What Is a Doctoral Degree?

| TBS Staff

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Doctoral degrees are advanced graduate or professional degrees that demonstrate mastery in a particular subject area.

Doctoral degrees are terminal degrees, meaning they're the highest possible degrees available in their field. Doctorates can be both applied or research-based degrees and they usually attract learners who already hold master's degrees.

A doctor of philosophy degree, or Ph.D., emphasizes research. Students in Ph.D. programs spend most of their time conducting research projects and studies. On the other hand, applied doctorates — like a juris doctor or doctor of pharmacy — emphasize practical applications of skills and knowledge. These degrees often also include a research component.

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Earning a doctoral degree can be a pathway to career advancement, increased salary potential, and leadership credentials. Both Ph.D. and applied doctorate programs prepare learners to serve as experts in their specific fields.

Types of Doctoral Degrees

There are two types of doctoral degrees: research-oriented degrees, like a Ph.D., and applied degrees, like a doctor of education. Less common applied doctorates include the following:

  • Doctor of chiropractics
  • Doctor of optometry
  • Doctor of osteopathic medicine
  • Doctor of podiatric medicine
  • Doctor of veterinary medicine

Although some fields have a master's as a terminal degree, most fields offer doctorates. Many students choose to pursue a doctorate to narrow their academic focus and build on their skills and knowledge in their field.

Some master's degrees prepare graduates to teach at the postsecondary level, but universities often prefer applicants with doctorates. Most tenure-track professorships require a doctorate.

Read on to learn about the most common doctoral degrees.

Doctor of Business Administration (DBA)

A DBA builds on the skills taught during MBA programs. With more graduates earning MBAs, earning a DBA can set candidates apart in the job market and prepare them for more advanced roles.

DBA programs typically require around 60 credits. Full-time students can complete these programs in 3-4 years. A DBA prepares graduates for roles as chief executives and senior business analysts.

Doctor of Education (Ed.D.)

An Ed.D. degree differs from a Ph.D. in education by emphasizing practitioner and leadership-based roles in teaching. Ed.D. programs best serve practicing teachers who want to move up in leadership in their organizations, whereas Ph.D. graduates typically pursue academic or research careers.

This professional, practice-based degree generally requires around 60 credits. Most students graduate in 3-4 years. Graduates are qualified for leadership roles in schools and nonprofit organizations.

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Ph.D. programs emphasize research and scholarship in a specific field. These degrees generally prepare graduates to remain in higher education and academia, contributing knowledge back to their fields.

Program length can vary greatly for Ph.D. degrees, but most students graduate in about five years. Graduates can pursue careers in academia, the nonprofit sector, business, and human services.

Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.)

A Psy.D. degree best suits students interested in the practice of psychology and working with patients rather than research and scholarship in the field. Like a Ph.D. in psychology, the Psy.D. prepares graduates for professional licensure as psychologists.

Psy.D. programs take 4-6 years, depending on each program's internship requirements and each student's prior academic history. Graduates often provide clinical psychological services to patients.

Doctor of Engineering Science (Eng.Sc.D.)

An Eng.Sc.D. degree emphasizes practice in engineering, while a Ph.D. in engineering focuses more on research, theory, and scholarship in the field. Students who pursue an Eng.Sc.D. often already have an established career in the field.

This degree takes around three years to complete, and many programs offer online options. The program generally culminates in a portfolio of engineering work rather than a dissertation.

Doctor of Jurisprudence (JD)

These degrees offer a broad, foundational knowledge of the law, preparing graduates to take the bar exam and practice as lawyers.

Prospective lawyers generally earn a JD to practice law, as practicing with a master's is rare. Graduates work as lawyers in all kinds of specialties, including business, finance, compliance, and criminal justice.

Doctor of Medicine (MD)

An MD prepares graduates to work as licensed physicians. These programs take around three years; however, following the degree, graduates must complete a residency program that may take an additional 3-5 years.

Doctors can specialize in fields like oncology, primary care, pediatrics, and emergency medicine. Some may choose to work at teaching hospitals, working with residents.

Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm.D.)

Students must earn a Pharm.D. degree to take the required licensure exam for pharmacists. Most learners complete this degree in four years.

