What is a Doctorate Degree?

A doctorate degree — or a doctoral degree — is the most rigorous type of academic degree a person can obtain.

It’s also considered a terminal degree, which means that it’s the highest educational qualification one can earn. Individuals who complete a doctoral program are sought for teaching, research, consulting and management roles.

Since 2000, the number of Americans with doctoral degrees has more than doubled — there are now approximately 4.5 million doctoral degree holders in the US today, says the Census Bureau.

Doctorate Degree Types

There are a number of doctorate degrees in various categories that you can choose from.

They can, however, be classified into two main types: academic and professional.

Both types are terminal, which means that they are the highest educational qualification you can earn in the US.

Which one you should go for will depend on what you want to become an expert in and which career is your prospect.

In this part of the post, we’ll take a look at academic and professional doctorate degrees:

Academic Doctorate

Commonly referred to as a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), an academic doctorate is a research degree that entails focusing on exploring a topic or discipline in depth.

Typically, this degree program requires students to complete a dissertation.

In most instances, students who enroll in an academic doctorate program are interested in working in academia, usually as a professor or a researcher in their respective fields.

Pursuing careers outside academia and research, however, is not uncommon among some PhD holders.

The following are examples of some of the most popular academic doctorates:

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Among the various doctorate degrees out there, the PhD is one of the most common. Individuals who are interested in different fields can enroll in a PhD program, which takes anywhere from four to six long years to complete.

Students who wish to focus on new knowledge generation via research, data collection, experiment and application of new techniques may want to consider a PhD. It’s also suited for those who wish to gain some teaching experience.

Doctor of Education (EdD)

An EdD program combines both research and application. Similarly, the resulting educational qualification is applicable to a wide range of industries, both inside and outside of the education domain.

Usually, an EdD, which usually takes around three years to complete, is best suited to experienced educators and also working professionals who want to implement as well as lead changes in their organization.

Doctor of Nursing Science (DNSc)

A DNSc, simply put, is a terminal research degree in nursing — nurses who wish to advance into research, management, consulting or teaching at a university, can get no other educational qualification higher than this.

Taking approximately five years to complete, a DNSc program, as expected, involves challenging coursework as well as in-depth research.

It typically culminates in a clinical defense and a final dissertation, too.

Professional Doctorate

Also sometimes referred to as an applied doctorate, a professional doctorate is more focused on a specific profession rather than a broad area of discipline, which puts more focus on the degree holder’s prospective career path.

The program allows students to obtain specialized knowledge and skills in their respective fields, thus allowing them to meet minimum academic and licensure requirements for their chosen professions.

Basically, it provides theoretical frameworks which are then applied in real-world situations.

Here are some of the most commonly conferred professional doctorate degrees:

Doctor of Business Administration (DBA)

The DBA program focuses on equipping students with practical knowledge, which they can directly apply in real-world scenarios.

Courses are about business theory and practice as well as the exploration of business-related challenges.

Numerous DBA programs allow students to have specializations, too, ranging from entrepreneurship to leadership, thus allowing them to focus on disciplines that will suit their career goals better.

Doctor of Medicine (MD)

Simply put, the presence of the designation MD signifies that the individual has completed medical school, which involves four years of school and three additional years of training by means of residency.

The curriculum of an MD program typically consists of two components: classroom work and clinical work, which is an on-site undertaking with doctors, which is meant for students to learn various specializations.

Doctor of Optometry (OD)

Taking four years to complete, an OD program includes the clinical and practical aspects of optometry. It also comprises the fundamental and theoretical attributes of vision science.

Some universities, including SUNY, offer a joint degree program for those who are interested in becoming optometrists — it allows them to earn both a bachelor’s degree and an OD in just seven years instead of the usual eight.

Best Doctorate Degree Jobs

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) says that the median annual salary of doctorate degree holders aged 25 to 34 and working full-time amounted to $74,600.

For reference purposes, in the same year for people within the same age range, employment status and with a bachelor’s degree, the median annual salary was $61,600.

Given that a doctorate degree is the highest educational qualification one can get in the US, it’s no wonder that those who have it are also some of the highest earners in the country.

According to Indeed, here are the highest-paying jobs for doctorate degree holders:

Job TitleAverage Annual SalaryJob Growth Rate
Aerospace engineer$151,5976%
Biomedical engineer$137,3525%
Clinical psychologist$111,57510%
Information security analyst$103,90732%
Computer scientist$103,70813%
Political scientist$97,5227%
Chemical engineer$94,3118%
Electrical engineer$93,9625%
Educational leader$93,5795%
Environmental scientist$87,5606%
Organic chemist$77,2406%

Pros and Cons of a PhD

According to data from the NCES, the number of doctorate degrees conferred by American universities from 2013 to 2023 increased from 177,000 to 208,500 — a surge of approximately 18% in 10 years.

The most popular doctorates include health professions and related fields: 85,581.

In the same year, they were followed by legal professions and studies (35,976 degrees conferred), education (13,655 degrees conferred and engineering (10,890 degrees conferred).

Based on the figures above, earning a doctorate degree has been getting more and more popular.

It’s important to point out, however, that enrolling in a doctoral program is not for all people.

Similarly, it’s not for all career paths.

Knowing the advantages and disadvantages of working on a PhD, therefore, is important.

Speaking of which, let’s take a look at the pros and cons of getting a doctorate degree:


  • Furthering of knowledge and skills in an area of study
  • Better professional networking opportunities
  • A wider range of job prospects
  • Higher earning potential
  • Increased happiness and satisfaction for contributing something to the world


  • Additional education costs
  • Increased student debt
  • Time-consuming
  • Increased stress and anxiety
  • Competitive job market for doctorate degree holders

What’s Next After Becoming a Doctor

After getting your hands on a doctorate degree, you can start pursuing various career paths.

You may work either as a professor at a university or a researcher at a research institution. You may also choose to step foot in a different industry that can benefit from your specialized knowledge or research skills.

Starting your own business is a possibility, too, where you can make the most out of your doctorate degree and interests in life.

Just like what was mentioned earlier, a PhD is a terminal degree.

So, in other words, it’s the highest educational credential in an academic area or professional discipline that one can possibly earn.

It doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that being a doctorate degree holder is the end of your pursuit of learning and developing your skills and perspectives.

Conducting postdoctoral research, for instance, is an option, which can help extend and strengthen your scientific knowledge and technical abilities. Such can be related to your specialization or an entirely different field, too.

However, it’s important to consider that any additional furthering of what you know will consume both time and money. It’s also a must to determine whether or not the payoff is worth it.

And speaking of which, you should also take into account the fact that ending up overqualified for certain career prospects is a possibility.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the College Reality Check.

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