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What is a Doctorate Degree?

PhD student studying

A doctorate degree signifies the highest level of academic achievement in most professional fields in the U.S.  Professionals commonly recognized for their doctoral title include university professors (EdD), doctors of medicine (MD), doctors of law (JD), social work, theology, psychology, and so on.  A theoretically based doctorate degree is known as a PhD, or, Doctor of Philosophy.  A professional doctorate and PhD are not quite the same, as “doctorate degrees” delineate applied research over theoretical, and not all are classified as a PhD.

Each student is different, and the time frame of a doctoral degree is unique, taking upwards of eight years to complete.  Typically, a doctoral degree may take up to four years to accomplish, post-bachelor’s degree.  Post-master’s, this advanced degree could only take three years of additional full-time study.  

A doctorate dives into a student’s intricate, advanced professional goals.  General education is finished and the trek to scholarly writing and contribution in a professional field has begun.  Practicums transform into critical inquiry courses.  Arguing points goes beyond the classroom, hosted instead by professional publications.  A doctoral dissertation, capstone or thesis may extend itself as a solution for real-world issues and lead to distinguished leadership roles.  As one becomes an authority in their field, their work goes under the scrutiny of other top scholars, researchers and professionals.

This article will address the facts about the doctorate degree, informing you of the what, why, when and how of pursuing and completing terminal programs.  Read on to learn more about taking the academic step toward reaching one of the many heights of your career.

Quick Facts About Doctoral Degrees

Why earn a doctorate degree? 

Becoming an authority or establishing professional credibility in your field of study.

How long does it take?

This depends on the student and the course of study.  The median time to completion as of 2019 was 5.8 years, with some students taking up to eight years to complete the degree. 

How much does a doctorate degree cost? 

A 2020 College Board review reports the average price of tuition for public four-year institutions as $11,440 and tuition for private, non-profit universities as $44,910.

Is a doctorate degree worth it? 

Doctoral programs are intense and challenging, and many of the top positions in the U.S. economy require a doctorate.

What types of doctoral degrees are there?

There are theoretical research doctorates, like the PhD, and there are applied doctorates, which include the EdD, DBA, DPT, and DNP among others. 

Why earn a doctorate degree? 

There are more people in the workforce with doctoral degrees than ever before. According to the United States Census Bureau, the percentage of people with a doctorate degree more than doubled from 2000 to 2018, rising from 2 million to 4.5 million. Likewise, the number of people with master’s and bachelor’s degrees rose as well.

What Types of Doctoral Degrees are There?

There are two basic categories of doctoral degrees: a theoretical research degree, which is often a PhD, or a professional degree like an MD (doctor of medicine) or JD (juris doctor). Both represent the highest level of training in a specific field, and can be required for certain jobs or to qualify for higher salaries.

Theoretical Research Degrees

The most common doctoral degree is the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), which is awarded in most humanities and scientific subjects. The PhD is the usual qualification for those who wish to become full professors at postsecondary institutions. PhD holders can also be found working research jobs in everything from plasma physics to population studies.

The course of study to earn a PhD usually includes two years of advanced courses, then an allotted time such as two years to complete a final capstone, thesis or dissertation that contributes to the field of study. These contributions may be the discovery of a new phenomenon or theory, or build on advanced research of previous scholars. For scientific or social science projects, the research may include experimental results and research design. For theoretical subjects, the process will more likely be deep scholarly research and the development of original ideas.

Applied & Professional Doctorates

For applied fields, there are numerous special doctoral degrees, such as Doctor of Education (EdD), Doctor of Public Health (DrPH), Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT), or the Doctor of Social Work (DSW). These degrees are geared toward applying knowledge to working directly in a student’s industry or field.  Often there are additional licensure requirements for specialized and advanced jobs that applied doctorates qualify students for.

The Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) is an advanced degree requiring efficient experience in business management before acceptance into a program. In the United States, business administrators may alternatively seek a PhD in Business Administration, which is the equivalent degree.

Applied doctorates are similar to professional degrees like the Doctor of Medicine (MD) or the Juris Doctor (JD), which is a common degree for lawyers. These professional degrees provide entry into highly paid professions, along with qualifying exams and possible work experience. If an MD is pursued post-bachelor’s, aspiring physicians will take four years of medical school and then complete residency programs for another three to six years. JD programs typically have three years of required coursework post-bachelor’s degree, though some allow students to attend part time and take four years. These programs, perhaps even more than other rigorous doctoral programs, require hard work, long hours, and serious dedication for success.

