PhD or Professional Doctorate: What Is the Difference?

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Earning a doctoral-level degree is a major accomplishment. Years of advanced study and practice go into becoming a doctor in whatever field you study. So, while there are many differences between a PhD and a professional doctorate that we will dive into in a moment, it is important to recognize that doctoral degree holders have gone through a rigorous and difficult academic process. Their academic experiences have gotten them to the tops of their fields.

Why Earn a Doctoral Degree

A doctoral degree can help you earn a higher salary than people with a master's degree. A doctoral degree, such as a PhD or professional doctorate, is a terminal degree. This means that when you earn it, you have reached the highest formal degree in your field. This looks great on a resume and can bolster your career options. Because both a PhD and a professional doctorate can have these benefits, it is important to know the differences between the two.

What Is a PhD?

A PhD is a Doctor of Philosophy degree. It can be earned in many fields of study. Traditionally, the PhD was considered the degree that prepares you to teach. However, many people who earn PhDs go on to work in practical fields using their foundational knowledge and applying it to the needs of their profession.

Earning a PhD can be a long and complex process. The coursework and research that goes into becoming a PhD includes writing a dissertation and defending your work. A dissertation is original research that expands and contributes to the body of work already available in the field of study. A PhD candidate analyzes their data and evaluates their hypothesis coming up with new theories to present to the field.

The major emphases in a PhD program are to:

  • Analyze existing theories in a field
  • Evaluate the seminal and current research happening in that field
  • Discover gaps in research and literature that may lead to further study
  • Conduct original research to add to this body of knowledge
  • Communicate the findings of the research to an academic audience and to stakeholders who would be impacted by this new knowledge

What Is a Professional Doctorate?

A professional doctorate generally leads to a professional career. Professional doctorate holders study within their field in order to apply knowledge directly to their career. In many cases, professional doctorates lead to a specific career. Professional doctorate holders may earn degrees in business administration, education, nursing practice or public health. Once these degrees are earned, the holders may qualify for specific leadership roles that require them to hold this terminal level degree, such as Doctor of Nursing Practice or MD.

Professional doctorates focus on the practical problems addressed and faced by people working in the field. The dissertation process for professional doctorates usually includes formulating solutions to the issues or challenges faced by professionals in the field. With these solutions, the professional doctorate holder develops new practice standards within the field.

Professional doctorate students are generally working professionals who have experience in their field. They are likely practicing in the field currently in a role that supports the career that they will eventually go into once they earn their degree. The professional doctorate degree allows them to advance their careers and have their coursework lead them into higher positions of leadership and influence in their field.

The major focus of work during a professional doctoral program includes:

  • Evaluating how relevant the current practices are within the field
  • Solving real-world problems in the field
  • Designing and conducting research and applying the results of that research to practical problems
  • Expanding the body of knowledge around a topic in the field

A professional doctoral study often ends in a dissertation. This dissertation includes the identification of a real-world problem in the field of study. The candidate researches the problem and possible solutions to understand how it might be solved. They experiment and apply possible solutions to the problem and document their results. The end of the dissertation generally includes suggestions for how others in the field may use this information to solve the problems in their own practices.

What Are the Differences Between a PhD and Professional Doctorate?

The traditionally held belief that a PhD leads to a teaching role and a professional doctorate leads to a professional role is no longer the standard. Many business leaders hold PhD-level degrees and that additional business knowledge and foundation helps them make difficult decisions. Additionally, professional doctorate holders can become adjunct and even full-time faculty at universities in order to train the next generation of practical professionals.

The chart below helps to summarize the differences between PhD and professional doctorate programs.

  PhD Professional Doctorate
Research Focus Creating new knowledge by conducting original research Applying existing knowledge in new ways to solve problems
Dissertation Foundation is focused on theory exploration and development Foundation is focused on application and practical improvement
Career Application Academic- and research- focused Direct application to profession


How to Earn a PhD or Doctorate

Once you have thought about your career goals and the time you have to dedicate to your advanced studies, you can determine whether or not earning a PhD or professional doctorate is the best choice for you. You should think about your career goals and the next steps you plan to take in applying the degree to your career. You should also think about what kind of research makes the most sense for meeting your goals.

Many PhDs and doctorates can be earned either in person or online. This broadens your ability to continue in your current career while also advancing your education.

If you are interested in earning a PhD or professional doctorate, take a look at what the Grand Canyon University College of Doctoral Studies has to offer. You will find programs that encompass every area from a Doctor of Business Administration with an Emphasis in Data Analytics to a PhD in General Psychology.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University.

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