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What is doctoral candidacy?

PhD candidate writing a dissertation on a laptop while in her home office

At a glance

  • A doctoral degree, whether a PhD or a practitioner doctorate, is the highest academic achievement one can pursue at a university.
  • A doctoral student is an individual who’s been accepted into a doctoral program and is working through classes and coursework. A doctoral candidate has completed the coursework portion of a doctoral program and is focused on writing a dissertation or equivalent project.
  • Other doctoral programs include MDs, JDs, ODs, DCs and AudDs. Notably, many of these programs do not include a dissertation.
  • Explore online doctoral programs in business, nursing, education and healthcare at University of Phoenix.

In academia, one degree sits at the very top: the doctoral degree. Similar to a PhD, the practitioner doctorate generally involves rigorous curriculum culminating in a dissertation or applied project. While a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) is the practitioner doctorate’s counterpart, they are not the same. A PhD generally focuses on enriching an area of research, while a doctorate is designed to answer a real-world problem or concern with new knowledge.

Earning a doctorate involves multiple phases with significant milestones built in. One of these major milestones can be the transition from being a doctoral student to a doctoral candidate, depending on the program and whether it emphasizes this distinction.

Learn more about online doctoral degrees at UOPX!

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PhD vs. practitioner doctorate 

A PhD student typically focuses on the development of new and original knowledge based on theory. A practitioner doctorate aims to prepare students for leadership roles in their desired profession by applying existing knowledge to solve problems in their field or community.

University of Phoenix offers several practitioner doctorate programs, but it does not offer PhD programs.

Doctoral candidate vs. doctoral student

If you are interested in earning your doctorate, then it is important to understand the difference between being a doctoral candidate and a doctoral student.

A doctoral student is a person currently enrolled in a doctoral program at a university. Doctoral programs can lead to a PhD in a variety of fields (such as literature, philosophy and history) or a practitioner doctorate in a field like business, health administration, nursing or education. Many doctoral programs require the successful completion of a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree first.

When individuals begin a doctoral program, they are classified as doctoral students. Being a doctoral student involves completing a certain number of credits and coursework in an area of study and completing and passing several exams.

Once students have passed the qualifying exams (if the program requires it) and successfully completing required coursework, they move on to become a doctoral candidate.

What is a doctoral candidate?

A doctoral candidate leaves behind the structured learning schedule of a student. No longer does the candidate attend regular classes or take exams but instead embarks on a self-guided schedule for writing a dissertation. This culminates their studies and is tailored to their unique and individual areas of interest.

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Doctoral candidates work closely with the advisors that typically make up their dissertation committee. The advisors provide guidance and critiques as a candidate writes a book-length dissertation. While the advisors can help along the way, what sets the candidate apart from the student is the applicability and formal demonstration of what they have learned through the conducting and writing of their approved research.

Requirements of a doctoral program

Before graduate school, you must complete years of college courses, typically two degrees before a program will consider your admission. However, this heavily depends on which doctoral program you’re looking to enter; some are more lenient about requirements than others.

Many doctoral programs tend to be intentionally difficult and rigorous courses of study by design. As mentioned, there are several educational levels before a doctoral degree that both students and candidates will need to pass.

The requirements of a doctoral student include:

  • Prerequisite degrees: Doctoral programs usually require that students obtain a bachelor’s and a master’s degree first.
  • Required coursework: Each program requires different courses, but most will be in the student’s area of study, with some focused on adjacent or complementary subjects. Additionally, foundational coursework prepares students to learn about the research process.
  • Qualifying exams: Typically, students must pass qualifying exams to enter doctoral programs, but not all programs require entrance exams.

The requirements of a PhD candidate and many practitioner programs include:

  • Selection of dissertation advisor or committee: During your time as a doctoral student, you will come into contact with many instructors. You will typically only interact with the instructors who are your dissertation advisor or on your dissertation committee. The committee is the audience for the doctoral candidate and ensures the candidate demonstrates command of the literature and methodologies relative to their field.
  • Choosing your dissertation topic: This is a pivotal point in your journey to earning a PhD or doctorate. Many programs even ask for a general topic as a part of your initial application. Your advisors will help you to create a specific and unique dissertation topic that will fuel your work over the next couple of years.
  • Writing the dissertation: Your dissertation or thesis will normally take a couple of years to write and will be a book-length culmination of your learning and research.
  • Defending your doctorate or thesis: After you submit your final draft to your dissertation committee, you will need to orally present your work to the committee, answer questions and defend your work.

The requirements for a PhD and doctorate take many years to complete. While some people complete doctoral degrees in three to five years, others take seven to 10 years. The time span depends on your specific area of study, whether you take classes on a full-time or part-time schedule and how long it takes to complete your dissertation. This also includes your level of focus and intent.

The meaning of candidacy in other doctoral programs

A practitioner doctorate or professional doctorate is not the only type of doctoral degree. There are also MDs, ODs, AudDs, DCs, JDs and others.

Such programs have their own conventions and terminology for demarcating various milestones. Some doctoral degrees, such as for law or medicine, focus on mastering the practice of a specific subject and the skills associated with that practice. As a result, terms such as candidate are not used universally among doctoral programs, and many of these programs do not include a dissertation or similar work.

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Doctorates at University of Phoenix

While University of Phoenix (UOPX) does not have PhD programs, it does offer several online doctorates. Students might choose the UOPX programs because classes are flexible and offered online, and because of our unique “Scholar-Practitioner-Leader model.” If those are two qualities you are looking for in a program, visit to learn about UOPX’s five doctorates. They are:

Doctor of Business Administration — This program can help you gain the strategic vision and skills to position yourself as a business leader. It teaches skills such as how to solve organizational problems, designing and conducting research studies, introducing innovative business ideas to the industry and more.

Doctor of Management — This program equips you with critical thinking skills to find creative solutions to complex problems, so you can bring out the best of your leadership skills.

Doctor of Education — This program prepares you to use analytical, critical and innovative thinking to improve performance and solve complex problems in education.

Doctor of Health Administration — If you’re a health professional who is seeking greater responsibility in shaping the future of the health sector, the Doctor of Health Administration can help you get there. You’ll meet the challenges inherent to today’s healthcare landscape, including economic fluctuations, burgeoning patient needs and industry-changing legislation.

Doctor of Nursing Practice — This program is designed for working nurses who require a doctorate for advanced practice or nurses who desire their terminal degree. It does not prepare students for professional certification or state licensure as a nurse or as an advanced practice nurse.


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