A doctorate degree is the highest title conferred in academia and qualifies you to become a university professor in your field of study. It's the black belt of education. When you finish, you're expected to possess advanced theoretical and applied knowledge pertaining to your field above and beyond the master's level.
For all you etymologists, the term originates from the Latin "docere", which means "to teach", since that's what you'll be doing. And, of course, completing a doctorate will earn you the privilege of placing the letters "Dr." before your name.
So what is a PhD, exactly? The most common doctorate degree is the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), which has nothing do with philosophy. It's just the title assigned to the vast majority of doctorate degrees. There are also other degrees depending on your field of study. For example, educators might earn a Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) and engineers a Doctor of Engineering (D.Eng.). Most fields offer doctorates but some, like Film, don't. In these cases, the most that you can earn is a master's degree, even if your goal is to teach.
To help you figure out whether a doctorate degree is a good choice, we've compiled a list of defining characteristics below. Think of it as an answer to the question: "What am I getting into?"
You'll Grow Intellectually on...Steroids!
Let's use a sports analogy. If a master's degree is a 5k race, a doctorate is a marathon. By the end of it, you'll be exhausted, which is why some doctorate candidates end up not finish the degree. It combines the coursework of a master's program with a multi-year dissertation of 150+ pages that stretches your abilities as an independent thinker and researcher. Like a master's program, you'll be surrounded by like-minded individuals who share your interests. The difference, however, is that your peers are "professors in training". You won't find a more intellectual crowd elsewhere.
You'll Conduct Lots of Original Research for Your Dissertation
One of the distinguishing characteristics of a doctorate degree is the famous (or infamous) dissertation. It's essentially a major work of original research where you research and write a 150+ page paper on a topic of your choice. You'll be given two to four years in which to produce this magnum opus, but you won't be alone. Advising you will be one or more faculty members, determined by mutual choice. If you're lucky, you'll find someone who will actively guide and support you. The idea is that you'll prove that you have the intellectual wherewithal to conduct hard core research and bring new ideas to your field.
You'll be Able to Pursue a Career in Academia
Earning a doctorate is the holy grail in academia. Remember Indiana Jones? Yes, that cup. You'll need a doctorate to become a professor and, as such, at least half of PhD students hope to become professors. With the exception of community colleges, you simply can't teach at the university level without a doctorate degree. However, that's not to say that all students enter academia. In fact, each year there are far more PhD graduates than there are openings at universities; in some disciplines, the ratio is truly disllusioning, so do your homework. Many students end up putting their skills to use in other professions, such as the private sector, federal and state agencies, research organizations, and non-profit organizations.
You'll (Usually) Have to Work Part-Time as an Assistant
Ah, the dreaded four letter word: "work". Chances are, you'll have to work part-time as a doctorate student. Here's why. The university you attend will typically waive the tuition and give you a stipend (a salary). In exchange, they'll require you to work part-time as an assistant. This is how universities are able to offer stipends, since they're getting cheap labor. You'll work anywhere from 10 to 20 hours per week as an assistant helping professors with their research or teaching of an undergraduate class. Some schools (not many) offer fellowships – essentially stipends without any string attached. I address the topic of graduate assistantships in more detail in a separate section.
You May Receive a Master's Degree "Along the Way"
Consider the following scenario. You've been enrolled in a doctorate program for three years and decide that you've had enough. You'd think that, after three years, you'd have achieved the same level of education as a master's degree. Well, think again. In many cases, universities don't offer master's degrees "along the way". You either finish your program and earn your doctorate degree or...you get nothing! Zip! In other cases, schools require you to take exams at the end of the second or third year to demonstrate that you've mastered the material, conferring a master's degree at that point. This is a critical and sometimes overlooked detail, so review each school's program carefully. Especially if you're the type that changes your mind.
You'll be in School for the Rest of Your Life...Well, 5-7 Years
Completing a doctorate program can take up to 7 years. Let that sink in. That's 2,555 days or 10% of your existence if you live to be 70 years old. The program is typically broken down into 2-3 years of coursework followed by 3-4 years of original research to produce your dissertation -- though it can take even longer. During the period when you're working on your dissertation, you don't always have to be on campus. For example, if you're a Linguistics student and want to research Veneto, an Italian dialect, you could potentially spend much of your time overseas or writing your paper at home. Ultimately, where and how you spend your time will depend on your interests and your advisor's approval.
You Won't Have to Pay a Dime, Hooray!
The great news about doctorate programs is that they're free. In the vast majority of cases, your tuition is waived and the university pays you a stipend to cover your living expenses. You're, quite literally, being paid to attend school. The argument for funding is that doctorate program are lengthy and that it would be difficult (or impossible) for students to support themselves over such a long period of time. Like we mentioned earlier, though, it's common for schools to make you work part-time to earn that stipend. But at least you won't have to take out loans, right?
You'll Find It Very Challenging to Get Admitted
You thought that getting into Harvard College was difficult? Think again! Top doctorate programs have admissions rates that are actually lower than Harvard's. To put things into perspective, consider that Harvard admitted 5% of applicants for the undergraduate class starting in 2015. A well-regarded doctorate program, though not the very best in its category, might similarly admit as few as 5% of its applicants. A less selective PhD program might admit 15-20% of applicants. The reason for this selectivity is twofold. First, schools normally provide funding to all doctorate students, so they have to operate within financial constraints. To use an example, if a school identifies one hundred qualified applicants, but they only have funding for five students per year, they'll have to make some tough choices. Second, schools occasionally limit their doctorate programs size out of a sense of responsibility. Given the dearth of jobs in academia, schools don't want to see their students struggling in the job market. Brace yourself!