~by Amina Abdullah-Winstead, PhD
While there are universities that discourage students from using any title before they graduate, others allow students to classify themselves as PhD students, learners, or candidates. A few schools have policies that state explicitly the use of PhD in any form prior to the actual conferment of your degree is a violation of the university code of conduct. This type of policy does not follow the developmental progress that students achieve as they complete the academic milestones associated with their program. Some schools consider students as PhD learners throughout the entire process, i.e., course completion, comprehensive exam, and the dissertation.
The accepted use of PhD student and learner is in reference to students who are currently enrolled in a PhD program and are either taking classes or working on completing other requirements such as their residencies. Once a student successfully passes the comprehensive exam or other qualifying assessment, they become a PhD candidate (PhD c.). This symbolizes that they now qualify to conduct original research by participating in the dissertation process. It should be noted that there are some exceptions to the rule where students start their dissertation while still completing course work.
A more common term that has developed over the years for students who find themselves in the same situation as a PhD c. is the all but dissertation or PhD (ABD). While the origins of this term are unknown, the term is commonly used by employers in both academia and corporate settings when seeking out qualified candidates as well as by students wishing to distinguish themselves during the application process.
Upon completing all the requirements of the dissertation and defending it in the presence of the dissertation committee, students receive official recognition of their status as a PhD or D. Phil (Doctor of Philosophy). This is when graduates can also add the title of Doctor (Dr.) as a prefix to their name. The dissertation process is challenging enough without having this additional element to decipher. Since most programs include guidelines for the dissertation process, which involves writing four to five chapters consisting of an introduction, literature review, method, results, and conclusions, they should also provide a guide on the proper suffix throughout the process. It would benefit academia and students to have a universal standard to designate appropriate title(s) at various stages of the process.