The Ph.D. Degree

In most parts of the world, the Doctor of Philosophy (abbreviated Ph.D. for the Latin Philosophiś Doctor, meaning "teacher of philosophy") is the highest academic degree awarded by universities. Generally, the Ph.D. is a prerequisite for an academic career as a professor or researcher. Many recipients also go onto careers in government or in the private sector. In particular, a Ph.D. is strongly recommended for a research career in industry. It may also be very helpful to potential entrepreneurs.

(Besides the Ph.D., many universities also award honoris causa doctorates to individuals who are deemed worthy of special recognition, either for scholarly work or for contributions to society at large).

Historical Notes

The doctorate dates back to the ijazat attadris wa'l-iftta ("license to teach and issue legal opinions") used in the medieval Madrasahs around the 9th century. Initially limited to law, the doctorate was later extended to philosophy in the European universities of the Middle Ages, which at the time grouped all academic disciplines outside the fields of theology, medicine and law under the broad heading of "philosophy". Until the 19th century, in fact, doctoral degrees could only be awarded in theology (Th.D.), law (J.D.), or medicine (M.D.). The Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin began granting the degree to young students who had completed a prescribed course of graduate study and successfully defended a dissertation containing original research in science or humanities. This practice was subsequently adopted by Yale University in 1861. From the U.S., this practice spread to Canada around 1900, and then to the U.K. in 1917, where it displaced the existing Doctor of Philosophy degree.


Although the requirements for the conferral of a Ph.D. vary throughout the world, there is a large degree of commonality. The candidate must submit a thesis or dissertation consisting of an original body of research worthy of publication in a peer-reviewed context. This work must be defended before a panel of examiners appointed by the university. In addition, the candidate may have to complete a number of courses that subsume and exceed those required for a Masterís degree.

For some advice addressed to Ph.D. students, follow this link. (Although formulated in the context of Computer Science, much of it applies in broad generality.)


Applicants to the Ph.D. program should be graduates with an excellent academic record, intellectually curious and creative, and with sufficient proficiency in English. Securing an advisor among the faculty is an essential step, and one that conditions the entire process. The advisor has a key role in determining the research topic, in selecting an appropriate set of courses, and in procuring funding if necessary. (The research themes that I myself work on fall in the areas of communication theory and wireless communications.)

Note that obtaining funding is often a slow process, which may take months and even up to a year. Itís a good idea to start the process as early as possible. Some funding schemes may entail teaching duties, while others do not.

The Doctoral Program at UPF

At UPF, admittance into the Ph.D. program requires that the applicants first obtain a Master degree, either here or elsewhere. Applicants must have completed 300 ECTS (European Credit Transfer and accumulation System) units by the time they become Ph.D. students. In addition, applicants must have secured a research advisor within the faculty. Students are expected to present a thesis proposal at the end of their first year, following which they have 3 more years to complete the thesis. For further details, including information on scholarships, check the Departmentís webpage.

Ph.D. Comics

The experience of being a graduate student and the ups-and-downs of life in academia are masterfully portrayed in Jorge Chamís hilarious comic strips Ph.D. Comics. Several generations of graduate students all over the world have found solace in this hilarious collection, which is by now raking 10 million pageviews per month. Make sure not to miss the most-popular section.