The Doctorate Degree

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A doctorate is a graduate level academic or professional degree. In the United States it is considered the highest degree an individual can earn in a given field of study, and as such, it is often referred to as a terminal degree. On average, a doctorate degree takes four to six years to complete, post-bachelor’s degree. If you hold master’s degree in the same subject area you’re pursuing a doctorate degree, it may only take three years of additional study to complete.

A four-year doctorate degree will require 60 to 120 semester credit hours or approximately 20 to 40 college courses. However, the length of your doctorate degree will depend on your educational background, the institution offering the doctorate as well as the subject area.

While a doctorate is required for very few careers, it is growing in popularity, not only among academics but professionals too. In fact, a growing number of online doctorates are designed as “practitioner’s degrees”, specifically for aspiring professionals. Furthermore, in areas where state licensing is required-such as teaching in public schools and colleges, engineering and psychology-a doctorate is highly beneficial if not mandatory. Research positions at universities, government agencies, corporations and private research facilities may also require the doctorate degree.

Types of Doctorate Degrees

Over the last few centuries, there has been substantial evolution and proliferation in the number and types of doctorate degrees. Historically, a doctorate degree would entitle the holder to addressed as “doctor”, however, that isn’t as true today. Whether an individual awarded a doctorate degree will be called “doctor” depends in large part on the type of doctorate degree earned as well as the subject area.

The following are general classifications for doctorates:

Research Doctorate Degree

Research doctorates are awarded by colleges and universities throughout the world. These degrees are awarded to candidates who have conducted research that is publishable in a peer-reviewed academic journal. In the United States, to earn a research doctorate an individual must also complete substantial coursework beyond a the masters level. The most common research degree in United States, Great Britain and Canada is the Doctor of Philosophy, or Ph.D.

Other popular doctorates include the Doctor of Education, Doctor of Engineer and Doctor of Theology. The Doctor of Theology (Th.D.), as suggested by its name, is a research doctorate in theology, awarded by both secular and religious institutions including University of Toronto and Harvard Divinity School, to name just a few. Another research doctorate, the Doctor of Sacred Theology, is a doctorate of theology offered by Catholic Pontifical Universities and institutions.

While the criteria for earning a research doctorate may vary from one country to another, most research doctorates require that a doctorate candidate conduct a substantial amount of publishable research. Frequently, candidates are also required to develop an original thesis or dissertation, present a portfolio of research reports and project to be reviewed by a committee, and undergo an oral examination. As previously mentioned, as is the case in the United States, candidates may also have to complete a series of graduate-level courses in the subject area of their doctorate.

The minimum time required to complete a research doctorate is about three years but it often can take over six years to complete.

Professional Doctorate Degree

Professional doctorates are degrees that are awarded in fields where advanced study and research are aligned with a specific profession, such as psychology, medicine, engineering, education, or law. Professional doctorates are particularly common in the United States and Canada. Examples of professional doctorates popular in these two countries include:

  • Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.)
  • Medicinae Doctor (M.D.)
  • Doctor of Podiatric Medicine (D.P.M.)
  • Doctor of Physical Therapy (D.P.T.)
  • Doctor of Chiropractic (D.C.)
  • Doctor of Dental Medicine (D.M.D)
  • Doctor of Dental Surgery (D.D.S.)
  • Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (D.V.M.)
  • Veterinary Medical Doctor (V.M.D.)
  • Doctor of Ministry (D.Min)
  • Doctor of Nursing Practice (D.N.P.)
  • Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm.D.)
  • Juris Doctor (J.D.)
  • Doctor of Optometry (O.D.)

Professional doctorates took hold in the United States around 1767 when Columbia University introduced the MD. A hundred years later, in 1861, later Yale University introduced the nation’s first PhD/research doctorate. Shortly thereafter, Havard University introduced the Juris Doctor (J.D.) which took hold nationwide. These degrees, sometimes referred to as first professional degrees, were created in an effort to strengthen profession training programs. In recent years professional doctorates have been introduced in other fields as well, such as the Doctor of Audiology in 2007. By 2015, the United States will see its first Doctor of Nursing Practice and by 2030 a Doctor of Physical Therapy.

The term “Professional Doctorate” makes specific reference to a doctorate degree that focuses on applied research, or research that is designed to be used specifically for professional purposes. Doctorates that employ research with specific focus on business application include:

  • Doctor of Business Administration (DBA)
  • Doctor of Strategic Leadership (DSL)
  • Doctor of Public Administration (DPA)
  • Doctor of Social Work (DSW)
  • Doctor of Biblical Studies (D.B.S.)
  • Doctor of Law and Policy (Lp.D)
  • Doctor of Occupational Therapy (O.T.D.)
  • Doctor of Practical Theology (DPT)
  • Doctor of Professional Studies (DPS or DProf)
  • Doctor of the Built Environment (DBEnv)

International Tier of Doctorates

In several countries outside the United States, including Australia, England, Ireland and a few Scandinavian countries, there is a tier of doctorates awarded based on a very high standard of research. Individuals awarded “higher” research doctorates are typically required to submit an extensive portfolio of research published in reputable journals and subject relevant publications. Examples of these research doctorates include Doctor of Sciences (DSc/ScD), Doctor of Letters (DLitt/LittD), Dr. Theol. (Theology), Dr. Jur. (Law), and Dr. Med. (Medicine). Higher doctorates are sometimes awarded as Honory Degrees in recognition of accomplishment and/or contribution to a particular field.

Honorary Doctorate Degree

When a doctorate degree is awarded honoris causa (“for the sake of the honor”) it’s known as an honorary doctorate degree. Honorary doctorates are awarded based on an individual’s achievement or contribution to a particular field or philanthropic cause. In such cases the awarding college or university typically waives all off the usual requirements, such as matriculation, residence, study, and the passing of examinations. While honorary degrees are not uncommon, many universities including the University of Virginia, Cornell University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and California Institute of Technology, as well as many other institutions do not offer or award these degrees.

Terminal Academic Research Degrees

A doctorate degree, such as a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D), is considered the highest academic degree in a particular field of study in some countries, including the United States. These degrees are considered terminal because there is no higher degree that can be awarded. However, many professional doctorates, while considered terminal within the profession, may only serve as prerequisites to research degrees in the same subject area.

In several countries outside of the U.S., including the United Kingdom and Russia, there are doctorate level degrees, known as higher doctorates which are more advanced than a professional doctorate or traditional research Ph.D.