What Is a Doctorate or a Doctoral Degree?

In most academic disciplines, the most advanced degree one can earn is a doctorate. Doctorate degree-holders are typically regarded as authorities in their fields, and many note that a major reason for pursuing a doctorate is to increase a person’s professional credibility and improve the quality of their resume.

“If someone wants to be respected as an expert in their chosen field, and also wants to have a wider array of options in research, writing, publishing, teaching, administration, management, and/or private practice, a doctorate is most definitely worth considering,” Don Martin, who has a Ph.D. in higher education administration, wrote in an email.

A doctoral degree is a graduate-level credential which is typically granted after multiple years of graduate school, with the time-to-degree varying depending on the type of doctoral program, experts say. Earning a doctorate usually requires at least four years of effort and may entail eight years of work, depending on the complexity and onerousness of a doctoral program’s graduation requirements.

[Read: 4 Fields Where Doctorates Lead to Jobs.]

Kristin Bertolero, an inclusion facilitator at the New Jersey Coalition for Inclusive Education worked for 10 years as a special education teacher before deciding to pursue her Ed.D. She says her education doctoral program allowed her to gain the expertise necessary to propose and implement meaningful reforms in classrooms and schools.

“The best part was learning more about education outside of my area (special education and teaching), because honestly it helped me understand what I actually have control over,” says Bertolero, who has a Doctor of Education degree with a specialization in K-12 teacher leadership. “So what does a teacher in a classroom actually have control over? And how (does) this third grade relates to a student’s long-term trajectory?” It helps you envision the big picture, she says.

Bertolero says earning a doctorate provided her with the analytical skills and confidence necessary to address major problems in schools. “It really does give you a level of self-efficacy,” she says. “And I really think that people who are passionate about children and students, it opens up doors to provide service to your profession that you love.”

Martin, the founder and CEO of Grad School Road Map, an organization that helps grad school applicants navigate the admissions process, says that obtaining a doctorate is often a lengthy endeavor.

“Typically it can take between four and six years to complete any doctoral program,” he says. “If comprehensive examinations and a dissertation are part of the graduation requirements, it may take a year or two longer. There is no standard amount of time — some students take seven to 10 years to finish.”

According to professors and administrators of doctoral programs, there are two different types of doctorates:

— Doctor of Philosophy degrees, commonly known as Ph.D. degrees or research doctorates, which are designed to prepare people for research careers, either at a university or in industry, and which teach students how to discover new knowledge within their academic discipline. Ph.D. degrees are offered in a wide range of academic subjects, including highly technical fields like biology, physics, math or engineering; social sciences like sociology and economics; and humanities disciplines like philosophy. A Ph.D. is the most common degree type among tenure-track college and university faculty, who are typically expected to have a doctorate. But academia is not the only path for someone who pursues a Ph.D. For instance, it is common for individuals with biology doctorates to work as researchers in the pharmaceutical industry. And many government expert positions also require a Ph.D.

— Professional or clinical doctorates, which are designed to give people the practical skills necessary to be influential leaders within a specific industry or employment setting, such as business, psychology, education or nursing. Examples of professional doctoral degrees include a Doctor of Business Administration degree, which is typically known as a DBA; a Doctor of Psychology degree, which is often dubbed a Psy.D. degree; a Doctor of Education degree, which is usually called a Ed.D., and a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree, or DNP.

Aspiring doctoral students should know that getting a doctorate is usually very hard. It typically requires someone to take a series of rigorous classes in their field of study and then subsequently pass a qualification exam in order to begin work on their dissertation, which is their final project. A dissertation is a lengthy piece of original research that must be vetted and approved by a panel of professors in order for a doctorate to be granted. Disserations are notoriously difficult to write — so difficult in fact, says Northcentral University Provost David Harpool, that 50 percent of doctoral students fail to finish writing their dissertation and leave their doctoral programs without a doctorate.

“Many of them are in programs that permit them to earn a master’s on the way to a doctorate,” Harpool says, adding that some individuals have successful careers even without completing their dissertations and receiving the full credential. “The transition from mastering a discipline to creating new knowledge (or at least applying new knowledge in a different way), is difficult, even for outstanding students,” Harpool wrote in an email.

