I see researchers working on their PhD calling themselves PhD Candidates, other call themselves PhD students. What's the difference between a PhD Candidate and a PhD Student?

According to two posters on the WordReferences forums:

This terms vary from university to university, usually a PhD student is granted the candidate status after completion of a “comprehensive examination”, which occurs sometime after the first year.


Here in the U.S., a “Ph.D. Candidate” is a student who has completed all of the academic requirements for their degree, except their dissertation.

So this works in the USA and Canada I presume, because they have structured PhD programs where you attend courses as part of your PhD. Unlike most of the universities in Europe where a PhD student starts off directly with his/her PhD thesis. (Europe does have structured programs as well, but they are not as widely spread yet).

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    Your question answers itself. – Dave Clarke Jul 5 '13 at 13:38
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    This is also extremely university-dependent. In the U.S. some universities have a definition of Ph.D. candidacy along the lines described in the question, but some do not. – Anonymous Mathematician Jul 5 '13 at 14:21
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    Every department is different. – JeffE Jul 5 '13 at 14:56
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    @DaveClarke no it doesn't answer itself. There are other countries than the US, and they do things differently. – smci Feb 22 '15 at 8:29
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    @smci: My comment was from over a year and a half ago. Let it go. – Dave Clarke Feb 23 '15 at 9:06

11 Answers 11


In some countries (e.g. The Netherlands where I obtained my PhD degree) you are not considered a student but a paid employee (staff) with the university. To discern between these, people sometimes translate their status to English using term "PhD candidate". Btw, this has nothing to do with the length of the program or your progress.

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    It is also good to note that the salary a Dutch PhD receives is competitive with entry level jobs at say a consultancy or programming company, assuming of course there is funding to begin with. – Paul Hiemstra Jul 10 '13 at 12:05
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    @PaulHiemstra broadly speaking :) I would say there is at least a 500 euro gap. Especially after four years, the PhD salary is considerably below what a programmer or consultant with 4 years experience could expect. It's the same general range, but I wouldn't call it competitive. – Peter May 1 '14 at 14:54
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    @Peter The pay and working conditions are certainly near the top of the scale when you compare it to what PhD students in other countries get. – Moriarty May 1 '14 at 16:20
  • @Peter, here in Brazil this gap varies a lot. A trainee in a small company usually makes less than a PhD student\candidate. So small companies rarely get the brightest people. OTOH, big companies easily pay entry salaries equivalent to the double of what a PhD candidate makes (triple if the applicant is a good interviewer). And excluding the IT field, the extra income from 4 years of experience is negligible. So it all depends of vacancies on the big companies of your city. – Lucas Soares Oct 30 '14 at 15:10
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    There is also a political component to it, because there are some politicians who want to change the status of PhD candidates from being an employee to being a receiver of a grant. Therefore, when I was still doing my PhD, I was emphasizing a lot that I was not a student, and I tell that to the current PhD candidates as well. – damian Aug 31 '15 at 15:14

To expand on what JeffE said – "Every department is different.", here's an example from my university (a top UC school):

The math department is pretty rigorous and the "candidacy exam" is mostly a blackboard and chalk routine. They throw a bunch of stuff at you, poke holes in your proposal, make you sweat epsilons and deltas from all your pores before declaring you a "candidate".

The life/physical sciences departments require you to have a 20-30 page written proposal + a presentation on it + preliminary results (usually at least 1 journal paper) and your committee members grill you on the proposal.

In ECE/CS (applied, not theoretical), the labs/PIs are generally quite rigorous themselves and by the time a student is ready to take the candidacy exam, they've had at least 2 first author publications and 3-4 conference publications. At this point, their course is pretty set and the committee members don't generally feel like they need to say/do much (unless if there are serious flaws hitherto unnoticed). As such, the candidacy exam is more of a formality — no 30 page proposals (who reads them anyway?); just a presentation on the papers already published + future work remaining.

The bottom line from all this is — there are no standard rules/definitions/process involved in becoming a "PhD candidate". All it usually means is that "This person has shown an understanding of the fundamental concepts (on the day of testing), their proposal/work done is original and has potential and they've completed all course work/other requirements except for their thesis".

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In Australia, (at least at my university), you start off as a 'Provisional Candidate'.

Then you complete a Dissertation Proposal - where you present a 20 or so page preliminary report and present it as a seminar to a group of peers - once passed, you receive a 'Confirmation of Candidature' then you proceed to complete the thesis as a 'Confirmed Candidate'.

This is usually done within the first 1-2 years of the PhD course.

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    "Provisonal candidate"? I'd have preferred "Candidate candidate" – Federico Poloni Jul 5 '13 at 16:00
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    @FedericoPoloni well, that is what we're called before the Dissertation Proposal. – user7130 Jul 5 '13 at 21:16
  • This is very similar to my experience in Switzerland. – DarioP Jun 22 '15 at 8:33

What's the difference between a PhD Candidate and a PhD Student?

To someone outside your department, there is very little difference since people (i.e., prospective employers) just don't care about the terms. they want to know what you have accomplished so far.

To someone in a finite duration PhD (e.g., a "typical" 3-year UK PhD program), there is very little difference. It is simpler to just list your year.

To someone in a indeterminate length PhD (e.g., a "typical" US PhD program), it provides a nice milestone.

As other have said, the requirements to achieve candidacy vary widely between countries, universities, and even departments. That said, I think it is nearly universal (and that is going out on a huge limb in academia) that candidacy implies that the next "evaluation" will be on your thesis and apart from time limits or extraordinary circumstances that as long as you are willing to pay your tuition and fees the department will let you be a PhD Candidate.

