What Is a Doctorate Degree? Key Facts on the Top University Credential
By Laura Slauson
| Last Updated October 28, 2020
You may know that a doctorate degree represents a high level of post-secondary education. But maybe you're unclear on the different types of doctorates and how they lead to certain kinds of careers. So, what is a doctorate degree? The short answer is that it's the most advanced type of university degree.
However, that brief answer doesn't account for the wide variety of doctorate degrees and ways to earn them. Plus, because this level of education is highly specialized, the terms used to describe doctorate degrees are often confusing. So you're not alone if you've ever wondered, "Can a person with a doctorate practice medicine?" or "Are a PhD and a doctorate the same thing?"
This article will help you understand the different types of doctorate degrees (also called doctoral degrees). You will learn what it takes to earn one and how many years of study are required. Plus, you'll read about the potential opportunities and pay increases associated with this level of education.
What Is a Doctoral Degree?
Here's a typical doctoral degree definition: the highest academic rank awarded by a university or other post-secondary institution. But in order to fully understand the term, you need to know this important fact: The origin of the word "doctor" has nothing to do with medicine. It's actually from the Latin word "docere," which means "to teach." So in medieval Europe, a doctorate was essentially a license to teach.
Over time, the meaning of the word has evolved. In today's world, people who have doctorates don't always teach, but they are still considered authorities in their fields.
But "doctor" has also become interchangeable with the word "physician" when referring to medical doctors. That can lead to confusion. So, to clarify, having a doctorate means that you are a doctor, but not necessarily a physician or medical doctor. (The degree you need to be a medical doctor is a professional doctorate degree specifically in medicine.)
What Are the Different Types of Doctorates?
The two main types of doctoral degrees are:
- Research doctorates
- Professional doctorates (also called applied doctorates or professional degrees)
A research doctorate is a graduate degree in an academic subject. Because it's a graduate degree, you generally need to earn a bachelor's degree first. Many programs also require you to have completed a master's degree. (About 70 percent of PhD recipients also have master's degrees, according to a report titled 2017 Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities.)
Not surprisingly, getting into a doctoral program can be more competitive than getting into a master's or bachelor's program. In fact, one study found that about 20 percent of doctoral program applicants are accepted.
A big reason why many research doctorate programs are so selective is that this level of study requires a lot of self-discipline. The emphasis in these programs is on performing in-depth, independent research that adds to the body of knowledge in your area of expertise. So students need to be self-motivated and curious.
The most common type of research doctorate is the PhD degree. PhD is short for Doctor of Philosophy. But contrary to what the name implies, a PhD can be earned in almost any academic subject—not just philosophy. (Again, it's helpful to consider a word's origins. The word "philosophy" originates from the ancient Greek "philosophia," meaning "lover of knowledge.")
So, is a PhD a doctorate degree? The answer is yes. But many people ask this question because they wonder about the specific distinction between a doctorate vs. a PhD. Here's what you need to know: The difference between a PhD and a doctorate degree is that a PhD is a type of doctorate. However, the 2017 report on doctorate recipients found that PhDs constitute the vast majority (about 98 percent) of research doctorates. So PhD recipients are called doctors because they have earned doctorate degrees.
But opinions are divided on whether PhD graduates should call themselves doctors outside of academic environments. For example, some people feel that it's too easy to confuse a PhD grad in the humanities with a medical doctor. Others feel that PhD holders have earned the right to the title. Ultimately, whether you call yourself a doctor after earning a PhD is a personal decision.
The second most common research doctorate is the Doctor of Education (EdD). But it's also possible to get a PhD in education. In general, the difference between an EdD and a PhD in education is that a PhD is geared toward educational theory and research, whereas an EdD is geared toward learning how to apply practical knowledge in the classroom.
