Exploring the Doctorate Degree: What You Need to Know

06/09/202326 minute read
Exploring the Doctorate Degree: What You Need to Know

The doctoral degree, sometimes called doctorate degree, or PhD degree, is the highest college degree out there. Whether you want to immerse yourself in research and academic pursuits, or qualify for top leadership positions in your field, it’s essential to know how different doctorate degrees align with your goals and circumstances.

If you’re unsure if a doctoral degree is worth it or which kind of doctoral program is right for you, keep reading… In this post you’ll learn exactly what a doctorate degree is, discover different types of doctoral degrees and degree pathways, discover the benefits they offer professionally and personally, and get insights for how to apply for programs at top schools.

Types of Doctorate Degrees

Beyond being a badge of honor, a doctorate showcases your expertise, research skills, and demonstrates your readiness to contribute original research in your chosen field and area of specialization.

But, before we explore all the requirements for applying to a doctoral degree program, and what’s required to get the degree, let’s quickly explore all the different names these degrees can go by and what kind of learning they represent.

Blog Banner
Blog Banner

Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy)

In the Middle Ages being a doctor wasn’t associated with medicine as it is today. A doctor was simply an academic title conferred upon those who had finished a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree and had gone on to earn the highest degree possible in the arts and sciences of those times.

Today, PhD stands for Doctor of Philosophy, but it’s important to be clear that PhD degrees are awarded in virtually all disciplines, not just philosophy!

That said, the PhD is still just one type of doctoral degree, although very common. In short, a large majority of doctoral programs, across all disciplines, will lead to a PhD.

Typically, if you want to pursue advanced theoretical research or faculty positions in academia, you’ll find the PhD track the most suitable for those interests.

If you’re interested in getting the most advanced degree possible but want a format and structure more geared for practical professional development, then a professional doctorate may be the right degree for you…

Doctorate vs. PhD

Doctorate and PhD are often used interchangeably. But many doctoral programs lead to a professional doctorate degree in lieu of a PhD.

By comparison with the highly academic orientation of most PhD programs, professional doctorate programs tend to be oriented toward those seeking advancement in more practical management, leadership, and R&D roles in the business sector or elsewhere outside academia.

If you’re a top executive (or aspiring top executive) in a STEM field or healthcare services — just to take a couple of examples — you’ll find sector-specific professional doctorate programs that cater to business-oriented professionals working in complex leadership, management, or applied research and development roles. Instead of pursuing a PhD in your field, you might pursue a professional doctorate, such as a DBA (Doctorate in Business Administration) or DHA (Doctorate in Healthcare Administration).

If you want to burrow into academia, then a PhD track is probably the best.

If you want to focus more on practical leadership challenges or practical research applications and rub shoulders with business professionals and management leaders, then you’ll be more at home in a professional doctorate program!

Blog Banner
Blog Banner

Ed.D. (Doctor of Education)

For those passionate about education and leadership, pursuing a PhD in education is one option. But, if you’re working in an education setting — not academia — and want to make a bigger impact, then getting a professional doctorate in education, an EdD, may be a more practical goal.

EdD programs are typically oriented toward school system leaders, managers, and specialists, including:

  • school principals
  • curriculum specialists
  • instructional experts and trainers
  • school district superintendents
  • school reform leaders and policy experts

If you’ve already found education work like this to be your passion, and you’re ready to go deeper and make a bigger impact, getting an EdD degree would have a more practical orientation than a PhD track, and also be best suited to expanding your professional network!

Psy.D. (Doctor of Psychology)

If therapeutic relationships and clinical practice intrigue you, the PsyD could be your avenue. This degree trains you to become a practicing psychologist. The focus is on applied clinical work rather than the heavy research orientation of a PhD.

A PsyD pathway could be ideal if you prefer practical clinical counseling roles as opposed to jobs in academia teaching college seminars or doing intensive research projects in a library or laboratory.

Many clinical roles in the field of psychology require a doctorate degree. For many practicing psychologists, getting a PsyD is a valuable and practical step for career advancement.

For those not accustomed to research, honing pragmatic research skills is another practical benefit of a PsyD program. Most doctor of psychology students — whether on a PhD track or in a professional doctorate program — take foundational courses that teach them a lot about research resources and methods.

