PhD: When a master's degree is not enough

PhD: When a master’s degree is not enough


This article was originally published on our blog in Spanish. You can find the original article here.


For each academic stage, there are different scholarships that may interest us, as we have already mentioned in our introductory post to the different types of scholarships and how to apply for them. To obtain a degree scholarships are not a big deal, they become major for a master’s degree and, finally, there are doctoral fellowships, which are practical within a definite time contract. Why is it like this? What is special about the doctorate? As the last academic frontier and maximum level of attainable studies, the doctorate presents/displays a series of distinguishing characteristics that we are going to disaggregate and analyze in this post. If you are interested in getting a PhD badge and one day being called a doctor, read on.


What does it mean to be a PhD?

PhD is the abbreviation for Philosophy Doctor or Doctor of Philosophy. Do not be fooled by the name, because today a researcher with a doctorate in chemistry or biology – to give two examples – is also considered a doctor in philosophy for historical reasons. Neither should we fall into the confusion of believing that a ‘Doctor,’ as can be the primary care physician who diagnoses us in a health center, is a ‘PhD doctor ‘. In fact, most doctors are not doctorates and this is not bad. The distinctive PhD is mostly reserved for the field of research.

In order to obtain a doctorate – from now on called PhD to dry – it is necessary, as a general rule, to have previously obtained a degree and a master’s degree in a subject close to the subject in which one wishes to doctorate. There are other possibilities less frequent – such as having a degree – but it is accepted as a norm that to access a doctoral program requires at least 300 ECTS credits. Students who want to obtain their PhD degree will almost always do so in collaboration with a research group that has accepted them or with some type of industry. This is because, during the time it takes to obtain the doctorate, the pre-doctoral student (as they are called) needs to be guided by a doctor of the same branch, with knowledge in the subject and who advises at all times in the elaboration of the doctoral thesis



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What is a doctoral thesis?

The doctoral thesis is the ultimate goal of the doctorate. A doctoral thesis is an original writing that provides new, true, useful, and replicable knowledge for science. Essentially, what a doctoral student has to demonstrate is his or her ability to conduct research independently, with scientific rigor, a critical spirit, with a thorough knowledge of the field and, finally, being able to defend his or her work and conclusions before a tribunal of experts in the matter. Once this last stage has been successfully completed, the court considers that the candidate meets the qualities of a doctor and is awarded the famous PhD degree.


In short, a Doctor (PhD) will have demonstrated:


  • Ability to organize and work individually to carry out independent and quality research.
  • Rigorousness in scientific study.
  • Quality of your writing and organization and exposure of your knowledge.
  • Be able to defend your findings before a court of experts in the field.


To be, in short, an able and reliable scientist, deserving of the maximum respect in the academic world for his rigorous work on which other scientists will be able to support to be based on future investigations.

It is logical to think that to develop such skills for years; the doctoral student should not afford distractions. It is for this reason that the doctoral scholarships cover the whole of the costs of living and support of the student, being, in fact, a contract for a definite time and with a monthly salary. In this way, the predoctoral students can dedicate themselves completely to the scientific activity.

This is the ideal situation. In future posts, we will be introducing doctoral scholarships for those interested in applying for them, but the reality is often very different and many doctoral students do not receive funding, so while developing their doctoral thesis they have to work part-time or earn the money they can help with teaching tasks. On this last one, we will also speak in future posts, both from my personal experiences as a junior professor in the United Kingdom and about the options that usually have a doctoral student in Spain to stay.


The future of a PhD student

At this point, the question is why I’m going to doctor myself if it involves so much effort, so much time, and often it is not even possible to find funding. In many fields of knowledge – I am thinking, for example, in engineering – it is considered that doctoring can be a mistake since when it comes to finding a job, we would be overqualified. Many companies are not interested in hiring doctors for the high salary they expect to receive when other workers – with a higher cycle or a master’s degree – can do the same job and cheaper. On overcalling, a complex and interesting subject, we will also talk in other posts.

The doctorate is usually especially attractive for students in scientific fields such as Biology, Biochemistry, Mathematics, Chemistry, Physics … In these cases, being a PhD means a quality mark, the assurance that a job will be done efficiently despite that entails a research work. This happens if you are in the industry, but most doctors (around 60-70% according to data in the UK ) are dedicated to research in a professional way, that is, the academic and university world. For these cases, the doctorate is, as my own supervisor used to say: ” A license to investigate .” Without a doctorate, there is no research.



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What options are there after a doctorate?

In summary, the main routes following the doctorate are:

Academia: Work as a professional researcher in universities and other public or private centers, including teaching.

Public administration: A small percentage of doctors oppose to high positions in the administration.

Industry: Although traditionally less frequent, more and more the skills of a doctor (maximum knowledge of their field) are needed in solving problems and fostering a competitive industry. A good example of this is the pharmaceutical industry.



It was a lie; the doctorate is not the end of the academic career. A doctor, despite being a great connoisseur of his field, must always continue to be formed. Young doctors usually continue their training for a few more years with a postdoctoral degree, but we will talk about this in future entries. As my supervisor also said: to be a researcher is to be a student the rest of your life.



I hope all potential doctors have solved their doubts with this post. If not, remember that in EDUopinions we are always happy to help, just leave a comment on this post or the Facebook link and we will give you personalized feedback as soon as possible. We do not ask for anything in return, we do it to help the students, but if you want to support our work you can always comment on our website and share our posts. Thank you very much! Only with you can we continue to grow.


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Written by
Juan A.
Biólogo y Máster en Neurociencias nacido y moldeado en el noroeste ibérico. Alma de científico y naturalista recluida en un cuerpo de Homo sapiens. Fundador del blog de divulgación 'Iguanamarina: Divulgaciones, en plural' y colaborador habitual en el blog de EDUopinions.

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