In addition to PhDs and EdDs, you can earn other types of research doctoral degrees. Here are some examples:
- Doctor of Music (DM)
- Doctor of Information Technology (DIT)
- Doctor of Arts (DA)
- Doctor of Public Health (DPH or DrPH)
- Doctor of Chemistry (DChem)
- Doctor of Business Administration (DBA)
- Doctor of Physical Education (DPE)
- Doctor of Criminal Justice (DCJ)
- Doctor of Theology (DTh or ThD)
- Doctor of Canon Law (JCD or DCL)
- Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA)
- Doctor of Design (DDes)
- Doctor of Juridical Science (JSD or SJD)
- Doctor of Nursing Science (DNS or DNSc)
- Doctor of Public Administration (DPA)
- Doctor of Science (DSc or ScD)
- Doctor of Social Work (DSW)
- Doctor of Fine Arts (DFA)
- Doctor of Music Education (DME)
- Doctor of Modern Languages (DML)
- Doctor of Engineering (DEng)
As the name implies, a professional doctorate is more career-oriented than a research doctorate and prepares you to enter a specific profession.
Professional doctorates are also graduate degrees, so you usually need a bachelor's degree before starting a program. (A master's degree isn't typically required.) But some programs also consider your professional and life experiences when making admissions decisions. So even though doctorate programs are competitive, don't assume you can't earn a professional doctorate if you don't have a good academic background.
Even if a bachelor's degree is required, these programs lead to a professional degree in the subject being studied. In fact, most students' bachelor's degrees are in a different subject area. For example, after completing a bachelor's degree in biology, a student could apply for a Doctor of Medicine (MD) program.
In addition to the MD, here are some other examples of professional doctoral degrees:
- Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT)
- Doctor of Occupational Therapy (DOT)
- Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM)
- Doctor of Jurisprudence or Juris Doctor (JD)
- Doctor of Chiropractic (DC or DCM)
- Doctor of Psychology (PsyD)
- Doctor of Audiology (AuD)
- Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD)
- Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD)
- Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)
- Doctor of Optometry (OD)
- Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO)
As with research doctorates, whether graduates of professional doctoral programs (other than medicine) should call themselves doctors is a somewhat controversial topic.
Some people feel that medical patients might be confused if people who are not physicians call themselves doctors. In fact, a few states forbid non-physician healthcare professionals such as pharmacists from calling themselves doctors. But other people argue that such practitioners have earned the right to the title, just like medical doctors, and that it accurately reflects their responsibilities and training.
Yet, professionals in other fields often have different customs. For instance, even though someone with a law degree can be called a Juris Doctor (JD), law school graduates don't usually call themselves doctors.
A JD is a professional doctorate degree, but it's not the highest degree in law. So a JD isn't the equivalent of a PhD. Rather, the equivalent of a PhD in law is the Doctor of Juridical Science (DJur) degree, which usually leads to careers that involve teaching law or performing scholarly legal research.
Some fields offer grad students the choice of pursuing either a research or professional doctoral degree. For example, a nurse who wants to advance his or her career with a doctorate degree in nursing has two options:
- The DNSc is a research doctorate that typically leads to careers that involve doing research on the scientific aspects of nursing.
- The DNP is a professional doctorate for those who want to focus on achieving the highest level of nursing in clinical practice.
Similarly, people pursuing a career in psychology can obtain either a PhD in psychology if they want to do research or a PsyD if they want to focus on clinical counseling.
What Are the Advantages of Earning a Doctorate Degree?
One potential advantage is a high salary. Consider this: Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that median weekly earnings for people with doctorate degrees are about 50 percent higher than for people with bachelor's degrees, and they are about 27 percent higher than for people with master's degrees.
Another advantage is that the unemployment rate is typically lower for people with doctorates than for people with other degrees. The BLS data referenced above indicates that in 2018, only about 1.6 percent of doctorate degree holders were unemployed (compared to 2.2 percent of people with bachelor's degrees and 2.1 percent of master's degree holders).