Even if you don’t plan to work in academia, research skills are valuable. As a practicing clinical psychologist you’ll be more confident and more respected if you can keep up with new trends, especially those that can help you take the lead in improving approaches to treatment, practitioner training, or public policy.

Blog Banner
Blog Banner

D.Sc./D.Eng. (Doctor of Science/Doctor of Engineering)

Doctor of Science and Doctor of Engineering degrees open doors to advanced scientific research and engineering concepts.

At the doctoral level, students in these programs specialize in subfields of advanced STEM learning, where innovation and technological advancement are a high priority.

Whereas a PhD track in science or engineering is one way to pursue very advanced theoretical research, a professional doctorate in these fields can be well suited to professionals in business settings.

“In contrast to the Ph.D., which generally aims to expand academic knowledge, ‘professional doctorates increase the knowledge about the practice of a profession,’ says Stuart Powell of the University of Hertfordshire. ‘I thought about doing a Ph.D.,’ adds Eng.D. candidate Rob Cross, ‘but I liked the more hands-on aspect of the Eng.D., the industrial links, and the management courses in the taught element.’”

- Science.org

A DSc or DEng — or similar STEM-oriented professional doctorate degree — would be a powerful way to advance professionally if you’re involved in the STEM sector. Your doctorate should help you qualify for advanced research and development roles, consulting roles, or executive positions.

D.B.A. (Doctor of Business Administration)

Business degrees offer you a great deal in the way of flexible opportunities for employment and professional advancement. The DBA degree takes your learning to the next level — bridging advanced theoretical business knowledge and highly complex real-world challenges.

Unlike many MBA programs that serve large cohorts of business students, the DBA is designed for senior-level business professionals in leadership and consulting roles.

Depending on the program you choose and your areas of specialization, a DBA track should offer you opportunities for exploring advanced methods, tools, and frameworks for:

  • business planning and systems analysis
  • organizational leadership
  • financial planning and modeling
  • complex logistical problem solving

Because you’re in a program designed for executives, you should also tap into some excellent networking opportunities.

This kind of networking can be a bigger-than-expected benefit of your professional doctorate program. People in your cohort may help you find new professional opportunities and prove to be valuable resources for information sharing and mentoring.

J.D. (Doctor of Jurisprudence)

If you’re interested in becoming a lawyer, getting the JD degree and passing the BAR exam are the two biggest milestones at the outset of your journey.

For most students, the path to the JD degree — also called a juris doctor degree — begins by completing a bachelor degree program and then enrolling in an accredited law school.

Those who aspire to practice law in the US will also typically need to satisfy state licensing requirements — so it’s a good idea for juris doctor degree seekers to consider at the outset what state they want to practice in.

A JD curriculum blends theoretical learning and practical training. Your training will prepare you to navigate the intricacies of legal argumentation and courtroom proceedings. Many JD programs can be completed in four years or less.

Most JD programs also have programming to support students’ success on the BAR exam. After getting your doctor of jurisprudence degree, you’ll still need to pass the BAR exam before you can get licensed to practice law in almost any state.

Blog Banner
Blog Banner

Earning Your Doctorate Degree: The Journey

Academic and Professional Prerequisites

Securing your spot in a doctoral program requires more than just the desire to learn. Generally, what you'll need to get into a doctoral program includes:

  • A master’s degree (in most cases) and a proven record of academic achievement
  • A satisfactory college GPA, typically 3.5 or above
  • Relevant professional experiences may also be required or helpful
  • Letters of recommendation
  • A personal statement that highlights your academic and professional passions, motivations, and goals

Most doctoral programs will also be interested in knowing what specific research interests you have — especially since doctoral candidates typically work much more closely with faculty leaders than do other students.

Many doctorate programs limit the size of their cohorts and require a strong record of prior academic accomplishments, so the path forward can be fairly competitive, especially for top programs at prestigious universities.

Faculty Relations and Mentorships

Strong and positive relationships with relevant faculty members can help any student build a better foundation for academic success in college, even more so for students in a rigorous doctoral program.

But building these mentoring relationships can be a relatively informal process that requires taking some initiative.

