If you're a college student nearing the completion of your degree, you are probably contemplating what your next steps should be. Should you go to graduate school or turn toward the job market? What options are available to you if you enter the job market, and what are the advantages of getting a graduate degree? Does going to graduate school mean you're getting a doctorate? What can you do with a doctorate? What are J.S.D., Ph.D., D.B.A. and other confusing abbreviations?

Tip

The doctorate degree is the highest academic degree possible in a particular field.

The Doctoral Degree Definition

There are three university degrees that are available in the United States. After completing college (or undergraduate studies), students achieve a bachelor’s degree and can choose from two different options: go on to start obtaining practical work experience or continue with their studies at a more advanced level. If they choose to continue their education, they go on to what is called “graduate studies,” either in the same school or at a different university. Admission to many graduate programs is often a highly competitive process and is contingent upon the student achieving a certain grade point average and the student's demonstrated commitment to his chosen field of study.

Graduate studies allow students to focus on one subject, delving deeper into a particular area and becoming an expert in one particular field. The first postgraduate degree is called a master's degree and typically takes one to two years to complete. If the student wants to continue her studies beyond that, she can go on to study for a doctoral degree. A doctoral degree is the highest advanced degree in the U.S. It makes you an expert in a certain field, and in many cases, it opens more career opportunities. Achieving a doctorate, meaning a Ph.D. in many cases, often requires the student to do extensive research in her chosen subject, publish articles in academic publications and present her work to national and international audiences at conferences. Achieving a Ph.D. means that you have mastered a specific area of study, becoming an expert in it.

In some cases, in order to get into a doctoral program you need to have already obtained a master’s degree, but that is not always the case. Some programs may accept you with a bachelor's degree and require you to take preparatory coursework before enrolling.

Types of Doctoral Degrees

There are two major kinds of doctoral degrees: a research doctorate and a professional doctorate.

A research doctorate allows students to focus on theory and research into their subject and make a significant intellectual contribution to their chosen field of study. According to the National Science Foundation, “Research doctorate is a doctoral degree that is oriented toward preparing students to make original intellectual contributions in a field of study and that is not primarily intended for the practice of a profession.”

The most common type of a doctoral degree is the Ph.D., meaning "Doctor of Philosophy." However, there are several other kinds of doctoral degrees. The following are some of the types of research doctorate degrees that are recognized by the National Science Foundation:

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
Doctor of Arts (D.A.)
Doctor of Business Administration (D.B.A.)
Doctor of Design (D.Des.)
Doctor of Engineering or Engineering Science (D.Eng., D.E.Sc., D.E.S.)
Doctor of Fine Arts (D.F.A.)
Doctor of Hebrew Letters (D.H.L.)
Doctor of Musical Arts (D.M.A.)
Doctor of Music Education (D.M.E.)
Doctor of Modern Languages (D.M.L.)
Doctor of Nursing Science (D.N.Sc.)
Doctor of Public Health (D.P.H.)
Doctor of Science (D.Sc., Sc.D.)
Doctor of Education (Ed.D.)
Doctor of Canon Law (J.C.D.)
Doctor of Juridical Science (J.S.D., S.J.D.)
Doctor of Sacred Theology (S.T.D.)
Doctor of Theology (Th.D.)

The Ph.D. is a doctoral degree that is available in most disciplines. Some disciplines have specially designated names for doctoral degrees, such as Doctor of Theology or Doctor of Music Arts.

Some degree names are limited to certain schools. For instance, Doctor of Modern Languages (D.M.L.) is limited to only one school in the U.S., the Middlebury Language Schools. The requirements to be admitted to the program are the same as for the Ph.D. in other places – that is, the obtainment of a master’s degree.

In addition to research doctorates, one could go on to achieve a professional doctorate degree. Professional doctorates are different in that they focus more on practical work and application of the research methodologies to the field. A professional doctorate degree may also recognize your practical experience. While research doctorate students focus on developing new ideas and theories to make a significant intellectual contribution to their field, in professional doctorate programs, students’ doctoral work is typically focused on finding practical solutions to specific problems and applying theories to real-world situations.

The same field might often offer both research and professional doctorates. For instance, the doctorate degrees in nursing include the Doctor of Nursing Practice degree (D.N.P.), Doctor of Philosophy degree (Ph.D.) or the Doctor of Nursing Science degree (D.N.S., D.S.N. or D.N.Sc.). A Ph.D. in nursing or a Doctor of Nursing Science degree are research doctorates that focus on research methodology and theory questions. The D.N.P., on the other hand, is a professional degree with a focus on advanced clinical practice. D.N.P. programs focus on such practical areas as quality improvement, clinical practice administration and various specialty areas.

