Many people do not understand what "Ph.D." means. Many know that it is an academic degree of some sort, but even among students still in school, the difference between a doctoral degree and a Ph.D. can still be confusing. The answer to the question "Is there a difference between a doctorate and a Ph.D.?" is yes and no.

What Is a Doctorate Degree?

A doctorate degree is the highest degree attainable in an academic field of study. A doctorate degree indicates that an individual has studied as much as possible in the area of his chosen field. It also indicates that the holder has found ways through his dissertation and course of study to add something new to the discipline and has provided a valuable new piece of scholarship to the field.

Generally, a doctorate degree is attained after several years of study in the chosen field. This does not need to be continuous study. Often, students enter their doctorate program years after they have spent time working in their chosen field. Other times, after pursuing a master's degree, a student will decide that she would like to become a professor. A doctorate is often pursued as a means of attaining that goal.

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A doctorate degree is the most advanced degree an individual can achieve across disciplines. People who have received a doctorate degree in order to practice their profession include medical doctors, dentists, psychiatrists, psychologists and public school principals. However, the designation is different in various professions, which means a doctorate is not necessarily the same thing as a Ph.D.

Doctorate Degree vs. Ph.D.

The difference between a doctorate degree and a Ph.D. can sometimes be confusing, even to people who are in the field of academia themselves. A doctorate is a catch-all term, standing for the highest-attainable degree in a given discipline. The Ph.D., however, stands for "Doctor of Philosophy" and is a kind of doctorate degree, but not all doctorate degrees are Ph.D.s.

Despite the language in the title, a Ph.D. does not only refer to someone who has attained a very advanced degree in the field of philosophy. On the contrary, "Doctor of Philosophy" simply means that the person has achieved the highest-possible degree in his course of study in the humanities. A Ph.D. in divinity, a Ph.D. in philosophy and a Ph.D. in literature all fall under the umbrella of Doctor of Philosophy degrees.

Are There Doctorates Besides the Ph.D.?

The Ph.D. is the most advanced degree in a field of study, but particular fields of study have their own titles for advanced degrees. These are, generally speaking, degrees that are less directed at research and philosophy of the discipline and are earned mostly toward a professional end.

These doctorates are still formidable and still indicate a tremendous amount of study and work on the part of the degree holder. The difference is that the goal is applying the study to a particular profession rather than conducting research with the end goal of scholarship.

What Doctorates Are There Besides a Ph.D.?

There are other varieties of doctorate degrees. One of the most familiar is the M.D. This is the medical doctorate degree. It means that the individual has attained the highest level of education in the field of medicine.

A Psy.D. is a degree indicating that the individual has earned the highest level of scholarship in the study of clinical psychology. A D.D.S is a doctorate degree in the field of dentistry, as is a D.M.D.

There are numerous other doctorate degrees that are not Ph.D.s. Likewise, the difference between an LLD and a Ph.D. is that the LLD is a doctorate-level degree in the study of law. A D.Tech degree is a doctorate degree in the field of technology.

What Is a Doctoral Student?

A doctoral student can be defined as anybody currently pursuing a doctorate degree in any field of study. This generally means that the person is pursuing a Ph.D. or another similar degree and that they are enrolled in a Ph.D. or doctoral program.

In the case of medical students, it usually means that the student is currently enrolled in medical school or is completing her residency. Anyone who is currently in a program that will result in holding a Ph.D. or another kind of doctorate degree can be said to be a doctoral student.

What Is the Structure of a Doctoral Program?

Doctoral studies are different from study for a master's degree or bachelor's degree. During a period of undergraduate study, the student generally spends his time in seminars and lectures, reading and researching and often writing papers or completing projects pertaining to his coursework. At the master's level, the curriculum is much the same, although the coursework may be replaced with fieldwork in certain cases, and there is a greater emphasis on students conducting their own research. There may be more in the way of papers, presentations and projects versus the tests and lectures that characterize undergraduate work.

However, when students are pursuing a Ph.D. or a doctoral degree of any sort, they are practicing scholarship. This means that they don't attend as many lectures or seminars on their subject but instead spend most of their time researching their own independent projects, teaching undergraduate courses and generally helping to further their field of scholarship.

The culmination of a Ph.D. program is the defense of a student's dissertation, which is the extensive study project on which he has spent his program working. This project must be defensible to a committee of professors who are expecting that the student has contributed something valuable and new to the field of scholarship.

