In the academic world, achieving a doctoral degree represents the highest level of study within a field. These degrees grant their recipients not only more knowledge within their particular field, but also more respect and more upward mobility in their careers.
Is a doctorate a PhD? Often, the terms doctoral degree and doctor of philosophy, or Ph.D., are used interchangeably. This isn’t 100% accurate, though. There are subtle but important differences that set a doctoral degree apart from a Ph.D. degree. These differences are critical to understand before you plan your own path through higher education.
Related Resource: What is a Bachelor’s Degree?
A doctoral degree is a general term for a terminal degree that usually is awarded when someone pursues their studies beyond the level of a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. It can be awarded in any number of fields, from education and English literature to chemistry and calculus.
Doctoral degrees typically come in two forms:
- a professional (also known as applied doctorate)
- an academic doctorate
What is an Applied Doctorate Degree?
Professional or applied doctorate degrees qualify someone to work in a specific profession. This includes things like:
Doctor of Medicine (M.D.)
Doctor of Business Administration (DBA)
Doctor of Education (Ed.D.)
Degree holders with a professional doctorate degree are qualified to work at the highest level within their field.
These professional degrees culminate in a dissertation which must be defended in front of a group. A dissertation, like a thesis, is a lengthy and involved paper that incorporates research and applies a theory to make advances within the field.
Some of the most common fields for a professional doctoral program are:
- Physical therapy
- Osteopathic medicine
- Occupational therapy
- Educational leadership
We’ll discuss a few of the most common professional doctorate degree programs below.
Doctor of Education (Ed.D.)
An Ed.D. is a professional doctorate for educators with teaching and administration responsibilities as well as those working in nonprofits and governmental agencies. These programs offer advanced leadership training which can help students advance their career. Students learn effective strategies to solve real-world problems they’ll encounter out in the field.
Ed.D. programs do not follow a standard curriculum. Each program is unique, and many can be tailored to meet the needs of each individual student. Some are offered online while others follow a more traditional format.
Doctor of Business Administration
The DBA is a professional degree for business professionals. These programs build upon the skills taught in an MBA program. Students are often accomplished executives who want to be better, more innovative business leaders.
DBA students conduct practical research that directly applies to the business world. Students will develop new insights and solutions to business challenges.
Doctor of Psychology (PsyD)
Psychology is an area where students can choose to complete either a Ph.D. or a PsyD degree. A PsyD degree emphasizes the clinical and applied aspects of psychology. This degree is growing in popularity for several different reasons:
- Completion time is often less than a traditional PhD
- Specialization options
- Opportunity to complete a dual degree (MSW or MPH are popular)
The PsyD focuses on practice over research so students begin working on fieldwork sooner in the program. This hands-on experience is valuable as students begin to build their professional portfolio.
Doctor of Medicine (M.D.)
An M.D. is the degree of choice for students planning a career in medicine. These highly competitive and rigorous programs include the classroom and intensive training students need to join the medical field.
M.D. programs usually require students to complete four years of medical school followed by a residency. The residency can take between two and five years depending on the area of medicine.
While an M.D. degree requires a significant commitment of time and money, the investment plays off with a high salary and job security.
Doctor of Optometry (O.D.)
An O.D. an expert in primary eye care. They diagnose and manage diseases and disorders of the eye. An O.D. degree can take between eight and nine years of education beyond high school. Students take classes in areas like:
- gross anatomy
An optometrist can determine if an individual needs corrective lenses or contacts to improve their vision. They can check for signs of glaucoma or other degenerative eye conditions. In some states, an optometrist can prescribe certain medications.
Regardless of the individual field that you pursue, you can know that a doctoral degree will make you a highly qualified candidate for upper level positions in your field.
What Is a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) Degree?
Academic doctorates, on the other hand, are degrees that qualify someone to study, research, or teach at the highest level in his or her field. At some schools, like Franklin University, professional doctorates are referred to as an application oriented-degree while Ph.D.s, or academic doctorates, are referred to as research degrees.
A Ph.D. is actually a specific type of doctoral degree. This means that rather than being completely separate from one another, Ph.D.s are really just a specific subtype of the umbrella term “doctorate degree.”