Some programs may even offer two kinds of research doctorate degrees in the same discipline. Yale University, for instance, offers two research doctorate degrees in law: a Ph.D. and a J.S.D. The Ph.D. is awarded by Yale University's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and the program is aimed at students whose first degree in law is a J.D. from a U.S. law school. The J.S.D. degree, on the other hand, is awarded by Yale Law School and is designed for students who received their first degree in law from a school outside the U.S.

Requirements to Obtain a Doctoral Degree

Each university and program has its own specific set of requirements for the students to complete in order to achieve a doctoral degree. Usually it involves some combination of coursework, qualifying papers, comprehensive/oral exam and a dissertation or a final project.

For instance, the students in the Ph.D. in Law program at the University of Washington, which lasts at least three years, must complete at least two years of coursework and write a doctoral dissertation.

To obtain a Ph.D. in linguistics at New York University, students must complete 72 points of courses (required and elective) distributed among four years of coursework. In addition, they must demonstrate proficiency in a foreign language that is relevant to their field of research, submit two qualifying papers in two different areas of linguistics, write a dissertation in their chosen subfield and when the dissertation is ready to be defended, they must pass an oral examination.

To obtain a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University, doctoral students must complete a minimum of 118 course credits (including courses in general psychology, assessment, intervention and methodology), pass the Clinical Competency examination and complete a one-year internship.

A professional doctorate may have different requirements from a research doctorate. For instance, to be eligible for a D.N.P. at Northern Arizona University, students must complete extensive coursework and approximately 1,000 hours of clinical practice. Rather than writing a dissertation or a research thesis as they would have to do for a Ph.D. in nursing, they have to complete a final project that includes an oral presentation and demonstrate their ability to apply research evidence to improve and advance clinical practice.

How Many Years Does It Take to Get a Doctoral Degree?

The number of credits and therefore the number of years needed to complete a doctoral degree varies widely depending on the specialization and school requirements, but an average doctoral program lasts four to five years. For instance, the graduate program in linguistics at New York University expects students to complete all degree requirements and achieve a Ph.D. within five years. Similarly, the Ph.D. program in clinical psychology at Nova Southeastern University is a five-year program.

Programs typically set an overall time limit for completion of all the work. For instance, to obtain a Ph.D. in law at Yale University, students must complete all degree requirements in three years. An extension beyond that is possible but is given on a case-by-case basis. On the other hand, the Ph.D. program in law at the University of Washington requires a minimum of three years of study.

Professional doctorates also have time limitations. For example, students in the D.N.P. program at Northern Arizona University must complete all the program requirements within eight years, starting from the first semester of the doctoral program. Beyond that, a student will have to petition the school to ask for an extension of this time limit.

In addition, it is worth keeping in mind that if the doctoral program is funded (which is often the case), the funding is typically guaranteed only for a certain number of years. So, even if the student manages to get an extension from the school, he will have to fund his studies himself or apply for a new source of funding.

Careers With a Doctoral Degree

Obtaining a doctorate degree opens many doors and career opportunities. Generally, doctorate programs in the research stream are suitable for students aspiring to have research or teaching careers.

For instance, if you want to practice law, getting a J.S.D. or a Ph.D. is not necessary. It is enough to get a J.D. degree, which is also a graduate degree and a first law degree in the U.S., but it is not a terminal degree, although it is considered by some to be a professional doctorate. However, if you want to have a research and teaching career in law, a J.S.D. or a Ph.D. in law is a must. In addition to academia, law graduates with a J.S.D. or Ph.D. can secure prestigious careers in the private or nonprofit sectors.

Getting an advanced professional doctorate will give you numerous bonuses in the applied career, such as a better salary and advanced leadership positions. The most straightforward career option after getting any doctorate but especially a research-oriented doctoral degree is, of course, a career in academia. However, with the number of academic jobs dwindling down every year, it is good to keep an open mind. Academia is definitely not the only option. Those who obtain Ph.D.s or an equivalent doctoral degree can go on to work in the private or public sectors, become entrepreneurs and open small and large businesses. The skills and expertise you gain during your studies will be your most important assets. You will always be a subject matter expert in your field and a mentor to others, and those three magic letters after your last name (Ph.D.) automatically indicate credibility wherever you go.

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About the Author

Tanya Mozias Slavin is a former academic and language teacher. She writes articles about education and linguistic technology, and has published in the Washington Post, Fast Company, CBC and other places. Find her at www.tanyamoziasslavin.com