thesis.

You have a PhD in a subject, but you work on your doctorate or thesis to get that PhD.

Sticking to these simple rules will help you when deciding whether you should be saying PhD student of or in.

Introducing an academic with a PhD

The same rules apply when you are introducing an academic with a PhD. There biographies will often state that they have a PhD, and you can refer to that person a having a PhD in a particular field.

For example:

  • Dr Gibson has a PhD in physics from the Griffith University.
  • Dr Justin Chalker has a PhD in chemistry from the University of Oxford.

If you are unsure about the best way to introduce an academic who has a number of different qualifications be sure to clarify with them the full your introduction as to the preferences they have.

When I give a talk at a university, I often provide them with a biography which they read out before my presentation – asking your academics to provide a short biography to read out before their talk is a great way of ensuring that you are using all of the appropriate terminologies and preposition.

PhD student vs PhD candidate

Another issue that arises when talking about PhD students is whether or not you should refer to them as a PhD student or a PhD candidate

This is another confusing one!

The answer to this question is that every department is different.

In every university that I have been to there have been no clear distinction between a PhD student or PhD candidate. The two terms have been used interchangeably and there is no formal distinction.

However, in the United States of America there are some very important and subtle differences that can differentiate a PhD student from a PhD candidate.

What is a PhD student?

In some countries and universities, a PhD student is someone who is enrolled in a doctorate degree program and is in the early stages of their course.

Typically, these people will be working through the coursework component of their PhD studies and will not yet have past any qualifying exams.

Some universities require students to undergo a coursework component of the graduate program and pass examinations to allow them to progress to the research and dissertation portion of their studies.

Up until the completion of the coursework and examination the person will be known as a PhD student.

What is a PhD candidate?

In some universities and countries, a PhD candidate is someone who has completed all the required coursework and has successfully completed their qualifying exams.

After completing their courses and exams the student will be permitted to pursue research and accumulate data and results to write up a dissertation.

They will have to generate an original research question and begin developing hypotheses to test. This will all be under the guidance of an academic supervisor at an accredited tertiary education institution.

There is very little structure for this part of their course, and they will be required to be self-disciplined, worked continuously towards solving their research question, and produce a thesis which will be examined by other experts in the field.

The modern PhD

Many universities are now offering many modern ways of doing a PhD that means there is a greater mode of delivery. It is likely that will stop seeing the formal delineation between a PhD student in PhD candidate in an increasing number of universities.

You can get a PhD by submitting a thesis to be peer-reviewed by your peers, producing a number of peer-reviewed papers and submitting those under a PhD by publication scheme and you can also get a professional doctorate by contributing significantly to your field.

I go through all the different options for getting a PhD in my YouTube video, below.

Wrapping up

This article has everything you need to know about whether you need to say PhD student of or in.

There are a range of different academic conventions that can be relatively confusing but sticking with saying that someone has a PhD in a particular subject is the most widely accepted way of talking about a PhD student.

If you are introducing an academic remember to ask them for a biography and take note of whether they have a preference of how they want their PhD to be introduced. If in doubt, say that they have a PhD in a particular subject rather than they are a PhD of their subject.

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.