You are here

F.A.Q.s About Ph.D.s

The traditional goal of undergraduate education is to provide students with broad-based knowledge and skills needed to be a productive member of society. Many students pursue a college degree to help them improve the lives of their families and communities, as well. Graduate education, especially at the doctoral level, means diving more deeply into a subject to develop a professional level of expertise.

According to U.S. Census data in 2013, only 1.68 percent of Americans over the age of 25 have a Ph.D. CSULB’s BUILD program aims to help undergraduate students, especially those from traditionally underrepresented groups, prepare for and pursue a Ph.D. However, many students don’t know what this entails. This page was created to help answer some of the students’ questions about doctoral degrees and what it means to go to graduate school to earn one.


What is a Ph.D.?

Ph.D. stands for Doctor of Philosophy; however, you can get a Ph.D. in many fields of study. It is a pure research degree that requires a written dissertation contributing to knowledge in your subject. In addition, it prepares you for academic research careers.

What does it mean to pursue a Ph.D.?

When you seek to earn a Ph.D., you are not simply continuing your undergraduate education. Instead of study focused on obtaining knowledge, Ph.D. students are active producers of new knowledge. While conducting research as a Ph.D. student, you are an independent and original scholar carrying out your own research under the guidance of a professor who is more a mentor than a teacher.

In addition, what you study in graduate school is not necessarily bound by what you are currently studying as an undergraduate. In graduate school, you will have an opportunity to adjust or fine-tune the focus of your study so that it is better aligned with your interests. Therefore, selection of the right program is very important from an intellectual and personal standpoint.

What do Ph.D. students do?

In addition to research, which is a key component of their program, Ph.D. students—and most graduate students—have other activities that are an essential part of their education. These activities include, but are not limited to:

  • Teaching: Graduate students often assist professors with teaching undergraduate students, leading small groups and lab sections, grading and providing mentorship. This gives them experience that will help them when they become a professor at a college or university.
  • Presenting at Conferences: Graduate students share their research with others in their field of study by presenting the results of their research at academic conferences.
  • Publishing Papers: In addition to presenting their research at conferences, and writing a dissertation for their university, graduate students also have the opportunity to publish their work in academic journals, books, and other media.

Both presenting at conferences and publishing their research in academic media are fundamental activities of researchers.

What kinds of Ph.D.s are there?

Ph.D.s are available in a wide variety of academic fields at research-intensive universities. The CSULB BUILD program is focused on preparing you for a Ph.D. in a health-related field. This means that it will contribute to the improvement of health outcomes either directly or indirectly. Students in the BUILD program are doing research in a variety of fields, including several fields of engineering, health science, nutrition science, kinesiology, psychology, anthropology, linguistics, public health, biological sciences, chemistry and many more. BUILD students can go on to pursue Ph.D.s in all of these fields at most research-intensive universities, but you should note that they may be offered by a department with a different name.

What is the difference between an M.D. and a Ph.D.?

Both an M.D. and a Ph.D. are advanced degrees. M.D. stands for Doctor of Medicine and Ph.D. stands for Doctor of Philosophy (although as noted above you can get a Ph.D. in many fields of study, not just philosophy).

An M.D. is an advanced degree in medicine and prepares you for a professional medical career. In contrast, a Ph.D. is a research doctorate and prepares you for an academic research career.

This chart might help you understand the differences better:

MD vs PhD

It is possible to have a productive research career or teach at a university with a professional doctorate, such as an M.D.: However, that is not the intent of the degree. If your career goal is to work in academia, a Ph.D. may be a better degree for you. And no matter the type of doctorate you earn, having an active research agenda is key to becoming a research-focused, tenure-track, faculty member at 4-year colleges and universities.

What is the difference between a Master's program and a Ph.D. program?

A master’s degree is awarded upon completing a defined curriculum and demonstrating mastery of a specific field of study or area of professional practice. It is typically a two- or three-year course of study. Some programs require a research-based thesis: Others do not. Master’s degrees may be obtained at research-intensive schools that offer Ph.D.s or at comprehensive schools such as CSULB.

A Ph.D. is a research doctorate that requires a written dissertation and prepares you for academic research careers. As a Ph.D. student, you are expected to contribute new knowledge and theories to your field of study.

What do people with Ph.D.s do?

Career options for people who have earned a Ph.D. include scientific research at universities and in a variety of industries. They are professors, researchers, lecturers, and analysts. In many cases, someone with a Ph.D. will be in charge of developing a specific research

What is required to apply for a Ph.D.?

The process of applying to a Ph.D. program has many similarities across the various types of programs. For example, most programs expect the following: An application fee (fee waivers are available); transcripts (from every college and university you have attended—this often has an associated fee); GRE scores (which have an associated fee, but fee waivers are available); letters of recommendation (ideally from three professionals who can speak on your strengths in terms of academics and research); an updated resume or curriculum vitae (CV); and essays such as a Statement of Purpose and/or Personal History Statement. Given the number of items involved, starting the process early is important. BUILD is here to help. The CSULB BUILD program helps you develop a strong graduate application by helping you develop an application checklist and application calendar to get organized, providing you with access to resources for the GRE, and reviewing your resume/CV and essays.

How do I fund/pay for my Ph.D.?

Many students are concerned about how much graduate education will cost. The good news is that your tuition, fees and health insurance will most likely be covered while you’re in a Ph.D. program. Many Ph.D. programs provide additional support for their students with monthly stipends through research assistantships or teaching assistantships, especially during the first three to five years. This is called a funding package, and you can inquire about the common forms of funding packages offered to students when interviewing and upon receiving admission offers, and also throughout your time in the program. The nature of the funding package offered to you with admission to the program should be one of the deciding factors you use in choosing the program you decide to attend.

In addition to funds provided through the Ph.D. program, there are national fellowship and scholarship programs, as well as research grants, that you can apply to for funding.  Some Ph.D. programs require first-year Ph.D. students to apply for these funds.

Professional doctoral programs, such as an M.D., on the contrary, provide much less financial support. Most likely, you will need to rely on loans to pay the often large tuition costs. Therefore, it is important to find out exactly what types of financial support are available to you while you are researching potential graduate programs.

If you would like to learn more about what it is like to be a Ph.D., talk with a professor who conducts research and ask them about their experiences. One resource that could be helpful in finding people to talk to is the National Research Mentoring Network's My Mentor program. Talking with someone who has "been there, done that" can give you real-world information about the life of a Ph.D. and help you make a more informed decision about whether this is the career direction for you.