Blog Banner
Blog Banner

A mentoring relationship with a faculty member can be helpful in many ways, including:

  • Helping you explore areas of interest
  • Getting you involved in research or helping you navigate research sources and directions
  • Providing advice or insights for future academic and career pathways
  • Writing letters of recommendation
  • Providing academic guidance and mentoring, including navigating administrative requirements and timelines important for your academic progress

As a doctoral student you’ll be working at a level of academic specialization that could be hard or nearly impossible to navigate successfully without faculty support.

And, most doctoral programs require you to identify a faculty member in your department or college who will serve as a mentor and academic advisor during the final steps of your degree program.

Length of Study and Time Commitment

Doctorate degrees aren't a sprint; they're a marathon. Be prepared for a significant time commitment.

Depending on the program and field, doctorate degrees can take anywhere from 3 to 7+ years to complete.

This timeframe accounts for coursework, comprehensive exams, and the substantial foundation in specialized research you’ll do for your dissertation or alternative capstone project.

Doctoral programs that cater more to working professionals, as opposed to most PhD tracks, may make it easier for you to finish your degree sooner.

Comprehensive Exams and Dissertation Requirements

Comprehensive exams, also known as qualifying exams or prelims, are like academic rites of passage.

These exams often include both written exam formats as well as oral exams.

The “orals” are usually led by members of the faculty who teach graduate studies at the school you’re attending. They serve as a means for measuring progress and readiness before dissertation research begins.

Once these exams are conquered, you’ll typically need to complete the required capstone project — most commonly a research-based doctoral dissertation.

In professional doctorate programs, you may have the option of doing some other kind of capstone project, in lieu of a dissertation. These options often take the form of a realistic and in-depth case study analysis, field study activity, or experimental laboratory or clinical research project — something relevant to your industry and the kind of professional roles you’re aspiring to.

Virtually all doctoral degree programs also include courses dedicated to research methods that help you identify and articulate an original research topic and research approach.

When completed, your dissertation will stand as a sound scholarly work that contributes original knowledge to your field — usually responding to and building on prior research — and which showcases your ability to apply accepted research methods.

Blog Banner
Blog Banner

The Central Role of Research in Doctoral Studies

Unlike most other degrees, at the heart of any doctorate journey is research.

The emphasis on research in your doctoral program means you’ll be synthesizing foundational knowledge to develop a compelling line of inquiry.

You'll immerse yourself in existing bodies of knowledge…

identifying gaps…

formulating relevant questions…

and seeking answers to those questions…

Developing Expertise Through Original Research

Earning a doctorate is like building a tower of knowledge in your chosen field.

Your intensive and comprehensive studies are the foundation, and your research allows you to add new bricks to the edifice of understanding that leads to new insights, claims, or discoveries…

Depending on your field, area of research, and research objectives and methods, your research work will rely on one or more of the following research sources:

  • Print or digital publications (such as scholarly books, journal articles, reports…)
  • Field work (such as interviewing subjects or gathering observational data)
  • Lab studies
  • Information gleaned from conversations and dialogue with other scholars or experts in your field

As a doctoral student you'll contribute to academic discourse and may even impact real-world issues. You’ll also turn yourself into a leading expert in your specific subfield!

Dissertation vs. Thesis: Defining the Difference

It's crucial to understand the distinction between a dissertation and a thesis.

While the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, a thesis is typically associated with master's degrees and focuses on synthesizing existing research.

A thesis typically requires less time to complete, has a fairly standard format, and does not have the methodology challenges posed by dissertation projects. Some bachelor degree programs and many master degree programs require a thesis.

A dissertation involves presenting unique contributions to the field based on original research or on a new avenue of inquiry that synthesizes existing research, uses a clear and accepted methodology, and culminates in new theories or insights. Most PhD programs and some professional doctorate programs require a dissertation.

To give you an idea of how inventive and specialized dissertation topics are, here are a few sample titles of actual dissertations:

PhD in Health Policy

Decision-Making for Allocation of Public Resources in Decentralized District Health Systems in Uganda

PhD in Psychology

Leading By Example Motivates Prosociality through Second-Order Belief Inference

PhD in Applied Science and Engineering

Deterministic Transaction Execution in Distributed Database Systems

PhD in English

An Intellectual History of Black Literary Discourse 1910-1956

Is a dissertation always required for a Professional Doctorate vs PhD?...

