What is the difference between a professional doctorate and a Ph.D.?

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January 16, 2024

While many often use the terms ‘doctorate’ and ‘Ph.D.’ interchangeably, there is a distinct difference between the two. In the simplest terms, a Ph.D. (Doctorate of Philosophy) is one specific type of doctorate.

All doctorate degrees require extensive schooling, represent elite expertise in a given field, and are administered by universities as the highest level of academic achievement. 

However, there are notable differences in the structure and purpose of a professional doctorate versus a Ph.D. While the research-focused Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) trains future professors and scholars, professional doctorates like the JD (Juris Doctor) and MD (Doctor of Medicine) equip graduates for specialized careers through applied learning.

For an extensive breakdown of the differences between a Ph.D., a doctorate, and a professional doctorate, read on!

Key Takeaways:

  • A Ph.D. is a type of doctorate
  • Doctorate degrees encompass a range of doctoral degrees, including the Ph.D.
  • A Ph.D. is primarily research-oriented, while professional doctorate degrees are geared towards professionals in applied fields such as law or medicine. 
  • Consider your career goals and interests when deciding which degree to pursue.

What is a doctorate?

A doctorate, often referred to as a doctoral degree, is the highest academic degree universities award. No matter the field of study, completing a doctorate demands several years of intensive research and  a demonstration of one’s ability to contribute new theories, data, or solutions to their field.

Official definitions may vary slightly between countries and institutions. Still, a doctorate is characterized by the following key aspects:

  • Level of Study: It is a postgraduate academic degree awarded after completion of higher-level study, research, and contribution to academic knowledge.
  • Research Focus: The core component of a doctorate is significant original research. This research is usually presented as a thesis or dissertation, which must be defended before a panel of experts in the field.
  • Duration: A doctorate takes approximately three to seven years to complete, depending on the field of study, country, and whether the student studies full-time or part-time.
  • Advanced Knowledge and Expertise: The program is designed to develop advanced skills in conducting independent and comprehensive research. It equips candidates with the ability to contribute new knowledge or theories to their field of expertise.
  • Qualification for Teaching and Research Positions: Holders of a doctorate degree are often qualified for advanced academic positions, such as university faculty roles, and are considered experts in their field.
  • Variety of Fields: Doctorates are awarded in various disciplines, ranging from the humanities and social sciences to natural sciences, engineering, and professional fields.

What is a PhD degree?

A Ph.D., or Doctor of Philosophy, is a specific type of doctorate, and it is among the most well-known of all doctoral degrees. Generally, a Ph.D. is characterized by the following key elements:

  • Research Focus: A Ph.D. is heavily centred on original research. The core of a Ph.D. program is the dissertation, a substantial piece of original research that contributes new knowledge or understanding to a specific field of study.
  • Advanced Academic Study: It involves advanced study and research in a specialized field. This includes extensive coursework, examinations, and the research process leading to the dissertation.
  • Duration: The time to complete a Ph.D. can vary significantly, typically ranging from 3 to 6 years, depending on the field of study, research complexity, and the institution.
  • Scholarly Contribution: Ph.D. candidates must demonstrate a high level of scholarly expertise and contribute significantly to their academic discipline, often through publication in peer-reviewed journals.
  • Dissertation Defense: A critical component of the Ph.D. is the defence of the dissertation before a panel of experts. This involves presenting the research and findings and answering questions to demonstrate expertise and depth of knowledge.

Understanding the difference between a doctorate and a Ph.D. 

While all Ph.D. degrees are doctorates, not all doctorates are Ph.D.s. As explained above, the term “doctorate” encompasses a broader range of disciplines beyond traditional academic and research-focused areas. In contrast, a Ph.D. is a specific type of doctorate that is tied closely to academia and academic research. 

Understanding the difference between a professional doctorate and a Ph.D.

Now that we have discussed the distinction between a doctorate – as a broad category – and a Ph.D., it’s necessary to unpack the key differences between professional doctorates and academic doctorates. 