Does Having a Doctorate Mean You're a Doctor?

It's a common misconception that having a doctorate means you are a doctor. In some contexts this is true, but in others, it can be confusing. Colloquially, in the United States, the word "doctor" is typically understood to mean a physician. A physician is a medical doctor who has earned her M.D., or doctorate of medicine. This is the highest and most advanced degree attainable in the medical field.

However, anyone who receives a Ph.D. or doctoral degree can be considered to be a doctor of her particular field. Someone who has earned a Ph.D. in education is a doctor of education. Someone who has earned a Ph.D. in history is a doctor of history, and so on. In other words, the only doctorate degree that refers to a medical doctor is the M.D. Dentists are also considered doctors because they've achieved the highest degree in their particular field – D.D.S. or D.M.D. – but they are not considered medical doctors.

It is a good idea to check with someone who has a Ph.D. to see how she likes to be addressed. Many people don't require that they are addressed as "Dr." and prefer to use the salutation "Mr." or "Mrs." because calling people "Dr." often gives the impression that they're a medical doctor, which can be confusing. However, some people do ask that the amount of time and study they have given to their discipline be recognized by the use of the salutation "Dr.," so it is always wise to check individual preference to avoid offense.

Is a Doctorate Higher Than a Master's?

A doctorate degree is the highest degree that one can attain in any discipline and is therefore higher than a master's degree. A master's degree is usually the degree that students get after completing a bachelor's and deciding that they would like to pursue further study in a particular area. A master's degree generally involves more advanced coursework than a bachelor's degree, and unlike a more general B.A. or B.S., it is devoted exclusively to study in one particular discipline.

Despite the fact that a doctorate degree is considered higher than a master's degree, a master's degree is still considered a significant accomplishment. A master's degree holder is considered to be a specialist in his field and in many cases may teach at the college level without having pursued a Ph.D., although a tenure-track position without a doctorate is harder to obtain.

There are many jobs where a master's in the discipline is required for eligibility. Master's degree candidates must also put in many hours of research in order to earn their degree and in many cases may choose to publish their writing in academic journals or other publications.

Can You Get a Ph.D. Without a Master's Degree?

There are some cases in which a student may advance to a Ph.D. program without having gone through a master's program. These programs are often longer than a typical Ph.D. program and incorporate some amount of the coursework that a student would expect to undertake during a master's program.

Therefore, it is not always required to earn a master's before going on to pursue a doctorate or Ph.D., but that is the most typical path to earning an advanced degree. Most schools require that previous study.

What Is the Difference Between a D.Tech and a Ph.D.?

The D.Tech degree is a degree with which many Americans are unfamiliar. The D.Tech degree is the name given to the most advanced degree that one can pursue in the field of technology. The D.Tech has various names depending on the country in which it is awarded.

In some countries, the D.Tech is given the same sort of weight as a doctorate degree. In other countries, it is considered far less significant. In South Africa, for example, the D.Tech is given the same weight as other research doctorates, but in countries like the United States, it is considered to be closer to a professional certification.

In the United States, the National Science Foundation initially recognized the D.Tech as equivalent to a Doctor of Philosophy degree. However, in 2008, the D.Tech was re-evaluated and found to be closer to a degree reflecting a professional pursuit. It was decided that the D.Tech did not meet the criteria for a research doctorate, and it is instead considered in a professional category rather than a research category.

What Is a Research Doctorate?

The distinctions in degrees and their weights are important, particularly given the fact that different countries consider these degrees with varying levels of importance. In the United States, the emphasis placed on a research doctorate is significant. This is because it indicates that the degree holder doesn't only have a professional understanding of the discipline but has conducted significant research and has done the kind of writing and teaching that furthers the scholarship of the discipline.

This is particularly important to distinguish Ph.D. holders who have written dissertations or conducted projects that have significantly advanced the scholarship in their field. By moving the D.Tech to a designation outside of research doctorates, the National Science Foundation intended to truly honor those scholars who have made such valuable contributions to their subjects.

About the Author

Ashley Friedman is a freelance writer with experience writing about education for a variety of organizations and educational institutions as well as online media sites. She has written for Pearson Education, The University of Miami, The New York City Teaching Fellows, New Visions for Public Schools, and a number of independent secondary schools. She lives in Los Angeles.