Professional doctorate degrees
Professional doctoral degrees are not new. However, in recent years they have become more prevalent. Factors such as licensure requirements, employer preferences, knowledge/skill expansion, and the greater linkage between education and the economy have contributed to the proliferation of new professional doctoral degrees.
In this article, I compare professional doctorates to research doctorates in terms of:
- degree designators;
- academic content; and
- employment opportunities.
In general, the focus of professional doctorates is on the development of advanced knowledge and skills that will benefit the recipient in a workplace environment. In many professions such as medicine, law, or allied health fields like audiology and physical therapy, a professional doctorate is the entry-level degree required to practice.
Research degrees, on the other hand, focus on the development of knowledge and skills that allow the recipient to engage in research and make original intellectual contributions to the discipline’s knowledge base through scholarly work such as books or articles. Although it may be tempting to view doctoral degrees in a simple binary system, the reality is that the distinction is not so straightforward.
Professional doctorates focus on providing the advanced knowledge and skills needed for a particular occupations. In many advanced fields, these are entry-level requirements. Research degrees are focused on intellectual contributions to a discipline through scholarly work. Many docotrates fit within this binary system, but sometimes the distinction is not so straightforward.
The Ph.D. tends to be a research degree. In the 2020 Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED), the overwhelming majority of the respondents were pursuing a Ph.D. (98%), with 18 other types of research doctorates making up the small remaining portion.
[Read: Grad schools in the U.S.]
Professional doctorates are reflected by numerous designators. Some directly refer to the associated discipline, such as:
- Doctor of Psychology (PsyD)
- Doctor of Audiology (AuD)
- Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT)
Others are more general, such as:
- Doctor of Organizational Leadership (DOL)
- Doctor of Social Science (DSSc)
- Doctor of Business Administration (DBA)
- Doctor of Health Sciences (DHSc)
Professional doctoral degrees such as these tend to allow more individualization of plans of study. Even though the number of designators categorized as research degrees in the SED has decreased, it remains risky to assume that a degree is or is not a research degree based solely on its designator. It is better to explore fully the content and requirements of the degree as well as the outcomes and career placements of the alumni.
It remains risky to assume that a degree is or is not a research degree based solely on its designator. It is better to explore fully the content and requirements of the degree as well as the outcomes and career placements of the alumni.
In the typical Ph.D. program, students start their graduate studies as apprentice researchers. Some have earned only an undergraduate degree, whereas others already have a master’s degree.
- The Ph.D. is optimally full time and students are immersed in scholarly activity with some coursework.
- Admission to a Ph.D. program is usually based on the selection of a student by an advisor/mentor.
Professional doctoral programs that serve as entry to specific professions tend to be governed by accreditation standards, which specify the knowledge and skills they must address. These outcomes are closely aligned with licensure and/or certification standards, and programs are required to document that their graduates are successful in passing exams and any other requirements necessary to engage in professional practice.
Although there may be some variation across accredited programs to reflect university mission, the necessity to adhere to accreditation standards results in considerable uniformity of the basic elements of these degree programs.
- Admission is often competitive and based on an optimal fit between the individual program’s focus and the student’s academic record, goals, and experiences.
- Typically, students are admitted once a year as cohorts and proceed through the program in a lockstep fashion.
- Some entry-level professional doctoral programs allow part-time students, but most require full-time study.
Professional doctorates that are not considered entry level are characterized by greater variety. They may offer admission each semester, allow students to individualize their program based on interests and professional goals, and usually allow part-time study.
At the beginning of this century, almost half of the individuals earning research doctorates took a first position in academia. This proportion has decreased over the past 2 decades, falling from 49% to 40%. The declines were sharpest for mathematics and computer science (47.5% to 26.5%) and the arts and humanities (78% to 69.9%).
These changes are due to both increased opportunities in non-academic positions and diminishing openings for academic faculty positions. The Council of Graduate Schools has conducted several projects focused on PhD Career Pathways and provides resources to encourage programs to prepare their students for a variety of future careers both in academia and the business/government/non-profit sectors.
According to the current occupational outlook provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 12% of the careers with growth rates higher than average require a doctoral or professional degree.
Just as Ph.D. programs are now preparing students for non-academic careers, professional doctoral programs can lead to careers in academia. According to the current occupational outlook provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 12% of the careers with growth rates higher than average require a doctoral or professional degree.
Some of these careers are for service providers like audiologists, chiropractors, physical therapists, and veterinarians, but others are in post-secondary teaching (biological sciences, law, engineering, nursing, other health specialties). Many universities offer a career track for clinical or applied faculty. These positions focus on effective teaching that includes applied learning and have limited, if any, expectations for research productivity.
Selecting a doctoral degree
The most important factor in selecting a doctoral degree is its alignment with your personal and professional goals. In professions where the doctorate is the entry-level credential, the choice is straightforward – you must get one in order to practice. If program accreditation is required, you can take comfort in knowing that there is a great deal of similarity across programs, so your choice can be affected by factors such as location, cost, and other university characteristics. Of course, competitive admission often narrows the choices for prospective students.
The most important factor in selecting a doctoral degree is its alignment with your personal and professional goals.
If you want a career as a university faculty member who will engage in both teaching and research and have a chance to earn tenure, your best choice is a Ph.D. Selection of a particular Ph.D. program is really the selection of a research mentor and associated program of study, length of program, lab resources/opportunities, and funding.
The choice to pursue a professional doctorate that is not required for practice is a little more challenging. For most, the decision will be based on whether there will be a positive return on investment (ROI) in terms of future job possibilities, financial gain, and/or personal development.
[More: Is a master’s degree worth it?]
Because these degrees are not required for licensure or other comparable credentials, it will be necessary to do some background research to determine the benefits of earning the degree. A primary consideration is whether earning the degree will allow you to enter or advance in your career of choice.
For example, my own institution offers a Doctor of Defense and Strategic Studies (DDSS) degree. Individuals who earn this degree are well positioned to advance as military officers and in State and Defense Department roles and many civilian governmental positions. Another example from my institution is the opportunity for those who hold professional doctorates to serve in faculty positions.
At MSU, these lines are classified as clinical faculty and do not lead to tenure. However, they do usually involve multi-year contracts and have career advancement opportunities. Individuals are initially appointed as either clinical instructors or clinical assistant professors and are able to advance to the associate and full professor ranks by meeting academic criteria in professional productivity/applied scholarship, teaching, and service. Faculty in these positions serve an important role for universities, and individuals in these roles find them fulfilling.
The DDSS and clinical professorial tracks are associated with desirable outcomes because of a clear alignment between the degree and desired employment contexts. They illustrate why it is critical to do the necessary research to determine what the potential benefits of earning a specific professional doctoral degree could be before committing to pursuing one.
It is critical to do the necessary research to determine what the potential benefits of earning a specific professional doctoral degree could be before committing to pursuing one.
On occasion, I’ve heard of someone choosing a professional doctorate over a Ph.D. because it was more convenient or perceived to be less challenging, and the thought was that a doctorate is a doctorate. That is simply not the case, and the ultimate lack of fit and necessary preparation for a desired career could be devastating and financially problematic.
If the chances for a desirable ROI are high, the next decision will be what specific degree program to attend. That decision could be influenced by:
- modality delivery and access (online, seated, hybrid; part-time, full-time)
- alignment between program of study and personal career goals
- characteristics of faculty
Again, it is a good idea to start with the desired outcome in mind and then find a program that optimally prepares you for that path. If you do have multiple options that meet that criterion, the factors such as delivery, access, and cost can be considered. A professional doctorate can be a fruitful path to advancement or a new career.