Ph.D. Candidate vs. Ph.D. Student: Key Differences

Ph.D. Candidate vs. Ph.D. Student: Key Differences

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Have you finished your master’s degree? 

Do you plan on reaching the next and final level?

If you do, then you need to know the difference between a Ph.D. candidate and a Ph.D. student. 

What is a Ph.D. student?

When you enroll in any Ph.D. program at any university, you are considered a Ph.D. student. 

Regardless of the program, as long as you are in that field of study to learn and conduct your original research, you are a Ph.D. student. 

What is a Ph.D. candidate?

Ph.D. candidates are still technically Ph.D. students. 

However, universities differ them from one another due to one technical aspect — Ph.D. candidates have already completed their requirements except for their thesis.

Now, every program has a different set of requirements. 

The majority, however, considers students as candidates once they pass the qualifying exams.

These exams are intensive and can take from a few days to an entire week.

The qualifying exams usually take place in the middle of the program.

Once the student passes this qualifying exam and only needs to defend his/her dissertation, he/she is a candidate.

The key difference between a Ph.D. candidate and a Ph.D. student

Apart from passing the qualification exams or any special requirements, a Ph.D. candidate is more knowledgeable in his research area and methods.

The first year of any Ph.D. program is more about finding the right topic and choosing your field of research. 

After that, it’s all about conducting the research and gathering results to produce defendable data. 

The last part is putting everything together (writing your thesis) and defending your work. 

Somewhere between the second and third part is where students become candidates. 

In general, candidates are more adept in terms of the overall process and are on the verge of completing their thesis or just lack a defense via viva voce oral exam.

Why is there a need to differentiate a Ph.D. candidate from a Ph.D. student?

You can think of Ph.D. candidates as graduates from all the written scrutinies of formal education. 

Once they’re done with the exams and all the special requirements, the university will no longer charge them tuition fees. 

However, not all universities are made equal. 

Some will not require students to pay their tuition fees to continue their research, while some will only give a discount. 

So what do Ph.D. candidates do?

In most universities, candidates just continue to do their research.

Other than that, universities allow most candidates to teach students while continuing their work. 

Since candidates are like graduates, they now have more time as there is no longer a need to keep their GPA up nor do they have to take any more courses. 

Some universities, especially elite ones, actually pay candidates to continue their research even if they do not teach in the university. 

Candidates are paid and are even funded to do their research while students are not.

That is why educational institutions differentiate the two.


Ph.D. students and candidates are quite alike. 

They both conduct research and are people of science.

The differences are that candidates have fulfilled all the university’s requirements and that they only need to complete and defend their thesis.

Students, on the other hand, still need to take courses, get their research approved, take exams, and get complete any requirements set by their Ph.D. program.