Research Doctorates

The research doctorate, or the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) and its equivalent titles, represents the highest academic qualification in the U.S. education system. While the structure of U.S. doctoral programs is more formal and complex than in some other systems, it is important to note that the research doctorate is not awarded for the preliminary advanced study that leads to doctoral candidacy, but rather for successfully completing and defending the independent research presented in the form of the doctoral dissertation (thesis).


U.S. doctorates are structured programs of advanced study and supervised research. Students admitted to doctoral programs must complete all qualifying graduate-level coursework and participate in doctoral seminars and colloquia. No coursework is credited toward the doctoral program unless it is doctoral-level and part of the research seminar and colloquia preparation for advancement to candidacy. Students who complete these preliminary requirements at a satisfactory level must then pass written comprehensive examinations. Successful students who pass the examinations, and receive the recommendation of the doctoral faculty, are advanced to candidacy for the doctorate.

The doctoral candidate selects a doctoral dissertation advisor and doctoral committee (usually 2-5 senior faculty, frequently with at least one member from another subject area or university). The advisor and committee approve the dissertation research proposal and are available to advise on the progress of the independent research program. When the candidate and the advisor judge that the research is completed and the dissertation is finished, the candidate is scheduled for a public oral examination defending the dissertation. At the conclusion of the oral defense, the dissertation committee votes on whether to award the doctorate and sign the dissertation, which is then published by the university and made available electronically for the academic community. Many dissertations are later revised, edited, and published commercially as academic monographs.

Note: Some U.S. graduate students’ transcripts may show that undergraduate courses were completed in subjects such as languages, quantitative methods or a second subject, particularly if the student entered pre-doctoral studies from the bachelor’s degree level, is undertaking interdisciplinary studies, or is changing subjects. It is important to know, however, that U.S. accreditation rules do not allow such undergraduate credit to be counted toward graduate studies. Only if undergraduate courses are taken for graduate credit – requiring additional work – and are certified as such by the graduate faculty will an award of credit be considered.

Source: U.S. Department of Education, June 2020