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What’s higher than PhD?

Many people view the PhD as the pinnacle of academic achievement. After all, “Doctor” is the highest degree title one can earn. However, there are actually several degrees and designations that rank above a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). In this article, we’ll explore what’s higher than a PhD, including requirements, time commitments, and career prospects for those who pursue further postdoctoral study.

Postdoctoral Fellowships

After earning a PhD, many graduates complete postdoctoral fellowships or research appointments before seeking a professorship or research position. Postdocs involve 1-3 years of full-time research, usually at a university under the guidance of a principal investigator. During a postdoc, you’ll publish studies, apply for grants, mentor students, and gain valuable experience to boost your CV and publication record before applying for faculty jobs. Postdoctoral positions don’t require any formal coursework and don’t lead to a new degree. Rather, they provide on-the-job training under an expert in your field.

Who Pursues Postdoctoral Fellowships?

Postdocs are common in the sciences, technology, engineering, and math fields. Those with PhDs in the humanities and social sciences sometimes do postdocs as well, though they’re less ubiquitous. Pursuing a postdoc can make you a stronger applicant for research and teaching positions by allowing you to:

  • Publish more papers
  • Specialized in a subfield
  • Improve research skills
  • Build up a bigger professional network
  • Gain more teaching experience

Many recent PhD graduates view postdocs as essential for launching their careers. In competitive fields, those with longer publication records and more research experience have an edge when applying for jobs.


There are no formal requirements to become a postdoctoral fellow beyond having completed a PhD. However, most postdocs will look for candidates with:

  • A PhD in a relevant field (typically earned in the last 5 years)
  • A strong academic background
  • Research experience and publications
  • Strong letters of recommendation

Strong writing and communication skills are also essential to succeed as a postdoc. You’ll need to publish and apply for grants, requiring top-notch writing abilities.

Time Commitment

Most postdoctoral fellowships last 1-3 years. In some countries like the US, there are no limits, and postdocs may last 5+ years. Shorter 6-12 month postdoc terms also exist. The length depends on your research goals and the funding available.

Postdocs require full-time work, often including long hours in the lab, fieldwork, publishing, conferences, and mentoring students. It’s common for postdocs to work 50 hours per week or more dedicated to research.


The Habilitation or “Habilitationsschrift” is a higher qualification required in order to apply for professorships in certain European countries like Germany and Austria. The Habilitation is considered a prerequisite for academic teaching careers.


The Habilitation requires either a doctorate/PhD plus additional original research, or a substantial body of publications beyond the doctoral dissertation. Specific criteria vary by country and institution but generally include:

  • Doctoral degree
  • Several years of teaching experience
  • Extensive postdoctoral research and publications, such as a second dissertation, monograph, book, or series of high-impact papers
  • Public lecture and defense of your research

In Germany, the process takes about 5-6 years after earning a PhD. Guidelines are set by individual universities within each state.

Time Commitment

Pursuing the Habilitation requires at least several years of intensive research and writing beyond the PhD. Candidates must produce a major body of advanced scholarly work.

After submitting a Habilitation thesis, researchers must lecture on their work and defend it in a rigorous oral exam. This process requires thorough preparation and command of your research area.

Higher Doctoral Degrees

In some countries, it’s possible to pursue doctoral degrees beyond the PhD, such as the Higher Doctorate in the UK, Ireland, and some Commonwealth countries. Higher Doctorates recognize substantial scholarly contributions.


Higher Doctorate requirements may include:

  • A PhD plus an extensive body of world-class published work (e.g. highly cited books, seminal research papers, etc.)
  • Typically 7-15 years of research experience
  • Significant contributions to your field over many years
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Defense/viva of your work

You must prove you’re an expert who has made an exceptional impact through your scholarship. Contributions are assessed by a review committee.

Time Commitment

Earning a Higher Doctorate is a long-term project, requiring at least 7-15 years researching and publishing scholarly work beyond the PhD. You must produce numerous high-quality publications that advance your field over an extended period of time.

Named Professorships

In the United States, the highest honor for a professor is to be appointed to a named or endowed chair. These special professorships are tied to funding provided by an external donor. They represent the pinnacle of scholarly achievement.


Typical criteria for named professorships include:

  • A PhD
  • 10+ years of teaching/research experience
  • An extensive, high-impact publication record
  • Prestigious awards and honors
  • Excellence in teaching
  • National/international reputation

The most qualified full professors are chosen through a selective process. You must demonstrate eminence in your field through your work.

Time Commitment

Becoming a named professor represents the culmination of decades of work. Most candidates have 15-25+ years of experience along with a steady record of influential publications when appointed.


While the PhD represents the pinnacle for many, some choose to pursue higher qualifications. Postdocs offer research experience, while Habilitations and Higher Doctorates recognize extensive scholarship over many years. In the US, being appointed to a named professorship represents the highest achievement for academics. All of these require going substantially above and beyond a PhD.