I’m writing this in the hope that it can serve as a quick walkthrough on what to expect if you, or someone you know, is heading down the path of getting a doctorate in a research-heavy field.
Accompanying this progression through the ranks will almost inevitably be moves across the country or the world, which is no small thing. Also, remember that research PhDs (but rarely master's students) usually have their schooling paid for and are given a stipend throughout school.
The first step, after getting a bachelor’s degree, is graduate school. There are two general options for this, master’s and doctoral level.
Master’s: A lot of people in the sciences view a master’s degree as a stepping stone on the way to a PhD, but it is becoming more common for people to stop their education here and start making money, usually as an academic lab technician or in industry.
Doctoral: This is usually a PhD, but it might be other letters like DSci. Research PhDs can take anywhere from 3-7 or more years to complete, although every graduate school will tell you that their students average 5.5 years to completion, which is more or less the national average. There are, generally speaking, two phases of doctoral education: student and candidate.
A doctoral student is someone in the first two or three years of graduate study. At a certain point all students will take qualifying exams, which are also known as “quals,” “comps” or “prelims,” short for qualifying, comprehensive, and preliminary exams, respectively. These exams are usually very long and rigorous, with both a written and oral component which is tailored to individual student by a committee that also administers the exam. I read somewhere that the purpose of the exam is to make sure that the student’s knowledge fails at a sufficient level. In some programs, a master’s degree is awarded around the time of qualifying exams.
After all this, the student is now a candidate, which means that the student is now working on his or her dissertation research. This is usually very similar to the research that was being performed by the student for the previous two or three years but it also may have a bit of independence or break off in a new direction. At the end of graduate school, the student will have to have a signed dissertation, and it is also common to defend the dissertation to the dissertation committee in a format very similar to the oral part of quals.
Here’s where most people think of the “career” part starting. In reality, most students have been working contacts and lining up positions for a year or more before being awarded their PhD. Some people are even in faculty positions before they are awarded their doctoral degree, although that is becoming more and more rare.
For research PhDs, there are largely three options at this point: Postdoctoral research fellowship, industry, or faculty position. Postdocs are far and away the most common next-step, especially in biomedicine and life sciences, but there are also sometimes opportunities to start a faculty position right away, which is more common in psychology. Industry is another option, which usually pays a lot more. I don’t know much about industry careers, so I won’t discuss them any further.
Postdocs: These are usually 1-4 years per appointment and most people do 1-3 appointments before they land a faculty position. This is a very important part of a scientist’s career, as she is establishing herself as independent from her PhD advisor, and gaining new technical skills. Most people expect a new faculty member’s lab to continue the research from her last postdoc lab, rather than the lab where she did her PhD work.
Faculty: There are several different rungs of faculty spots. The general division is between tenure track and non-tenure track. You can usually tell the difference by the faculty member’s title. Non-tenured faculty are typically lecturers, adjunct or research professors. The tenure track progression is usually denoted by assistant professor (tenure track, but not tenured), then associate professor (tenured, half-way), and full professor which might also just be professor.
That’s it! There are a million caveats and things to add to this, but hopefully it’ll do as rough scaffolding.