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The difference between doctoral students and doctoral candidates


This article has been vetted by University of Phoenix's editorial advisory committee. 
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This article has been reviewed by Hinrich Eylers, PhD, PE, MBA, Vice Provost for Academic Operations and Doctoral Studies

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.

Many people who earn a doctoral degree will, at some point, be both a doctoral student and doctoral candidate. While these roles may seem mysterious from outside the (real or virtual) halls of academia, the distinction is fairly simple.

Before we cover the distinction, however, let’s get on the same page about doctoral degrees.

What is a doctoral degree?

In academia, one degree sits at the very top: the doctoral degree. Also referred to as a doctorate, a doctoral degree is the most advanced educational credential you can earn. Though some fields of study (like journalism) don’t have a doctoral degree, most typical academic fields do, as do the fields of health, medicine, law, education and business.

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. Doctoral degrees involve years of intensive study, and many require a book-length dissertation. However, practitioner doctorates have different requirements and may not entail a dissertation.

Requirements of a doctoral program

Before graduate school, you must complete years of university courses, typically two degrees, before a program will consider admitting you. However, some programs have more lenient requirements than others.

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

The requirements for 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.

If a dissertation is part of the doctoral program, the doctoral candidate must:

  • Select a 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.
  • Choose your dissertation topic: This is a pivotal point in your journey to earning a PhD or doctorate. Many programs ask for a general topic as 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 several years.
  • Write 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.
  • Defend your dissertation 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 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.

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.

What is a doctoral student?

A doctoral student is a person currently enrolled in a doctoral program at a university. Being a doctoral student involves completing a certain number of credits and coursework in an area of study and completing and passing several exams.

After students pass the qualifying exams (if the program requires it) and successfully complete required coursework, they become doctoral candidates.

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. Instead, they embark on a self-guided schedule for writing a dissertation. This culminates their studies and is tailored to their unique and individual areas of interest.

Doctoral candidates work closely with the advisors who make up their dissertation committee. The advisors provide guidance and critiques as the candidate writes a book-length dissertation. While the advisors can help along the way, what sets the candidate apart from the student is that, rather than simply learning what others have already discovered, they are conducting and writing about their own original, approved research — and then demonstrating what they’ve learned, as well as how it fits in the broader field of study or can be applied to tangible problems.

The meaning of candidacy in other doctoral programs

A PhD is not the only type of doctoral degree. There are also practitioner or professional doctorates, which may take the specific shape of medical doctorates, optometry doctorates, audiology doctorates, chiropractic doctorates, juris doctorates and others.

Such programs have their own conventions and terminology for 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.

PhD vs. practitioner doctorate

A PhD, or Doctor of Philosophy, is a doctoral degree that is focused on expanding and enriching an area of research. A PhD student typically focuses on developing new and original knowledge based on theory. 

In contrast, a practitioner doctorate prepares students for leadership roles in their desired profession by applying existing knowledge to solve problems in their field or community. The practitioner doctorate generally involves rigorous curriculum, culminating in a dissertation or applied project that addresses a particular real-world problem.

Requirements of a practitioner doctorate and many practitioner programs

The requirements of a particular practitioner doctorate will vary according to the institution and the field of study. This makes sense when you consider that practitioner doctorates vary from juris doctorates to doctors of physical therapy.

While there may be similar experiences involved in the course of study, such as residencies or internships, the requirements are unique to the specific degree.

Doctorates at University of Phoenix

While University of Phoenix (UOPX) does not have PhD programs, we do 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.”

Our doctoral programs are:

  • Doctor of Business Administration — Gain the strategic vision and skills to position yourself as a business leader. This program teaches skills such as how to solve organizational problems, design and conduct research studies, introduce 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 — Learn how 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 study 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.
Portrait of Michael Feder


Brian Fairbanks is a freelance writer with a background in SEO content creation and blog article development


This article has been vetted by University of Phoenix's editorial advisory committee. 
Read more about our editorial process.


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