GetEducated’s Picks

  • Capella University
  • St. Thomas University Doctor of Education in Leadership & Innovation
  • Wilkes University Doctor of Nursing Practice
  • Utica College Doctor of Physical Therapy
  • Colorado Technical University Doctor of Computer Science
  • Walden University Doctor of Business Administration / Homeland Security
  • Liberty University Doctor of Philosophy in Theology and Apologetics

How Long Does it Take to Earn a Doctorate?

Typically, a doctorate degree takes four years to complete, post-bachelor’s.  Those with a master’s degree may be able to complete a doctorate in the same subject area with only three years of additional full-time study. 

The National Science Foundation reports the median time frame from starting a doctorate to completion as 5.8 years, applicable to all fields in 2019. The number of years varies from field to field.  For example, a civil engineering doctorate may take only 4.8 years, while a doctorate or PhD in sociology may take up to two years longer.  Other factors affecting the time it takes to earn a doctorate include the institution, student educational history, financial support, online versus traditional, and more.  The maximum number of years is, commonly, eight.   

Four-year doctorates will require about 90 to 120 semester credits or 30 to 40 college courses. The length and credits of doctorate programs can vary.  Some doctorate programs require a research thesis to be completed, though that could be an optional course of study.  Instead, you may be required to complete a capstone project or supervised placement working in your career area.

How Much Does a Doctorate Degree Cost?

The cost breakdown of a doctoral program is fairly complex.  Much like undergraduate education, the sticker price for tuition and fees is not the net cost that students pay. Almost all doctoral students receive some amount of institutional grant aid to attend graduate school, are offered paid teaching positions throughout their course of study, or pursue research grants. The published tuition and fee totals for doctorate education can range from around $6,000 per year to over $90,000 per year for non-resident students. Some online schools will give students an in-state tuition rate no matter their state of residence, but that is purely dependent upon the school.

There is variation in pricing between schools and types of programs. Since the amount of aid also varies, the differences in net prices are often much lower. For instance, in 2017 the average published price of tuition for a private non-profit research doctoral program was reported as 95% higher than the published price for a public research doctoral program, yet the actual net cost of a private school with federal funding applied was only 40% higher.

A 2020 College Board analysis reports the 2020-2021 average published price of doctoral degree tuition for public four-year institutions as $11,440 and tuition for private, non-profit universities as $44,910.  Add to these the average cost of living, and the median cost of a doctoral degree hits anywhere from $23,550 to $59,840.  These numbers were affected by a 1.1% inflation rate from 2019-2020.

Year to Year

How much you pay per year for a graduate program is dependent not only on the cost per credit at the school you choose, but also on how many credits you take. Many doctorate programs require more courses for the first two years, and thus the credit load is higher. The later years of a degree program will usually see the students writing a dissertation or completing a capstone project, and the number of credits they take will be lower. So, the price could vary for each year of a doctorate degree.

Student Debt

When applying for a doctoral degree, you will need to see how much financial aid is available for your program and, more specifically, what is available to you.  Between institutional grant aid, scholarships, fellowships, and other resources, you have a variety of combinable options to help pay for your degree.  A 2019 survey of education-related debt acquired across all doctoral students averaged out at $26,137.  The lowest average of doctoral student debt was reported at $10,686 for those studying mathematics and computer sciences, while the highest ranked debt sat at $47,672 for those in the education field.  

Professional doctoral programs that lead to licensure as a doctor or lawyer have, on average, less financial aid, so aspiring students will either use their own funds or take out loans.  Because these professional careers have higher salaries than research careers, the extra cost may not be as much of a burden. However, as with all educational loans, it is important for students to consider how much debt they are willing to take on and how this will impact their lives after earning the degree.

For either a medical or law doctorate, public universities have far lower published and net costs than their private nonprofit counterparts. Because there are fewer grants available for these professional degrees, students who plan to practice in lower paying specialties, such as rural primary practice physicians or public defenders, may want to be particularly careful in their choice of school.

Is a Doctorate Worth It?

The pressing question for every student considering graduate level education is, will it be worth it?  That you could earn your doctorate degree post-bachelor’s and sans-master’s makes this question mildly more difficult, as you weigh out cost, job opportunities, salaries, and how deep your personal and academic investments reach.  

It is competitive to get into doctoral programs, with approximately 23.3% of applicants accepted as of 2019.  Doctoral programs are very challenging and require dedication and personal sacrifice to complete. The statistics show that about 50% of students drop out of doctoral programs before completing the degree. Entering into a doctoral program represents a serious commitment, which is not for everyone. However, schools have been working on ways to help students reach their degree goals more quickly and succeed in these demanding degree programs.  Pursuing conversations with those who have earned, are on their way to, or have dropped out of a doctoral degree can be helpful when searching for the answer of worth.

