Professional Doctorate vs PhD: What's the Difference?

A doctoral student typing on computer by a window

Earning a doctoral-level degree is a major accomplishment. Students who commit to earning these degrees go through a rigorous and difficult academic process. Thanks to years of advanced study and practice and the many academic and professional experiences that each doctoral candidate faces, holders of doctoral degrees gain respect and positions at the top of their field.

When earning a doctorate degree, there are two main options: a professional doctorate and a Doctor of Philosophy degree (PhD). While these are both advanced degree programs that are found at many different universities, there are many differences to be aware of before choosing which degree you want to pursue. 

Why Should I Earn a Doctorate?

There are many reasons that individuals ultimately decide to pursue a doctoral degree. These degrees, such as a PhD or professional doctorate, are terminal degrees. 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 widen your career options as well as earn you a higher salary than people with only a master’s degree. While both a PhD and a professional doctorate have these benefits, it’s important to know the differences between the two.

What Is a Professional Doctorate?

A professional doctorate degree program often leads to a professional career, as these programs focus on helping individuals study within their current field in order to apply knowledge directly to their specific career. Individuals can earn professional doctorates in business administration, education, nursing practice or public health. Professional doctorate holders typically qualify for specific leadership roles that require this level of degree.

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

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

What Is a PhD?

A PhD, or a Doctor of Philosophy degree, was traditionally considered the degree that prepares you to teach in the field of study of your choice. However, many people who earn a PhD go on to work in practice fields and use their foundational knowledge from this degree and apply it to the needs of their current profession. Like a professional doctorate, you can get a PhD in many different topics, including psychology, engineering, physical sciences, humanities, health or the arts.

The major emphases in a PhD program include: 

  • Analyzing existing theories in a field 
  • Evaluating the seminal and current research happening in a field 
  • Discovering gaps in research and literature that may lead to further study 
  • Conducting original research to add to the body of knowledge in a field 
  • Communicating the findings of research to an academic audience and stakeholders who would be impacted by new knowledge

Similarities Between a Professional Doctorate and a PhD

During both a professional doctorate program and a PhD, students will find themselves in a long commitment that will ultimately bring them the highest level of academic achievement. As mentioned, both terminal degrees will earn individuals respect in their field as well as a high-level position and salary.

Additionally, both programs require that students complete a dissertation, which is original research that expands and contributes to the body of work already available in the field of study. While some schools offer hybrid learning options for doctoral students, both a PhD and a professional doctorate program typically end after the dissertation process is completed. 

Differences Between a Professional Doctorate and a PhD

While a professional doctorate and a PhD can sound similar at first, at the core of each program they are very different programs aimed to help students learn in different ways. While a professional doctorate is focused on practical problems faced by professionals working in the field, a PhD takes a more theoretical approach to learning, looking closely at research in the field rather than practical application.

Typical Students

Because the focus of these two degrees differ, each program is designed to better suit different career goals. A PhD, for example, is geared toward teaching, leading and training learners to be experts in their field through a research-intensive program.

Those who enroll into a PhD program are typically college graduates who have a bachelor’s and master’s degree in a related field to whatever field they want to pursue. Most learners who earn PhDs go on to conduct academic research and fill prestigious roles in academia, including teaching.

A professional doctorate, however, is geared more toward practical application within a field. Those who earn a professional doctorate are typically already working professionals who want to increase their knowledge in their field to advance their career and salary to the next level and beyond. These professionals are from all areas of work, but usually aspire to become leaders within their field.


While both degrees end with learners defending a dissertation, the approach to the dissertation process in each program is extremely different. In a PhD program, the foundation of the dissertation is focused on the exploration and development of a theory that each doctoral candidate must defend. A PhD candidate analyzes their data and evaluates their hypothesis, coming up with new theories to contribute to the field.

The dissertation process for professional doctorates, on the other hand, includes identifying real-world issues within their field of study and working out a solution to these challenges faced by professionals. The candidate researches the problem and applies possible solutions to this problem while documenting their results. The end of the dissertation generally includes suggestions for how others in the field may use this information to solve problems in their own practices.

Post-Degree Career Options

While careers for a professional doctorate overlap with those for PhD graduates, the skills learned in each program will better equip graduates for certain roles over others.

PhD graduates typically pursue a career that lets them apply their academic research skills, such as:*

  • Dean of students 
  • Professor 
  • Research consultant 
  • Nonprofit development writer 
  • Curriculum designer

Because professional doctorate graduates usually are already rooted in a certain profession, they will use their degree to secure a leadership position within their field, such as: 

  • Chief executive officer 
  • Business intelligence director 
  • Market research director 
  • Healthcare management 
  • Public administration leadership

How to Earn a PhD or Professional Doctorate

Once you have considered your career goals and how much time you have to dedicate yourself to earning an advanced degree, you can determine whether earning a PhD or professional doctorate is the best choice for you.

Because many doctoral candidates are already working professionals, many universities offer both in-person evening classes and online programs that can work around your already busy schedule. This way, it’s possible for you to continue in your current career while also advancing in your education and pursing your career goals.

Grand Canyon University’s College of Doctoral Studies offers professional doctorate programs that encompass a variety of professional fields, from a Doctor of Business Administration in Data Analytics to a PhD in General Psychology. Click the Request Info button at the top of the page to learn more about your options at GCU.


*Retrieved from MLA Profession, Ten Jobs Where You Can Use Your PhD in May 2021

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. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.