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At my institution (in the U.S.A.), you are considered a PhD student until you pass your qualifying exams. After passing, you are considered a PhD candidate.

The qualifying exam is usually taken around 2 years in the program, or after you have completed any required or recommended coursework. It consists of a written exam, which can be one or more questions from each of your committee members. The written exam at my institution is left up to the committee members discretion (the major adviser in reality), it can be open or closed book, very detailed, or more theoretical, 24 hour time period or maybe 1 month, even proctored by the committee member. The oral examination can also be anything. Committee members can ask very detailed questions or more theoretical questions. Preparing for the oral exam can be difficult, especially if you have members from other departments and backgrounds. For example, I have a Soil Scientist, Biologist, Fire Ecologist, Landscape Modeler, and Remote Sensing Specialist on my committee. They all asked very different question specific to their fields.

Three of my written exams consisted of about 8 questions and I was given 8 hours to complete. It was open book and not proctored. I took the exam from home. One exam was 12 questions and I was given a month (yes I sweated for a month!). They all asked very broad questions for the written exam to figure out which areas I had a solid understanding in, and which areas I needed improvement. The oral exam was basically 4 PhD's questioning (read interrogating!) me. They started with a few easy questions, but then asked more difficult questions from the areas I was not as knowledgeable in.

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I think Jaap's reply is pretty much spot on, i.e. paid staff (as in the Netherlands, Germany...) vs. student status (as in the UK, for example).

Personally, I prefer "PhD candidate" because people here are massively prejudiced against "students" (young, irresponsible, constantly partying...) despite the fact that I'm officially registered as a student rather than staff.

Just to make it clear that people are not obliged to use one thing or the other.

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  • Do you have qualifying exams? – Derelict May 1 '14 at 17:14

It can be different depend on region, country, university or even department.

In my department in a university in Taiwan, we need to finish all required credit course and submit one international journal as milestone to be qualified as PhD Candidate.

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At the university I attended in the UK, one was considered to be on provisional status until passing the viva, which was not only an oral "interview" but also included a thorough review of all research completed at that point, a 20,000 word critical paper, and a detailed thesis plan. After that point, the successful student was advanced to candidacy, while the unsuccessful student was awarded an M.Phil.and dismissed from the program. This procedure was standardized throughout the university graduate school regardless of department. For candidates, the only obstacle left was the defense of the thesis.

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PhD students should complete all the coursework before becoming PhD Candidate. After completing all the coursework, PhD students have to pass the comprehensive written exam (and comprehensive oral exam) to become PhD Candidate. The amount of rigor of comprehensive exam depends on department to department. Some department requires that you pass the comprehensive exam on all the four (or five) seminar areas plus the methods that you have taken. Others require that you declare your major area and pass the comprehensive area on only that major area plus the methods. Department may also require you to come up with a framework for your dissertation topic before they grant you the candidacy status. Again, the variation exists between department in how they grant the candidacy. Once your status change from PhD Student to PhD Candidate, you are no longer required to take courseworks. However, you should be enrolled in the pre-dissertation and dissertation hours (normally 24 hrs; 6 hours per semester to maintain full-time status) to continue your dissertation. You work with your dissertation chair and committee after comprehensive exam. PhD candidate are also called Doctoral candidate, and ABD - All But Dissertation.

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    PhD students should complete all the coursework before becoming PhD Candidate - this is not generally true (i.e., not in all fields/all departments). – ff524 Aug 18 '14 at 13:36
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    I downvoted this for being specific to a very limited area without specifying that area or even mentioning this fact. – Tobias Kildetoft Aug 18 '14 at 15:19

When you see PhD CANDIDATE think he/she is a CANDIDATE for a job in their field.

Versus PhD student they are still a student learning their field of study.

In Texas public University you are a candidate when you pass all of your doctoral exams. Usually at this point you have already completed all of your course work. You are wrapping up your research projects, writing papers to be published, writing dissertation and looking for a job.

-Nick, Chemistry PhD candidate

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I am surprised at this controversy and answers. When someone applies for a status, this person is called a candidate. If you apply for job, you may be called a job candidate. When you apply for the studentship for any PhD program, you can be called PhD candidate. Candidacy means intention of getting selected. We can have Presidency candidate, job candidate and so on. If a person applies for admission for post graduate program, the person will be called PG candidate. Any program PG or UG or PhD will have so many candidates, but all are not selected. Once selected the status becomes Student. Many universities still force PhD students to learn many aspects of PhD. After a program finishes and the student successfully passes the requirements or exams, the student gets a degree of PhD/PG/Graduation.

So the three stages for a PhD aspirant would be;

  1. to get selected as a PhD candidate (some do not qualify this stage also as they do not meet the requirements of candidature, then
  2. to get selected as a PhD student and, lastly,
  3. to pass the requirements, stages and exam (viva) and be come PhD degree holder so that you can write PhD as a title in your name.
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    This is so different than other answers/countries/departments - perhaps you could mention what area (geographic or otherwise) this applies to? – BrianH May 1 '14 at 12:43
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    Different places have different rules. In Germany, you don't "apply" until you defend. – aeismail May 1 '14 at 12:56
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    A PhD candidate is a candidate for the status of "earned the PhD," not a candidate for "admission to PhD program" (in every usage I'm aware of) – ff524 May 1 '14 at 13:03
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    At my institution, students applying to a program or PhD position are referred to as prospective students, or prospectives. – Derelict May 1 '14 at 16:16

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