Because most PhD programs are designed to lead to jobs in academia, a dissertation is usually required. Professional doctorate programs vary, with many offering a more practical form of capstone project as an alternative to a dissertation.

Blog Banner
Blog Banner

Committee Evaluation and Defense of the Dissertation

Once your dissertation is complete, the culmination of your research journey awaits: the defense.

Not all programs include this step, but it is common.

As the dissertation writer, you’re proposing some original findings for other scholars in your field. Your dissertation defense is kind of like an academic rite of passage: your work will be subject to pointed questions about your approach, underlying assumptions, methodology, factual accuracy, key claims or findings...

What to expect when it’s time to defend your dissertation:

  • The format and structure can vary, depending on your school, your program of study, the department, and the presiding faculty members — so typically you’ll be in close consultation with your faculty advisor about the format prior to the defense.
  • In addition to other graduate students and department faculty members, the defense may also be open to the public at large.
  • The defense usually begins with you presenting your research, its genesis, and the research methods and findings.
  • The presentation is followed with questions and academic or intellectual “challenges” posed by a small panel of appointed faculty members.
  • A dissertation defense can typically last one to two hours and is a chance for the candidate to get insights into how high-level researchers engage in academic discussion and debate.

This is both a nerve-wracking and exhilarating experience, as it's a chance to showcase your expertise and receive critical feedback from seasoned scholars!

Challenges and Benefits

To be candid, pursuing a doctorate can be intellectually stimulating, but for most mere mortals it also requires a good dose of resilience and perseverance.

You’ll find yourself juggling commitments without much outside supervision or structure…

You may need to navigate a prickly relationship with a faculty advisor or mentor…

You’ll be in circles where high expectations are the norm when it comes to the pursuit of knowledge and academic rigor…

Rigorous Demands and Work-Life Balance

The pursuit of original research and the demands of coursework can also take a toll on your work-life balance. It's essential to have a support system in place to help you navigate these demands.

Getting to the finish line will require lots of decision making about how much academic research is realistic along with disciplined time management, especially if you’re juggling other demands, such as professional or family responsibilities.

Financial Implications and Educational Debt

A doctoral program can easily take four to eight years to complete — a big time commitment but also a big financial commitment. But there are rewards too…

“About 75% of student loan borrowers took loans to go to two- or four-year colleges; they account for about half of all student loan debt outstanding. The remaining 25% of borrowers went to graduate school; they account for the other half of the debt outstanding.”

- “Who Owes All That Student Debt? And Who’d Benefit if It Were Forgiven? Brookings Institute

Average Student Debt & Worker Earnings, by Degree Earned
Degree AttainedAmount of Total College Debt (US$)Graduate-School-Only College Debt (educationdata.org)Average Earnings (Bureau of Labor Statistics)
Bachelor Degree$33,448N/A$1,432 per week
Master Degree$76,000 – $91,000$59,000 – $65,000$1,661 per week
Doctorate Degree$136,000 – $228,000$126,000 – $213,000$2,083 per week
Doctorate Degree in Law$177,967$161,029
Doctorate Degree in Medicine$300,887$277,847

Some programs offer scholarships and grants, and it’s always a good idea to explore those options, in addition to college loans.

In addition, some institutions may have RA (research assistant) positions or graduate student instructor positions that allow you to earn while you learn — a great way to build your academic resume and reduce borrowing.

Finally, you may also want to consider financial obligations in terms of your expected professional goals and earnings down the road.

For example, weighing debt vs. earnings may look different for someone pursuing a doctorate in humanities and liberal arts fields as opposed to someone pursuing a DBA or JD…

Job Market Competition and Career Prospects

Indeed, while a doctorate can open doors, it's essential to recognize that certain fields might have more limited job opportunities or earnings potential.

If you’re considering a PhD track and aiming for a career in academia, keep in mind that the academic job market is forecast to grow at a good pace over the next decade, but can be highly competitive and may not offer the salaries that many roles in private industry can promise.

