PhD Candidate Vs Student: Explaining the Difference

When looking to finish a doctorate, you will often come across 2 similar terms: “PhD candidate” and “PhD student.” To many people, these terms represent the same thing. However, academics and those who have passed through a doctorate program understand that there is a major difference between both terms.

As a fresh or aspiring PhD student, you must understand the difference between a doctoral student and a doctoral candidate. This article will seek to explain the PhD candidate meaning and explore the definitions of what it means to be a candidate and a student.

PhD student vs candidate

A PhD student is currently enrolled in a PhD program. The learning style for these students is hybrid, meaning that a student can learn either online, on-site, or both. Students who are enrolled in this type of program are often required to complete certain course credit loads and pass exams. The program involves a ton of research, dissertation work, academic writing, and defense.

A PhD candidate, on the other hand, is someone who has done all but completed and submitted a dissertation. It is the transition and progression phase from studentship to candidateship. This title or tag is earned when a student completes all coursework and passes all examinations required by the university. Having explained this, the highlight of their variance lies in the completion of the required coursework.

Distinctions between a PhD candidate vs PhD student

To better understand the differences between these two groups of people, their variances will be highlighted and explained below.

  • Structure

A common question often asked is: do PhD students take classes? The obvious answer to this is yes, they do. The structure of assignments, deadlines and coursework differs for a PhD student and a candidate. There is a lack of structure for a PhD candidate. You are free from following deadlines or syllabi. The progress of your dissertation is completely at your pace. Whereas, as a PhD student, you are guided by deadlines and an academic structure that you must meet to complete your doctoral program. 

  • Academic writing

The amount of academic writing required of you as a PhD candidate would be far greater than that required of you as a student. Remember that your dissertation alone carries the bulk of your candidateship, and this consists of about three hundred pages’ worth of research work.

  • Academic circle

Your academic circle reduces when you become a PhD candidate. The number of people you will need to academically communicate with will also decrease. The reason for this is that as a student, you must meet all of your professors’, departments, colleges, and advisors’ requirements. But, as a candidate, your academic circle revolves around your committee.

  • Agency

As a candidate, you have the freedom to decide your topic, theme, and research style. It is a time for you to implement and showcase the practical and theoretical processes that you learned as a student. A PhD student does not have this privilege; instead, all topics are chosen by the professor.

  • Support

A candidate does not receive as much support as is required, although so much more is expected of them. For instance, a student would be given tasks to work on with the objective in mind. But a candidate would be left to independently find an objective and work towards it. 

  • Title

A PhD candidate can put the PhD title before their names, but a student cannot. However, this practice is not entirely encouraged as it might mislead the public into thinking you already have a doctorate degree.  


While the above clearly differentiates between a PhD student and a PhD candidate, there is a minor confusion between a researcher, candidate, and a student in doctoral programs. While the terms PhD candidate and PhD student differ, a doctoral researcher is a term used to describe “all” students who are pursuing PhD degree in any university.

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