A doctoral degree, or 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 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 doctoral degree, it may only take three years of additional study to complete. This degree will require 60 to 120 semester credit hours or approximately 20 to 40 college courses. However, the length of your degree will depend on your educational background, the institution offering it, and the subject area you’re studying.
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 doctoral degrees 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 doctoral degree is highly beneficial, if not mandatory. Research positions at universities, government agencies, corporations and private research facilities may also require employees to have a doctorate.
Types of Doctoral Degrees
Over the last few centuries, there has been substantial evolution and proliferation in the number and types of doctoral degrees. Historically, these degrees would entitle the holder to addressed as “doctor”, however, that isn’t as true today. Whether an individual will have that title depends in large part on the type of degree earned as well as the subject area.
The following are general classifications of doctoral degrees:
Professional Doctoral 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. These advanced degrees are particularly common in the United States and Canada.
Examples of popular professional doctorates in the U.S. and Canada include:
- Doctor of Chiropractic (DC)
- Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD)
- Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)
- Doctor of Ministry (DMin)
- Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD)
- Doctor of Optometry (OD)
- Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO)
- Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD)
- Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT)
- Doctor of Practical Theology (DPT)
- Doctor of Public Administration (DPA)
- Doctor of Social Work (DSW)
- Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM)
- Juris Doctor (JD)
- Medicinae Doctor (MD)
Professional doctoral degrees 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 or research doctorate. Shortly thereafter, Havard University introduced the Juris Doctor (JD) which took hold nationwide. These degrees, sometimes referred to as first professional degrees, were created in an effort to strengthen profession training programs. These advanced degrees have since been introduced in other fields as well, such as the Doctor of Audiology in 2007 and Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) in 2008.
The term “Professional Doctorate” makes specific reference to a degree that focuses on applied research, or research that is designed to be used specifically for professional purposes.
Research Doctoral Degree
Research doctorates are awarded by colleges and universities throughout the world. These doctoral 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 the masters level. The most common research doctoral degree in the United States, Great Britain, and Canada is the Doctor of Philosophy, or PhD.
Other popular doctorates include the Doctor of Education (Ed.D.), Doctor of Engineering (D.Eng.), and Doctor of Theology (ThD). The ThD, as suggested by its name, is a research doctorate in theology, awarded by both secular and religious institutions including the University of Toronto and Harvard Divinity School, to name some examples. Another research degree, the Doctor of Sacred Theology (STD), is a specific ThD degree offered by Catholic Pontifical Universities and institutions.
Here is a list of popular U.S. research doctoral degree titles:
- Doctor of Arts (DA)
- Doctor of Business Administration (DBA)
- Doctor of Design (D.Des.)
- Doctor of Education (Ed.D.)
- Doctor of Engineering (D.Eng./D.E.Sc./D.E.S.)
- Doctor of Fine Arts (DFA)
- Doctor of Industrial Technology (DIT)
- Doctor of Music (DM)
- Doctor of Nursing Science (DN.Sc.)
- Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
- Doctor of Public Administration (DPA)
- Doctor of Physical Education (DPE)
- Doctor of Public Health (DPH)
- Doctor of Science (DSc/ScD)
- Doctor of Social Work (DSW)
- Doctor of Theology (ThD)
To see a full list of research doctoral degrees, download this list from the U.S. Department of Education.
While the criteria for earning a research doctorate may vary from one country to another, most research doctoral degree programs require that a candidate conducts 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.
International Tiers of Doctorates
In several countries outside the United States, including Australia, England, Ireland and a few Scandinavian countries, there is a tier of awards based on a very high standard of research. Individuals who earn these degrees are typically required to submit an extensive portfolio of research published in reputable journals and subject relevant publications. Examples of these degrees 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.
In several countries outside of the U.S., including the United Kingdom and Russia, there are degrees, known as higher doctorates which are more advanced than a professional doctorate or traditional research PhD.
Honorary Doctoral Degree
When a doctoral degree is awarded honoris causa (“for the sake of the honor”) it’s known as an honorary doctoral degree. Honorary doctorates are awarded based on an individual’s achievement or contribution to a particular field or philanthropic cause. In such case, the awarding college or university typically waives all the usual requirements, such as matriculation, residence, study, and the passing of examinations. While these 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 (PhD), 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.