A doctorate is the highest academic degree bestowed by American universities. The most common doctorate is the PhD, which stands for Doctor of Philosophy, and is awarded to students in the humanities and natural sciences who successfully complete a program of study and a dissertation in their field. It is a rigorous academic endeavor that should only be undertaken by the top crust of students most dedicated to advancing knowledge in their field.
While the PhD is the most common doctorate, other doctorates include Doctor of Education (Ed.D.), Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.), and Doctor of Engineering (Eng.D.). Because all of these are research-oriented doctorates, the culminating academic experience for doctoral students in these degree programs is the dissertation.
A dissertation is a substantial body of written work, ranging anywhere from 50 to 300 pages, in which the doctoral student — or PhD candidate, as they are referred to before attaining their degree — sets forth an idea unique to his or her field of expertise. PhD candidates present their dissertations during what is called a "defense": a half-hour presentation that they have prepared, followed by one or two hours of questioning by a panel of experts who have read the work ahead of time. At the PhD level, the examination often takes place in front of an audience.
In order for candidates to receive their doctorate, the supervisory committee at the university must deem the written work worthy of publication in a peer-reviewed journal. The committee should also be able to ask any question relevant to the candidate's field of study and expect a thoughtful and accurate response. Since the supervisory committee is made up of people who each hold a doctoral degree in their own right, they have to feel that the candidate has earned the privilege of becoming their peer. The supervisory committee will usually consist of the student's advisor, other professors from the university, an external examiner from outside the university, and a chairman.
Although it is enormously helpful to a PhD's professional and academic career to have work actually get published, at the dissertation level the standard is hypothetical. The dissertation succeeds when it convinces the supervisory committee that the PhD has enough depth of knowledge in a particular area of expertise that it will bring new and important ideas to the field, whether or not it actually appears in print.
The dissertation process usually takes two years, during which time the PhD candidate is immersed in independent scholarly research. This represents the final stage in their pre-degree career, and students who have finished their course work but have not completed or successfully defended their dissertation are often referred to informally as ABD's for "All but dissertation." These students rank higher than those still involved in course work, and may enjoy certain benefits such as higher stipends or teaching graduate-level courses.
At the start of a doctoral program, by contrast, the student's job is to master the general knowledge content of their field by taking graduate-level courses. This is the phase in the doctoral program that emphasizes breadth over depth. Doctoral students may also be involved in research at the university or teaching undergraduate classes. The length of this phase depends on whether students already hold a master's degree in their subject or plan to obtain one en route to the PhD. Most American universities do not require entering PhD students to have a master's, but this can decrease the initial course work phase by one or two years. Though the timeframe varies, it usually takes full-time students 7 years of work beyond the bachelor's degree to obtain their doctorate.
After completing the required amount of graduate course work but prior to beginning their dissertation, students must pass through a "preliminary phase." Here, students undergo a rigorous comprehensive examination in which they prove that they have the ability to speak or write masterfully on any topic in their chosen field. If they pass, they may be entitled to apply for a master's en route to their doctoral degree; if they fail, they may not be invited to pursue their doctoral degree at all.
Because of the intensive nature of most PhD programs, it is difficult for many full-time, traditional students to have jobs outside of the university while pursuing their degrees. Therefore, a student's PhD is usually funded by the university in part or in whole with scholarships and student loans. The university may also offer a stipend for the student's living expenses, or fellowships and on-campus jobs that increase their earning potential while in school.
More and more, however, schools are offering students the chance to pursue their doctoral degrees online. This is an ideal option for students who have full-time jobs but want to augment their educational credentials in a way that is more flexible than a traditional curriculum. These programs are usually highly individualized and self-designed. Distance programs may involve short on-campus residencies or colloquia at specific phases in the program, though some can be done entirely online.
Obtaining a PhD is usually a prerequisite for professors and researchers at the university level. These programs prepare students for a lifelong career in academia; not one that ends once the student successfully defends their dissertation. People who hold research-based doctoral degrees advance in their careers by publishing original scholarly work or becoming valued higher education instructors. If they choose to leave academia, a PhD-level researcher can be valuable to corporations, think tanks, or in politics.
Professional doctorates differ from research doctorates in that they have a different program structure and degree requirements from the three-part PhD structure of course work, examination, and dissertation. Professional doctorates usually lead to a career of practice rather than research. Degrees of this kind include the Doctor of Medicine (MD), Juris Doctor (JD) for practicing lawyers, and Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). All of these doctorates are referred to as terminal degrees, since they are the highest degree one can attain in their profession, and they are seen as equal to the PhD in distinction. So, a JD is technically a doctorate, though not a PhD.
The Doctor of Business Administration degree (DBA), like other research doctorates, is very similar to having a PhD in Business Administration. It requires the student to successfully defend a dissertation that contributes substantively to the field of business theory or practice. It can be a useful and lucrative credential in the competitive world of business, or it can be a good segue for those with extended business experience into an academic career in which they can share this knowledge with their students and peers.
The Doctor of Psychology degree (PsyD) is a professional doctorate in clinical psychology. The PsyD differs from a PhD in Psychology in that it emphasizes practice over research, though some PsyD programs will still require a dissertation. PsyD programs prepare students to work directly with patients in a variety of clinical settings, from hospitals to schools to a private practice. Like a medical doctorate, an internship is required.
The Doctor of Education degree (EdD) is a research-based degree that requires a dissertation and is very similar to a PhD in Education in scope and academic rigor. Some institutions make the distinction that the EdD degree is more about applied research than independent study; the EdD program of study might be more project-based than the theoretical research that goes into a PhD. The EdD prepares students for higher-level teaching and administrative positions in schools and universities.
The Doctorate in Practical Nursing degree (DNP) is a clinical degree that is a prerequisite for many advanced nursing practice roles, including nurse practitioner (NP), certified nurse midwife (CNM), certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA) or clinical nurse specialist (CNS). DNP programs put theoretical research to practice, training students who may already hold RN degrees in advanced clinical work and leadership.
Attaining a PhD or other kind of doctorate is an accomplishment that can carry a number of rewards, including a higher pay scale or lifetime job stability. However, the time, work, and cost of gaining this academic credential is so substantial that many students will fail if they are not engaged and motivated by the process rather than the pay-off.
However, for those who are up to the challenge and are passionate about their studies, obtaining a doctorate is the best way to contribute to the scholarship and research of their chosen field. The extreme rigor of the academics ensures that those who get through it have the ability, and even the responsibility, of sharing what they know with the world. From quantum physics to King Tut's tomb, the major discoveries that have advanced and enriched our world were mostly spearheaded by experts whose accomplishments we honor with the title of "doctor."