PhD Candidate vs. Student: What's the Difference?

Female doctoral student working towards her online PhD on a laptop

If you’ve ever investigated earning a doctoral degree, you may have come across two similar terms: PhD student and PhD candidate. To some people these two terms might mean the same thing. Future doctoral degree holders should know that there is a clear difference between a PhD candidate vs. student.

To sum up, a doctoral student has been accepted into the program and is currently working through their coursework. In contrast, a PhD candidate has completed their coursework and is writing their dissertation. Let’s take a closer look at the nuances between a PhD student vs. candidate by answering common questions, such as, What is a PhD student?

In This Article:

What Is a PhD Student? 

A PhD student is someone who has enrolled in a doctoral degree program. PhD students, sometimes called learners, may work through their coursework online, on campus or both. A typical PhD program will require students to complete a certain number of credits in coursework and successfully pass qualifying exams. This process is followed by dissertation research, writing and defense.

The main difference between a PhD student vs. candidate is that the student is still working through the coursework. They have not yet begun the dissertation process or passed the qualifying exams. A PhD student may also be in the process of taking the qualifying exams, but not yet finished with them.

Many people believe that earning a doctoral degree is all about writing a doctoral dissertation or conducting experiments. Those activities are self-defined, as everyone is responsible for establishing goals, priorities and schedules. 

Like other students, PhD students attend classes on a regular basis, either online or in person, and they are responsible for completing assignments and passing exams. PhD students have a set structure that defines their education and dictates their schedule.

What Is a PhD Candidate? 

A PhD candidate is someone who has completed all the required coursework and has successfully passed any existing qualifying exams. Once this milestone is reached, the individual attains the unofficial status of All But Dissertation (ABD).

PhD students typically look forward to becoming PhD candidates because they will finally have a chance to dig deep into their original research and begin developing their dissertation under the guidance of the advisors on their committee.

This period of transition can also be difficult for PhD candidates. The structure is now self-defined. However, PhD candidates will continue to check in with their advisors at regular intervals to discuss their progress and seek mentorship.

Not everyone finds it easy to adjust to a far less structured academic environment. It requires both self-discipline and intrinsic motivation. One effective way to keep yourself on track is to choose a dissertation topic that will fascinate you throughout the entirety of the dissertation process.

What Is a Doctoral Degree? 

Now that you know the answers to questions like, What is a PhD candidate? and What’s the difference between a PhD candidate vs. student? you may be wondering about the degree programs themselves.

A doctoral degree is a terminal degree because it represents the highest level of academic achievement. In other words, a doctorate is a step above a master’s degree.

Compared to a master’s degree, which may require a thesis, a doctoral degree requires students to complete: 

  • Coursework 
  • Qualifying exams 
  • Original research (perhaps including scientific experiments) 
  • A dissertation discussing the research, findings and conclusions
  • An oral defense of the dissertation

A doctoral degree program is an opportunity for students to achieve a high level of competence in their field. Some students enroll in a doctoral program in search of career advancement or professional licensure, while others enjoy deep research and the chance at greater professional recognition.

Candidacy in Other Doctoral Programs 

So far, we’ve largely discussed the distinction between a PhD student vs. candidate. You should know, however, that the Doctor of Philosophy, or PhD, is only one example of a doctoral degree. 

Let's take a step back. There are two main categories of professional degrees: academic and professional. The PhD is an example of an academic doctoral degree because it focuses on research. In contrast, the Doctor of Medicine (MD) is a professional degree, as is the Juris Doctor (JD).

Other types of doctoral programs include: 

  • Doctor of Education (EdD) 
  • Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) 
  • Doctor of Fine Arts (DFA) 
  • Doctor of Public Health (DPH) 
  • Doctor of Theology (ThD) 
  • Doctor of Design (DDes) 
  • Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) 
  • Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD)

Passing Your Qualifying Exams To Become a PhD Candidate

In the traditional model, your university may require you to pass qualifying examinations to become a PhD candidate. The format differs from one school to the next, but in general, qualifying exams are a combination of lengthy written exams and one or more oral exams.

The prospect of taking these qualifying exams is often stressful for students. However, being well-prepared is a great antidote to exam stress. It’s best to begin preparing for your exams as early as possible — at least six months before your exam date is ideal.

Here are some more tips to help you achieve high scores on the qualifying exam:1

  • Network: Talk to fellow students in your department who have already passed the qualifying exams, especially those who have some of the same committee members as you. Ask them about their experiences, the topics covered on the exams, questions asked by committee members and what they wish they had done differently.
  • Review: Make sure to review all your notes, assignments and other course materials from all your classes, starting with the lower-level courses and working your way up. Review even the most basic information in your research field — any extra information you have could help you.
  • Practice: Depending on your university, part of your qualifying exams may focus on your dissertation research proposal. Review everything you’ve compiled so far for your dissertation and make sure all your information is ready. Next, practice explaining your research to an audience — multiple times.

While you are practicing explaining your research to others, you should also practice answering questions about your research. In front of an audience, present your research proposal and then practice answering questions about it. At the end, ask for honest critiques of your performance and ways you can improve.

Once you have passed any qualifying exams, you will officially become a PhD candidate. After that, it’s time to dig into your research and make a new contribution to your field.

Exploring a Hybrid Approach 

Some universities have begun to explore a hybrid or blended approach to earning a PhD. In this approach, the labels of PhD student or PhD candidate would be blended, with no formal separation bounded by comprehensive exams.

With this hybrid approach, the dissertation process is integrated directly into the doctorate program’s coursework. In other words, you will begin thinking about your dissertation topic and working on your dissertation’s requirements right from the start.

Doctoral degree programs that offer a hybrid approach to the dissertation process have many advantages for students. They allow you to begin working on your dissertation more quickly, potentially enabling you to finish your degree earlier than anticipated; however, the actual time required will depend on individual circumstances.

In addition, a hybrid approach may help ward off “PhD burnout,” since you’ll be working on a variety of other assignments for your classes instead of focusing solely on your dissertation topic. You’ll also be able to interact frequently with other students and professors while working on your dissertation and can exchange ideas with them.

If you’re enrolled in a doctoral program that uses a hybrid approach, you may have a certain number of residencies to complete. A residency is an on-campus experience where you may work on refining your academic research and writing skills, narrowing down your dissertation topic or practicing your dissertation topic and research presentation.

Earn Your PhD From Grand Canyon University 

The College of Doctoral Studies at GCU uses a hybrid approach to earning a PhD, with the dissertation process integrated into the curriculum. Choose from a diverse range of PhD programs, such as the Doctor of Education in Organizational Leadership: Behavioral Health degree or the Doctor of Philosophy in General Psychology: Performance Psychology program. Complete the form on this page to further explore our doctoral degree programs.

Naik, A. (2020, July 2). Strategies to ace your qualifying exam. The American Society for Cell Biology. Retrieved April 12, 2024. 

Approved by the dean of the college of Doctoral Studies on May 21, 2024.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.