Graduates can find work in clinical pharmacy practice, hospital pharmacies, and the pharmaceutical industry. Some graduates may choose to also earn a Ph.D. in pharmacy, which allows them to contribute to research in the field.

Admission Requirements

Admission requirements for doctoral programs vary by field. However, many programs have similar requirements, including the following:

  • Statement of Purpose: Applicants must outline their professional and academic goals and explain how the program will help them achieve those goals.
  • Curriculum Vitae: A CV is a resume for academic achievements, including degrees and scholarly publications.
  • Letters of Recommendation: Most doctoral programs require at least three letters from professional references who can speak to an applicant's academic history and previous work in the field.

Applicants must demonstrate a strong academic history, including a high GPA and competitive scores on relevant standardized tests like the GRE, LSAT, or MAT. Programs may also require supplementary materials, like a formal interview or course prerequisites.

Degree Requirements

Like admission requirements, doctoral degree requirements vary from program to program. Each degree requires specific coursework, and some applied professional degrees, like the Ed.D. and MD, also require fieldwork, internships, or residencies.

Most doctoral programs require around 60 credits, but this number can vary greatly. Ph.D. programs often require more academic credits than applied professional degrees, as Ph.D. programs emphasize scholarship and research.

Doctoral students often must complete some form of culminating project, such as a dissertation or comprehensive examination. In most cases, students must pass comprehensive examinations prior to completing their dissertations.

Professional doctoral degrees may not require a dissertation. Instead, they may culminate in practice-based internships or residencies related to their specific fields. Some doctoral programs may require students to complete internships or assistantships, allowing students to gain professional experience prior to graduation.

Cost of a Doctoral Degree

Several factors can influence the overall cost of a doctoral degree.

  • Type and Location of School: Public schools usually cost less than private institutions. Similarly, schools in expensive cities may cost more than schools in more affordable areas, especially when students factor in their cost of living expenses during the program.
  • Degree Field: Some fields offer more financial assistance to students in the form of assistantships and fellowships. Ph.D. programs often provide financial assistance in exchange for work within the academic department, including research and teaching.
  • Delivery Method: Online programs may provide a more cost-effective option for earning a doctoral degree. However, on-campus programs may offer more financial assistance.

Learn more about financial aid options here.

Online Doctoral Degree Programs

Online doctoral programs offer a flexible pathway to earning a degree. Students who wish to continue working full time while enrolled often prefer online programs. Some online programs offer lower tuition rates and allow students to complete coursework at an accelerated rate.

Some doctoral degrees, like MDs, cannot take place online due to their intensive or clinical natures. Be sure to research requirements for your particular field of interest before enrolling in a program.

How to Choose an Online Doctoral Degree?

When researching online doctoral degrees, students should consider several factors. For example, some programs may require in-person elements, and students with other scheduled obligations may want to avoid online programs that use synchronous courses.

Additionally, the cost of a program is usually an important decision-making factor. Learners should select a program that they can afford.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are Doctoral Degrees Hard?

Doctoral degrees require focus, effort, and dedication to learning. Because doctorates are the most advanced degree available, earning a doctorate can be especially challenging, and it can take a number of years to complete.

How Long Does It Take to Earn a Doctoral Degree?

Generally, students can complete doctorates in 4-6 years. However, completion times depend on several factors, like the amount of research and writing necessary for thesis completion, and some students take up to eight years to finish.

Is a Doctoral Degree Worth It?

Many doctoral graduates believe their degrees will pay off in the long run and are happy they chose to pursue it, though individual experiences can vary.

Can You Get a Doctoral Degree Online?

Yes. Many schools offer online doctoral degrees, though specific offerings vary by field. Applied doctorates may have in-person requirements, like internships or field work, in addition to online coursework.

Is an Online Doctoral Degree Worth It?

Depending on your career goals, yes. Earning a doctorate online offers a flexible pathway to advancing your career and obtaining the highest academic credential available. However, if you aren't interested in an academic or executive career, it may not be worth it for you.

What Can You Do With a Doctoral Degree?

This depends on your field and which degree you earn; however, doctoral degrees are usually the highest academic credentials in a given field, which means doctorate holders can access career opportunities in advanced roles.

What does Ph.D stand for?

Doctor of Philosophy.

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