Plus, employment prospects for those who go into occupations that require doctorate degrees are expected to remain strong. In fact, between 2016 and 2026, the number of jobs that typically require a doctoral or professional degree is expected to grow by 13.1 percent, which is almost twice the average rate for all occupations.
So two possible benefits of a doctorate degree are higher pay and better job stability. However, when considering these potential advantages, you also have to weigh the costs of getting a doctorate. Because this credential requires a big commitment in terms of time, it can be an expensive degree to pursue.
Exactly how much it costs to get a doctorate depends a lot on where you go to school and the program you enroll in. But according to a Sallie Mae report, doctoral students spent an average of $30,960 on their education in just one academic year.
Fortunately, a lot of financial assistance is available if you qualify for it. For example, many doctoral students work at the schools where they are enrolled. In the 2017 report on doctorate recipients, about 20 percent of people who earned a research doctorate degree said their primary source of financial support was teaching assistantships (in which they were paid to teach undergraduate students). And about 25 percent said their primary support came from scholarships, fellowships, or grants.
What Kinds of Careers Can a Doctorate Degree Prepare You For?
After receiving a doctorate, your job options depend a lot on the particular type of degree you earned.
A professional doctorate prepares you for a specific occupation. For example, with a Doctor of Optometry (OD), you can work as an optometrist. With a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM), you can work as a veterinarian.
With a research doctorate, you have a bit more flexibility in your career options.
The 2017 report on doctorate recipients asked recent doctorate recipients about their employment plans after graduation. About 46 percent said they planned to work in higher education as professors. That kind of work typically involves teaching and performing research.
Other employment options for those with a research doctorate depend on the subject you studied. But many graduates have found that a PhD can get you jobs that involve things like:
- Research and development for companies
- Technical writing
- Business development
- Working in regulatory affairs for government agencies
- Acting as a policy advisor for government bodies
As well, in sectors such as education and engineering, licensing regulations in some states require a PhD for administrative or managerial positions.
After graduating from a research doctorate program, some students choose to pursue a postdoctorate position. As a "postdoc," you do supervised research. You might also teach students and assist faculty members with their own research. If that sounds a lot like working as a professor, it is. However, one big difference is the salary. Postdocs make an average of $46,988 a year. In contrast, a full professor makes $104,820.
That pay difference might explain why postdocs are becoming more common in universities. However, completing postdoc research is increasingly seen as an important step on the way to becoming a professor, particularly in the sciences. So although you don't have to do a postdoc after a PhD, completing one may be necessary in order to advance your academic career.
How Long Is a Doctoral Degree Program?
Because most research doctorates require writing a dissertation, the amount of time it takes to earn one depends on how long it takes you to complete that final project. It also depends on the subject you study. Completion times for professional degrees also vary.
According to the 2017 report on doctorate recipients, on a median basis, it takes almost six years to get a research doctoral degree. The fastest median completion time is in engineering, at just over five years. On the other end of the spectrum, humanities students take over seven years. (Keep in mind that these times only represent the number of years required to complete a doctoral program; they don't include the time required to earn a bachelor's or master's degree beforehand.)
As well, a significant number of students who start a research doctoral program either take longer than average or don't finish their degree at all. In fact, one study found that 58 percent of male and 55 percent of female doctoral students hadn't finished their degrees within 10 years of starting their programs.
In most cases, it takes less time to earn a professional doctoral degree. Years of study vary a bit by program, but here are some examples of typical time frames, according to data from the Occupational Outlook Handbook:
- Doctor of Chiropractic: 3 years
- Juris Doctor: 3 years
- Doctor of Medicine: 4 years
- Doctor of Optometry: 4 years
- Doctor of Pharmacy: 3 or 4 years
- Doctor of Veterinary Medicine: 4 years
How Do You Earn a Doctorate Degree?
If you're wondering how to get a doctorate degree, you won't find one simple answer. That's because the exact steps vary a lot by program, school, and type of doctorate. The steps can even vary within the same program, since doctorates can be very specialized.