Purpose and Focus

  • Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy): This is predominantly a research-oriented degree. It is designed for individuals aiming to contribute original research and theories to their field of study, often targeting careers in academia, research, or teaching.
  • Professional Doctorate: These degrees are more practice-oriented. They are tailored to apply advanced knowledge and skills directly to professional practices, such as medicine, law, business, or education.

Curriculum and Training:

  • Ph.D.: The focus is on developing research methodologies, conducting in-depth studies, and contributing new knowledge to the academic community. The culmination of a Ph.D. is often the dissertation, which requires a significant contribution to the chosen field of study.
  • Professional Doctorate: The curriculum often combines theoretical knowledge with practical application. Students may engage in research, but the emphasis is on applying existing knowledge to solve real-world problems in their profession.

Career Trajectories:

  • Ph.D. Graduates: They are typically geared towards academic positions, such as professors, researchers, or scholars. They may also play key roles in policy development, consulting, or high-level research in various industries.
  • Professional Doctorate Holders: They usually pursue advanced positions in their respective fields, like senior medical practitioners, high-ranking administrators in education, top-tier consultants in business, or practicing attorneys in law.

Nature of Research:

  • Ph.D.: Research is often theoretical or experimental, aimed at expanding theoretical knowledge or understanding in a specific area.
  • Professional Doctorate: Research tends to be more applied, focused on practical solutions, and directly relevant to the professional field.

If you’re looking to apply your knowledge and skills in a professional context, pursuing a professional doctorate may be the right choice for you. Each program has its own unique requirements, but they all share a focus on real-world applications.

For example, a professional doctorate program in business administration may require students to complete a research project that addresses a real-world problem faced by a specific company or industry. Similarly, a professional doctorate in nursing may require students to develop and implement a new clinical program or protocol in a healthcare setting.

Types of Doctorate Degrees

Suppose you’re trying to wrap your head around the difference between a doctorate, a Ph.D., and a professional doctorate. In that case, it can be useful to compare the many different types of doctorates that exist. Here are a few examples:

Type of DoctorateDescriptionType
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)A research-oriented degree that is focused on original research in a specific field.Academic
Doctor of Business Administration (DBA)A professional doctorate that focuses on the practical application of business theories. It prepares individuals to become leaders in the corporate world.Professional
Doctor of Education (EdD)A professional doctorate degree that focuses on the practical application of educational theories. It prepares individuals to become leaders in education and educational administration.Professional
Doctor of Medicine (MD)A degree that is required to practice medicine, where students learn about medical sciences and clinical skills.Professional
Juris Doctor (JD)The primary law degree in the United States, focuses on legal studies. In Canada, the JD is described as a first-level common law degree and an undergraduate degree program, not a graduate degree program,Professional
Doctor of Psychology (PsyD)Concentrated on clinical psychology practice, focusing on therapy and counselling methods.Professional
Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD)Focused on pharmacology, patient care, and the therapeutic use of medicines.Professional

All in all

In summary, understanding the differences between a doctorate, a professional doctorate, and a Ph.D. is crucial when aligning academic pursuits with career goals. If your interests lie in research and academia, opting for a Ph.D. route is likely your best bet. Conversely, if practical application and leadership in a professional realm appeal to you, a professional doctorate like a DBA or MD may be more suitable for you. 

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

1. What is a terminal degree?

A terminal degree is the highest degree that can be awarded in a particular academic or professional track. It is often considered an advanced degree, and in many fields, a doctorate serves as a terminal degree.

2. What is a professional doctorate?

A professional doctorate is a type of degree program that combines advanced study with practical application in a specific field or industry, such as business administration. It differs from a traditional doctor of philosophy program by emphasizing real-world application of knowledge to meet career goals.

3. PhD vs professional doctoral degree?

The primary difference lies in the focus and application of the degrees. A PhD primarily emphasizes original research and contributes to theoretical knowledge, while a professional doctorate places greater emphasis on applying research to professional settings and addressing real-world challenges.

4. Is a PhD holder called a doctor?

Yes, a PhD holder is typically addressed as a doctor. The title “Doctor” is used to acknowledge their academic achievement and expertise in their field of study. This designation is a recognition of the extensive research and scholarly contributions made through their doctoral program.