A Ph.D. is an academic degree focused on original research and the application of new ideas to existing knowledge. This research based degree emphases research skills that allow student to contribute to the advancement of their field. Lots of people falsely believe that a Ph.D. is limited to fields in the social sciences. This is likely due to the word “philosophy” in the title. Rather than meaning philosophy in the modern sense, though, the word philosophy in a Ph.D. refers to its Latin origins, meaning “love of wisdom”.
The reality is that Ph.D.s are research degrees available in many fields. Some of the most common degree fields for a Ph.D. include:
- Applied mathematics
- Accounting and finance
- Biomedical engineering
- Chemical engineering
- Clinical psychology
- Computer science
- Counseling psychology
- Data analysis
No matter what kind of Ph.D. you undertake, you will always graduate from a Ph.D. program with a high level of competence, respect, and mobility within your career field.
How To Apply for a PhD vs Doctorate Program
Once you’ve made the choice between a professional degree versus doctorate, you’ll need to figure out how to apply to your chosen program. Because Ph.D. programs are simply a specific type of a doctorate program, the application process varies more by school than it does by degree type.
In general, when you apply to a doctoral program, you’ll need to have already completed a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. In many cases, your bachelor’s degree can be in any field. It does not need to be related to the field you’re pursuing at the professional level. In most cases, your master’s does need to be related in some way.
If it’s not, there’s a strong likelihood that you’ll need to complete some prerequisite graduate-level classes before you can apply for your doctorate program. You’ll need to check with each program about the prerequisites before you apply.
Once you’re sure that you meet the prerequisites required of a doctoral student, you’ll also need to get your application materials. Generally this means:
- transcripts from your undergrad and graduate school coursework
- letters of recommendation
- an essay or statement of purpose
- recent GRE or GMAT scores
Again, application requirements will vary by school so you’ll want to check directly with those you’re applying to.
The amount of time it takes to complete your doctorate vs PhD degree will largely depend on what work you’ve done before it, and whether you’ll be pursuing it part-time or full-time. If you have completed a master’s in the field already, you will need to complete fewer credits to complete the doctoral degree.
At some schools, there is an option to combine your master’s with your doctorate degree. These accelerated programs usually allow you to take a year of study off your total commitment.
Still, terminal degrees are no small time commitment. Most degrees take anywhere from five to eight years to complete when pursued full-time. In general, Ph.D. programs tend to take slightly longer than professional doctorates. For example, to complete a doctor of education (Ed.D.) degree, doctoral students must complete at least 60 credits. In contrast, Ph.D. students completing a Ph.D. in Education must complete 90 credits.
While a professional doctorate and a Ph.D. are seemingly very similar, they do differ in terms of earning potential.
This is likely because many Ph.D. programs lead to careers in teaching or research. These are two fields that are notoriously low in funding, unless you find one of the relatively less common highly paid positions in these fields.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for a postsecondary teacher at colleges or universities is about $80,000. The average salary of postsecondary teachers in the field of scientific development and research is more, at nearly $110,000, and the average salary of a researcher in the field of medical science is nearly $90,000.
Compare these salaries to those of professional doctorates like a medical doctor or a lawyer. A medical doctor earns an average salary of $208,000 while a lawyer receives an average salary of roughly $123,000.
While a Ph.D. is simply a subtype of doctorate, there are some distinct differences that set it apart from professional doctorate degrees.
While Ph.D.s are typically heavy on research, professional doctorates are heavy on application of knowledge to a specific professional field. The body of knowledge developed in a Ph.D. program may be slightly broader, while the knowledge built in a professional doctorate program is tailored more directly to a specific career.
Both programs have similar application processes, but the Ph.D. program may take slightly longer to complete on average than the professional doctorate program does. Finally, professional degree PhD program graduates tend to earn slightly more than Ph.D. graduates.
If you’re interested in pursuing a doctorate degree, you’ll need to consider a professional doctorate degree vs PhD. You’ll want to research your programs before applying. Sites like CollegeRank can help you to narrow your options by providing curated college rankings geared to a number of different factors, from campus size to return on investment, and more.
To get started on your search for a doctorate program, don’t miss these rankings from CollegeRank: