What Is a Doctorate Degree?

A doctorate degree is a postsecondary graduate degree. In most fields it is the highest level of academic achievement, which is why doctorates (or doctor’s degrees) are sometimes referred to as terminal degrees.

Types of Doctoral Degrees

There are many types of doctoral degrees, most of which can be broadly categorized as research doctorates or professional doctorates. Generally speaking, a research doctorate prepares the degree holder to teach at the university level or work in advanced professional roles, while a professional doctorate is more narrowly focused on preparing the holder for professional practice and/or licensure.

Research doctorate programs require candidates to produce original research, which is presented in the form of a doctoral thesis (or dissertation). The Doctor of Philosophy (abbreviated as PhD or Ph.D.) is by far the most common research doctorate. PhDs are awarded in a wide range of disciplines ranging from science and engineering to liberal arts. Other examples of research doctorates include Doctor of Science (Sc.D.) and Doctor of Theology (DTh).

Professional doctorate programs generally do not require original research, but may require a clinical or practical component. Examples of professional doctorate degrees include Doctor of Professional Counseling (D.P.C.), Doctor of Law or Juris Doctor (J.D.), Doctor of Medicine (M.D.), and Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D).

Research Doctorates vs. Professional Doctorates

Understanding the difference between research and professional doctorates is helpful when planning your education path, but you shouldn’t feel limited to one option based on your area of study. Consider these factors:

  • The designations aren’t always clear-cut. A Doctor of Education (Ed.D) can be classified as either a research or professional doctorate, depending on the school and program offering the degree. 
  • Both types of doctorates are options in many fields. For example, those pursuing a doctorate in social work can choose between Ph.D. in social work programs, which are more research focused, or Doctor of Social Work (DSW) programs, which tend to emphasize clinical practice. 

The most important factors to consider are your interests and career goals. 

Doctorate Program Requirements

Doctoral programs require students to complete extensive coursework and pass comprehensive exams that test the knowledge and skills acquired through the program. Research doctoral programs typically require students who have completed their graduate coursework to take a qualifying exam before beginning their dissertation.  

Dissertation

After passing a qualifying exam, doctoral candidates must produce a dissertation, or thesis. They typically work with an advisory committee made up of a group of faculty members that includes the student’s research advisor. Most research doctoral programs culminate in an oral examination called a dissertation defense. During the exam the student presents—or defends—their research and answers questions posed by the committee. 

After deliberation, the examination committee can accept or (in very rare cases) reject the thesis. It can also request that either minor or major revisions be made. Once the committee accepts the thesis, the doctoral candidate submits it to their university and earns their doctoral degree.

How Long Does It Take to Earn a Doctorate Degree?

The average time to complete a doctoral program (excluding undergraduate and pre-doctoral graduate studies) in the U.S. is 5.8 years, according to the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES). However, the time it takes to earn a doctorate degree varies significantly based on field of study. For example, earning a doctorate in science and engineering fields takes significantly less time, on average, than achieving the same level of training in education or humanities. 

Students interested in pursuing a doctorate degree should also consider education paths when planning their graduate studies. Some doctoral programs require candidates to first earn a master’s degree, but many do not. (Those in the latter category sometimes award graduate students their master’s degree for coursework completed during their doctoral studies.) 

Total Time in Graduate School

NCSES data shows that students take 8.7 years, on average, to progress from a bachelor’s degree to a doctorate, but a comparison of different fields of study again illustrates how variable graduate study durations can be. For example, students who study physical and earth sciences average seven years from bachelor’s to doctorate, while students studying education average 15 years to make the same progress.

How to Find the Right Doctorate Degree Program

Finding the right doctorate degree program is the first step towards a successful graduate study experience. Answering a few basic questions can help get you on track.

1. What do you want to study?

You probably know what you want to study in general terms, but it’s helpful to assess your personal interests and career goals when choosing a graduate degree program. Your professors and other academic advisors can help guide you toward a program that’s a good fit for your specific academic and professional goals.

2. What’s your budget? 

You need to make sure that you have enough money to cover your tuition and living expenses while you’re studying. Some graduate students earn income from teaching or research assistantships. 

3. Do you need financial assistance?

Many graduate students receive financial assistance in the form of scholarships, fellowships, and grants. Some students also receive financial support from their employer. If you plan to take out student loans, managing your debt load is a critical consideration. 

4. Is the university accredited?

Accreditation is important because it shows that the university meets certain standards. Such standing is important because it gives the student (and potential employers) some assurance of the quality of education being offered. Students may also find that it’s easier to transfer credits from an accredited program if they choose to change schools.

5. Will you be able to find work after graduating?

There are no guarantees for landing a job. However, students can improve their chances of finding employment in specific fields and roles by earning qualifying degrees and training. When planning for graduate school you should assess how a program might make you more hireable, but don’t forget to also consider your interests and passions. The immediate goal might be landing a job, but the greater goal should be pursuing a fulfilling career.

Sources

https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf22300/data-tables

https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf22300/assets/report/nsf22300-report.pdf

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