Jobs in Academia — According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

  • Most postsecondary teachers work in public and private colleges and universities, professional schools, and junior or community colleges
  • Most work is full time, although part-time work is common
  • Typically, postsecondary teachers must have a Ph.D. However, a master's degree may be enough for some postsecondary teachers at community colleges, and others may need work experience in their field of expertise
  • The median annual wage for postsecondary teachers was $79,640 in 2021
  • Overall employment of postsecondary teachers is projected to grow 12 percent from 2021 to 2031, much faster than the average for all occupations

If you are aiming for work in academia, it’s also important to realize that teaching and research opportunities can vary considerably from discipline to discipline.

Surveys of doctoral recipients in science, engineering, and health fields show that about 45% end up in education; another 45% go on to work in business and industry; and about 9% hold jobs in government.

And, recent studies have suggested that most of the top tenure-track jobs in academia go to students with PhDs from a smaller circle of prestigious universities.

And, what if you don’t find that dream job in academia?...

On average, having a doctorate degree is still likely to open doors to more job opportunities and higher earnings, and doctorate holders are often in demand in private and government sectors too!

In short, we encourage you to research potential career pathways and seek the help of an experienced postgraduate studies advisor. Getting real insights should help you feel much more confident about whether a doctoral degree is right for you and which programs to apply for, while boosting your chances of getting into the best school and making it to the finish line.

Blog Banner
Blog Banner

Is a Doctorate Right for You?

In other contexts, it might sound like a platitude to say that the decision to pursue a doctorate should align with your passions, interests, and long-term goals.

But when it comes to doctoral programs, this advice matters more than ever… The candid truth is that PhD pathways are littered with broken commitments.

In fact, on average it takes 7.3 years to finish a doctoral program, and about 50% of doctoral students never get to the finish line.

Some common reasons students don’t finish a doctoral degree include:

  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Lack of disciplined time management skills
  • Lack of support systems among faculty, family, peers…
  • Advisor issues / Advisor incompatibility
  • Lack or organizational skills
  • Inadequate academic writing skills

Evaluating Personal Goals and Aspirations

Early consideration and exploration of your personal goals and aspirations and what kind of doctoral program to pursue are very early but also crucial steps in your success.

Can you answer “yes” to the following questions?…

If not, explore your hesitations or doubts as you also explore and learn about the challenges and rewards of getting a doctorate degree!

  • Are you genuinely excited about contributing to your field's knowledge?
  • Do you enjoy academic environments and independent research?
  • Since getting a doctorate will include substantial field study, extensive library research, or long hours in a laboratory —Do you feel prepared and excited about immersing yourself in that work?
  • Do you have a level of passion for learning in your area of study that will sustain your doctoral journey?
  • Do you see yourself thriving in a research, teaching, policy, or leadership role in the future?

Seeking guidance from mentors and professionals

One way to evaluate the benefits of pursuing a doctoral degree is to reach out to knowledge leaders or helpful mentors in your field of interest. 

Professionals like these, or academic faculty leaders who know you from current or prior college programs, often have experiences and perspectives that will help you test your own assumptions and expectations. 

These kinds of mentoring relationships can provide valuable insights — not only for initial decision making, but for other decisions you’ll need to make even after you decide if a PhD or doctoral program is right for you.

Final Thoughts

If you do decide to pursue a doctoral degree, you’ll probably be surprised just how many types of programs you can find.

And, while many programs in a specific discipline may have similar topics of study and the same broad academic requirements, there are often less visible differences…

At the doctoral level especially, factors such as faculty expertise, research resources, and even theoretical orientations can differ significantly from one program to another.

So, once you’ve made some careful consideration of your passions and career goals and you’re ready to go for a doctorate, be sure to consider a good range of available opportunities at different universities — as much as your circumstances permit.

And once you’ve started, we encourage you to maintain contact with professionals and mentors who can guide you through the ups and downs of a doctoral journey.

What Makes Crimson Different

And, if you are committed to the goal of getting the degree, don’t look back!...

For many PhD candidates, a combination of resilience, perseverance, persistence, and strategic support from mentors are the crucial ingredients for getting across the finish line!