Doctor of Philosophy - History


In the universities of Medieval Europe, study was organised in four faculties: the basic faculty of arts, and the three higher faculties of theology, medicine and law (canonical and civil). All of these faculties awarded intermediate degrees (bachelor of arts, of theology, of laws, of medicine) and final degrees. Initially, the titles of master and doctor were used interchangeably for the final degrees, but by the late Middle Ages the terms Master of Arts and Doctor of Theology/Divinity, Doctor of Law and Doctor of Medicine had become standard in most places (though in the German and Italian universities the term Doctor was used for all faculties). The doctorates in the higher faculties were quite different from the current Ph.D. degree in that they were awarded for advanced scholarship, not original research. No dissertation or original work was required, only lengthy residency requirements and examinations. Besides these degrees there was the licentiate. Originally this was a license to teach, awarded shortly before the award of the master or doctor degree by the diocese in which the university was located, but later it evolved into an academic degree in its own right, in particular in the continental universities. So in theory the full course of studies might lead in succession to the degrees of, e.g., Bachelor of Arts, Licentiate of Arts, Master of Arts, Bachelor of Medicine, Licentiate of Medicine, Doctor of Medicine. There were many exceptions to this however, e.g., most students left the university before becoming masters of arts, whereas regulars (members of monastic orders) could skip the arts faculty entirely.

This situation changed in the early 19th century through the educational reforms in Germany, most strongly embodied in the model of the Humboldt University. The arts faculty, which in Germany was labelled the faculty of philosophy, started demanding contributions to research, attested by a dissertation, for the award of their final degree, which was labelled Doctor of Philosophy (abbreviated as Ph.D.) - originally this was just the German equivalent of the Master of Arts degree. Whereas in the Middle Ages the arts faculty had a set curriculum, based upon the trivium and the quadrivium, by the 19th century it had come to house all the courses of study in subjects now commonly referred to as sciences and humanities.

These reforms proved extremely successful, and fairly quickly the German universities started attracting foreign students, notably from the United States. The American students would go to Germany to obtain a Ph.D. after having studied for a bachelor's degrees at an American college. So influential was this practice that it was imported to the United States, where in 1861 Yale University started granting the Ph.D. degree to younger students who, after having obtained the bachelor's degree, had completed a prescribed course of graduate study and successfully defended a thesis/dissertation containing original research in science or in the humanities. This research degree of doctor of philosophy was the first to be given in North America. The current triple structure of bachelor-master-doctor degrees in one discipline was therefore created on American soil by fusing two different European traditions - the medieval B.A. and M.A. degrees, awarded after a course of study and inherited from the British Universities, and the research based Ph.D. taken over from the early 19th century German educational reforms. Even though in Germany the name of the doctorate was adapted accordingly after the philosophy faculty started being split up - e.g. Dr. rer. nat. for doctorates in the faculty of natural sciences - in most of the Anglo-Saxon world the name of Doctor of Philosophy was retained for research doctorates in all disciplines.

From the United States, the Ph.D. degree spread to Canada in 1900, and then to the United Kingdom in 1917. In particular in the English universities the introduction of the research doctorate largely happened to compete with Germany for American students, but the initiative was first halted by internal criticism. In first instance, in particular at the University of London (from about 1860 onwards), the degrees of Doctor of Science (DSc) and Doctor of Literature (DLit) were introduced, which could be awarded upon presentation of a thesis containing original work. This involved no research training however, and did not have the desired effect of attracting foreign research students. Finally in 1917 the current degree of Ph.D. (or D.Phil.) was introduced, along the lines of the American and German model, and quickly became popular with both British and foreign students. The slightly older degrees of Doctor of Science and Doctor of Literature/Letters still exist in British universities; together with the much older degrees of Doctor of Divinity, Doctor of Music, Doctor of Law/Civil Law and Doctor of Medicine they form the higher doctorates, but apart from honorary degrees they are only infrequently awarded.

It should be noted that in the English (but not the Scottish) universities the Faculty of Arts had become dominant by the early 19th century. Indeed, the higher faculties had largely atrophied, since medical training had shifted to teaching hospitals, the legal training for the common law system was provided by the Inns of Court (with some minor exceptions, see Doctors' Commons), and few students undertook formal study in theology. This is contrast with the situation in the continental European universities at the time, where the preparatory role of the Faculty of Philosophy or Arts was to a great extent taken over by secondary education, as is testified by the ongoing use to this day of the degree of Baccalaureat in France as the qualification obtained after secondary studies. The reforms at the Humboldt University transformed the Faculty of Philosophy or Arts (and its more recent successors such as the Faculty of Sciences) from a lower faculty into one on par with the Faculties of Law and Medicine. A similar evolution happened in many other continental European universities, and at least until reforms in the early 21st century many European countries (e.g. Belgium, Spain and the Scandinavian countries) had in all faculties triple degree structures of bachelor (or candidate) - licentiate - doctor as opposed to bachelor - master - doctor; the meaning of the different degrees varied a lot from country to country however. To this day this is also still the case for the pontifical degrees in theology and canon law: for instance, in Sacred theology the degrees are Bachelor of Sacred Theology (STB), Licentiate of Sacred Theology (STL), and Doctor of Sacred Theology (STD), and in Canon law: Bachelor of Canon Law (JCB), Licentiate of Canon Law(JCL), and Doctor of Canon Law (JCD).

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