Advanced Career

As of 2019 doctoral and professional degree holders maintain a slightly lower unemployment rate than those with a bachelor’s or master’s degree.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a doctoral education leads to a much higher wage than an undergraduate degree, with PhDs earning a median of 52% higher weekly wages. Using BLS figures, doctoral level graduates earn about $30-35,000 more per year than workers with a bachelor’s degree, which totals about $1.3 to $1.4 million advantage over a lifetime. Individual results will, of course, vary from these median figures. When comparing the salary of those with a master’s to those with a doctorate, the gains are more modest but still quite significant, with at least a median of $20,000 more in salary per year for the doctoral student.

Relatively few jobs in our economy require doctoral education, but more fields are now opening up positions that require or reward doctoral level degrees with higher status and pay. Physical therapy (DPT) is one such example, where entry into the field now requires a doctorate or professional degree. Traditional doctorate-requiring professions like the practice of medicine or law still do receive, on average, higher compensation which make the degree worth the cost and effort.  Other careers requiring a doctoral degree as entry-level education include psychology, biochemistry, dentistry, astronomy, and postsecondary education.

Online Doctorate

There are fewer doctorate degrees offered online than any other type of degree. This is because market demand is very low. Online doctorate degrees tend to be in areas that require doctorates for licensing, such as teaching or psychology. Most require short residencies or campus visits—such as a week each summer on campus—to satisfy supervision requirements. A few online doctorates in business are available because business is a high demand career area.

Master’s versus Doctorate

For many professions, a master’s degree can have as much impact on a person’s salary as a doctorate. For the specific industry or position you are interested in, it pays to research whether a master’s degree would be cheaper and offer many of the same benefits to your career and your wallet as a doctorate.

PRO-TIP: While it’s true that most full-time, tenured faculty teaching at the college level hold a doctorate degree, most who teach online or who teach at the community college level only hold master’s degrees.

When to Seek a Doctorate Degree

When You …

  • Know that a doctorate or professional degree is required for your career
  • Have earned a bachelor’s or master’s degree and want to qualify for a higher pay scale
  • Your investment in the pursuit of knowledge pushes you toward this academic step

PRO-TIP: Some careers may require a specific type of doctorate degree. For example, if your goal is to become a principal or district supervisor, your state Board of Education will require, at minimum, a master’s or doctorate degree in education—and that degree will need to include particular courses. Check with your state licensing board before enrolling in any doctorate degree program in accounting, education, nursing, counseling and engineering, in particular.

Show Me an Online Doctorate Degree

Below is a sample doctorate degree course of study from Capella University, so you can see the type of curriculum commonly required. Universities will vary in exact degree requirements. Compare colleges carefully on the courses required to earn your doctorate degree in any one major area.  Check with your state licensing board for any specific requirements, and work with an advisor to determine the course of study that will work best for you.

Total credits required: 82 (using a quarter credits system)


Core Courses (48 hrs)

Strategic Thinking and Innovation (6 hrs)

Leadership with Integrated Coaching (6 hrs)

Research Foundations (6 hrs)

Global Operations (6 hrs)

Financial Decision Making (6 hrs)

Applied Research Techniques (6 hrs)

Exploring Opportunities for Social Responsibility and Sustainability (6 hrs)

Market Innovation (6 hrs)

Specialized Courses (16 hrs)

Organizational Data Management (4 hrs)

Business Information Sources and Services (4 hrs)

Data Warehousing and Mining (4 hrs)

Decision support Analysis and Presentation (4 hrs)




Residential Colloquia (6 hrs)

DBA Research Residential Colloquium 1 (2 hrs)

DBA Research Residential Colloquium 2 (2 hrs)

DBA Research Residential Colloquium 3 (2 hrs)

Dissertation Courses (12 hrs)

DBA Mentor Course room

Dissertation with Project Mentoring 1 (6 hrs)

Dissertation with Project Mentoring 2 (6 hrs)

Find Your Online Doctorate With GetEducated

Earning a doctorate degree in any field is a challenging process that must be thought out before pursued.  If everything you have read points you in this academic direction, start looking for your online doctorate today with GetEducated!  Our mission is to help consumers make informed choices about one of the most expensive purchases they will make in their lifetime—a college degree. We provide unique tools that help consumers review and compare more than 15,000 online degree programs.

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