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

Female doctoral student working towards her online PhD on a laptop

If you’ve ever looked into earning a doctorate degree, you may have come across two similar terms: PhD student and PhD candidate. Although to some people these two terms might mean the same thing, future doctorate degree holders should know that there is a clear difference between the two. A doctoral student has been accepted into the program and is currently working through their coursework while a PhD candidate has completed their coursework and is writing their dissertation. 

What Is a PhD Student?

A PhD student is someone who has enrolled in a doctorate degree program. PhD students, sometimes called learners, may work through their studies 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 the dissertation research, writing and defense.

A PhD student is different from a PhD candidate in 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 doctorate degree is all about writing the doctoral dissertation or conducting experiments. Those activities are self-defined, as each individual is responsible for establishing goals, priorities and schedules. However, a PhD student actually has a fair amount of structure.

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 schedules.

What Is a PhD Candidate?

A PhD candidate is someone who has completed all of the required coursework and has successfully passed their 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. There is no more coursework to complete or classes to take, and the structure is now self-defined. However, PhD candidates will continue to check in with their advisor at regular intervals.

Not everyone finds it easy to make the adjustment 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 be sure that you choose a dissertation topic that will fascinate you throughout the entirety of the dissertation process.

Passing Your Qualifying Exams to Become a PhD Candidate

In the traditional model, your university may require you to pass qualifying examinations in order 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 to 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:*

  • 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 of your notes, assignments and other course materials from all of 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 your 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, blended approach to earning a PhD, in which there would a blending of the labels of PhD student or PhD candidate 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.

Doctorate 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, meaning you may be able to complete your degree sooner than you had expected.

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 have the opportunity to 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.

The College of Doctoral Studies at Grand Canyon University uses a hybrid approach to earning a PhD, putting students on a fast track toward graduation. Choose from a diverse range of PhD programs, such as the Doctor of Business Administration: Data Analytics (Qualitative Research) degree or the Doctor of Philosophy in General Psychology: Performance Psychology (Qualitative Research) program. Click Request Info at the top of your screen to explore our doctorate degree programs


*Retrieved from The American Society for Cell Biology, Strategies to Ace your Qualifying Exam in April 2021

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.


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