Regardless, you always need to have at least a bachelor's degree before applying for a program. For research doctorate programs, you also frequently need a master's degree.
Here are some other general points to keep in mind about the process:
The first year or two of pursuing a research doctorate are often spent doing coursework. The courses are usually similar in structure to lower-level classes, but they explore topics in more detail. They're meant to prepare you for the ultimate goal of many doctoral programs: a dissertation (i.e., a long, often book-length, essay about a very specific subject).
You develop a proposal for your dissertation in consultation with the professor who is supervising you. You may also be required to take an exam before you start your research. These exams are called comprehensive exams (or "comps"), qualifying exams, candidacy exams, or similar names.
Here's an important point about completing a research doctorate: Writing a dissertation is a big undertaking. In fact, many dissertations are hundreds of pages in length. So for a doctoral student, the process of completing a dissertation can be challenging, but many grads say that it's ultimately very rewarding. Think about it: In writing a dissertation, you're advancing knowledge in your field—and you could make a discovery that has a lasting, positive impact on the world.
In fact, many of the most important concepts of our time had their beginnings in PhD dissertations. (Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, and Stephen Hawking are just a few examples of people who've contributed groundbreaking ideas as part of their dissertations.) That's why, for many students, the value of a PhD is in the opportunity it gives them to make a profound difference in the field they care about.
Still, being focused on one topic for such a long time takes a lot of discipline. Here are some books that can help with the process of writing a dissertation:
- The Dissertation Strategy-ABD NO MORE!: Instructions and Samples to Develop a Quality Dissertation as Quickly and Painlessly as Possible by Jill Blackwell
- The Dissertation Journey: A Practical and Comprehensive Guide to Planning, Writing, and Defending Your Dissertation by Carol Roberts and Laura Hyatt
- Dissertation Completion Guide: A Chapter-by-Chapter Nontechnical Guide for Graduate Research Projects by Dr. Daniel S. Alemu
Once you finish your dissertation, the next step is usually defending it in front of an advisory committee. This involves making a presentation and answering questions.
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The process of getting a professional doctorate also varies by a lot program. In general, professional degrees do not require a dissertation. But many programs do require real-world work experience. For example, a DPharm student may be required to complete an internship in a pharmacy. And OD students often have to complete periods of work experience under the supervision of an osteopath.
Since these professional degree programs aim to prepare students to be fully qualified to enter an occupation, many of them include preparation for licensing exams. So, when researching your program options, be sure to compare what's covered in each program to the regulations and requirements of your chosen profession.
You won't find many legitimate shortcuts for completing a doctorate degree. After all, doctoral programs are supposed to be challenging, and they are designed to help students like you reach the top of their fields.
You also won't find as many online program options for a research doctorate degree as you will for a bachelor's or master's degree. Even so, it may be possible to complete your coursework online. Plus, since much of the work for a dissertation is done independently, you'll likely have some control over your schedule.
As well, due to the nature of internships and work experience requirements, you generally can't complete an entire professional degree program online. That's why it's important to be skeptical of schools promising that their professional doctorate programs can be done completely online. Often, such programs aren't properly accredited.
Because of the time commitments involved, fewer doctorate students are enrolled on a part-time basis than master's students, according to the Sallie Mae report.
But regardless of your path, always remember that many students have successfully made it through doctorate programs even though they had jobs or busy personal lives. Keeping the lines of communication open with your professors and looking for ways to make academic life a bit easier to manage can help you finish a doctorate or professional degree.
Take Action Toward Your Biggest Educational Goals
What is a doctorate degree if not just the highest post-secondary credential? As you've just learned, it's frequently a valuable and essential part of preparing for a specific profession or putting yourself on the path to doing groundbreaking research. But no matter which route you take, you need a solid educational foundation before pursuing a doctorate. That's why many colleges and universities offer streamlined programs that lead to bachelor's or master's degrees. To find one near you, just enter your zip code in the search tool below!