[Read: Ph.D. Programs Get a Lot More Practical.]

Because of the tremendous effort and enormous time investment involved in earning a doctorate, experts say it is foolish to apply to a doctoral program if you don’t have a clear idea of how you might use a doctorate in your career.

“If one is unsure of what interests them, it’s probably best not to pursue a doctorate at that time,” Stacy Peazant, an academic and research administrator at the University of Florida College of Design, Construction and Planning, wrote in an email.

Peazant, who previously worked as an academic adviser for doctoral students at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, says it is unfortunate when doctoral students realize in the middle of their doctoral program that their program was not a good fit for them.

Therefore, she says, reflecting on your academic interests and professional calling is crucial before embarking on a doctoral program. “Family responsibilities should also be considered,” Peazant says. “It’s an emotional and financial commitment for both the student and their family.”

Admissions standards for doctoral programs vary depending on what type of doctorate one is seeking, higher education experts suggest. Ph.D. program administrators and professors say the quality of a Ph.D. candidate’s research is the primary consideration in Ph.D. admissions decisions. Meanwhile, leaders of clinical and professional doctorate programs say that quality of a prospective student’s work experience is what matters most when they decide whether to admit that particular student.

Because professional doctorates often require students to come up with effective solutions to systemic real-world problems, eligibility for these doctorates is often restricted to individuals who have first-hand experience with these problems due to their extensive work experience, according to recipients of professional doctorates. In contrast, it is common for Ph.D. students to begin their Ph.D. programs immediately after they finish their undergraduate degrees, according to Ph.D. program administrators and professors. Therefore, the admissions criteria at Ph.D. programs emphasizes students’ academic prowess as evidenced by their undergraduate transcript, standardized test scores and research projects, and these programs don’t necessarily require work experience.

Rachel D. Miller, a marriage and family therapist who is pursuing a Ph.D. degree in couple and family therapy at Adler University, says pursuing a doctorate has required her to make significant personal sacrifices, both because she had to take on large student loans and she needed to devote a huge amount of time and energy into her doctoral program. Miller says she simultaneously works full-time and takes care of her children, and balancing personal responsibilities with her program has been very difficult to manage.

But Miller believes the effort invested in her doctoral program will pay off on the long run, since it will help her conduct meaningful research into the best way to provide therapy to children impacted by domestic violence.

Miller urges prospective doctoral students to reflect on whether getting a doctorate is truly necessary for them to achieve their dream job. “Really know yourself,” she says. “Know your purpose for pursuing it, because that’s what’s going to help carry you through.”

Alejandro de la Puente, the associate director of the Science Alliance — a program affiliated with the New York Academy of Sciences that offers academic and career guidance to science graduate students — says one sign that someone should pursue a doctorate is a desire to make a lasting and unique contribution to an academic discipline.

Ph.D. programs can be very fulfilling for enthusiastic students who are fascinated by academic research, says de La Puente, who himself has a Ph.D. in particle physics. “Most of the work they will do will be to push the boundaries of knowledge,” he says.

Stephanie Schuttler, a wildlife biologist with a Ph.D. degree, says the best way to determine whether a Ph.D. is worthwhile is to see whether people who work in jobs you’d love typically have a Ph.D or whether it’s possible to get those types of jobs without a Ph.D.

“I would tell them to imagine what types of jobs that they want,” she says.

Schuttler, a postdoctoral research associate with the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, says that if the type of job a student aspires to have only requires a master’s degree, it is not in that student’s interest to pursue a higher degree.

[See: 10 Ways to Identify the Right M.D.-Ph.D. Program.]

“What I found in my field, and it probably applies to other fields as well, is that if you do get a Ph.D. and you apply for job that doesn’t require a Ph.D., people will see you as overqualified, and you kind of have to convince them that you want the job that maybe is at a master’s level,” she says. “And that can be hard to do, because a lot of people I think look at a person who has additional degrees than what the job calls for, and maybe they think that it’s a temporary job for them, that they’re going to take this job as a placeholder until they get something that they really want.”

Schuttler suggests that people who tend to have big and bold ideas are the individuals who tend to thrive in doctorate programs. “If they’re the ones who are always thinking of scientific ideas and research questions, then they should definitely go for the Ph.D.,” she says.

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