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What is a Doctorate Degree?

Doctorate Degree Graduate

A doctorate degree is the highest level of academic degree in most fields. For research or university teaching, the degree is usually a PhD, while applied professional doctorates include the Doctor of Medicine (MD), the Doctor of Education (EdD), and the Juris Doctor (JD), among others. But, you can earn a doctorate in almost any subject area. For example, most states require licensed psychologists to hold a doctorate degree in psychology.

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

Quick Facts About Doctoral Degrees

Why earn a doctorate degree? 

People with a doctorate earn an average of 63% more than those with only a bachelor’s degree. Some of the most prestigious and remunerative professions in our economy, like doctors and lawyers, require a doctoral degree.

How long does it take?

Usually three to six years. The median time to completion is 5.7 years, with some students taking up to eight years to complete the degree.

How much does it cost? 

The average cost of tuition and fees for one year at a public institution is $11,120, while at a private university, the average is $44,020. Some online programs offer doctoral tuition at rates below $6,000 per year, and the most expensive doctoral programs charge around $90,000 for out-of-state students. However, many students get financial aid that reduces the actual cost.

Is it worth It? 

That depends on the industry of employment, as some professions allow people with a master’s degree into the highest levels. Doctoral programs are intense and challenging, but many of the top positions in our economy require a doctorate.

What types of doctoral degrees are there?

There are research doctorates, like the PhD, and there are applied doctorates, which include the MD, JD, 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 numbers of people with master’s and bachelor’s degrees has also been rising.
Everyone is familiar with the medical doctor, who holds an M.D. (Medical Doctorate). But you can earn a doctorate in almost any subject area. For example, most states require licensed psychologists to hold a doctorate degree in psychology. Many applied professions now require an applied doctorate degree for the highest levels of authority and responsibility.
Very few career areas require a doctorate degree. Over 90% of people with a doctoral degree work in managerial or professional occupations. Areas where state licensing is required—such as engineering, public school teaching, psychology—may require the doctorate degree for the highest paid positions and for positions in government facilities.
Areas of the country with the highest percentage of jobs requiring a doctorate are the District of Columbia, with 8% of positions requiring a doctorate, and New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island, and Maryland, all with above 3% of jobs requiring a doctorate.
People with a doctoral degree earn about 63% more than those with a bachelor’s, and 33% more than people with a master’s degree. A doctorate can be a way to either enter higher education as a professor, or to get research or management positions in industry or education.
On the flip side, people with doctoral degrees who apply for positions where it is not required may be passed over because employers think they will leave the job when a more appropriate position comes along. Also, some employers assume that the salary requirements for person with a doctorate will be much higher than a qualified person with less education. This can be a conundrum for people with a doctorate who apply for jobs that do not require this level of education. However, more jobs are requiring doctorate level education for credentialing or advancement, including physical therapists, advanced nurse practitioners, school principals, healthcare administrators, and the highest level jobs in many scientific and technical fields.
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 are available in business because business is a high demand career area.
It is competitive to get into doctoral programs, with approximately 22% of applicants accepted. 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.

How Long Does it Take to Get Your Doctorate?

Typically, a doctorate degree takes four years to complete, depending on the field. If you already hold a master’s degree, you may be able to complete a doctorate in the same subject area with only three years of additional full-time study. Most people will take closer to six years to complete the degree. Many schools have a limit on how long they will allow students to complete the degree, which is often eight years.
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. A growing number of online doctorates are designed as “practitioner’s degrees.” A research thesis may be optional. Instead, you may be required to complete a capstone paper and/or a supervised placement working in your career area.

How Much Does a Doctorate Degree Cost?

Understanding the costs of doctoral programs is complex. 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 grant aid to attend the graduate school. 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 this is not true for all schools. In addition to tuition and fees, graduate students need to consider their living expenses, especially if they do not plan to work while pursuing their doctorate.
There is a lot of variation in pricing between schools and types of programs. But since the amount of aid varies too, the differences in net prices are much lower. For instance, the average published price of tuition for a private non-profit research doctoral program is 95% higher than the published price for a public research doctoral program, yet the actual net cost is only 40% higher. On the other side, private for-profit tuition prices look very low, but the net price is actually much higher than either public or private non-profit schools.
For research degrees, usually PhDs, the net cost of tuition and fees in 2012 figures worked out to $7,250 for public universities, $10,130 for private nonprofit universities, and $13,610 for private for-profit universities. Even though the published price for private nonprofit schools averaged $30,960, about twice as much as both public and private for-profit schools, the effective pricing was fairly close for all three.
For either a medical or law doctorate, public universities have a far lower published and net cost 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.
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 programs have more courses for the first two years, and thus the credit load would be 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 the program in a doctorate.
The upshot on pricing is that you will need to see how much financial aid is available for your program and more specifically, what is available to you. More professional doctoral programs that lead to licensure as a doctor or lawyer have, on average, less financial aid, so students will either need to use their own funds or take out loans. Because these professional careers also have higher salaries than research careers, the extra cost may not be such 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 the degree. Because there are no reliable published statistics about graduate degree costs, prospective students will need to do their own research to verify the amount of money that will be needed to complete each doctoral program.

Is a Doctorate Worth It?

People with doctoral and professional degrees have slightly lower unemployment rates than people with a bachelor’s degree, but the difference is not as significant as the gains students achieve by going from a high school education to the bachelor’s degree. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 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, people with doctoral level educations earn about $30-35,000 more per year than someone 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 you compare 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.
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 is one such example, where entry into the field now requires a doctorate. Traditional doctorate-requiring professionals like the practice of medicine or law still do receive, on average, higher compensation that can make the degree worth the cost and effort.
For those who pursue a PhD in hopes of teaching at a university, the number of PhDs awarded is much higher than the number of available fulltime positions, so it can be very competitive to get a prized tenure-track position. Plus, PhD students often teach undergraduate courses for very low pay, further reducing the need for more full professors. Full professors, though, do average higher earnings than judges, so for the lucky few who land a professorship, the trouble may well be worth it.
For many professions, a master’s degree, which sometimes takes just one year of study, can have as much or more impact on a person’s salary. For the specific industry or position you are interested in, it really pays to research whether a master’s degree would be cheaper and offer pretty much the same benefits to your career and your wallet as a doctorate.
It is important to note that while a larger percentage of the highest paid jobs in our economy go to those with an advanced degree, a substantial number of the best paid workers achieve this with just a bachelor’s degree. It is also important to note that the earning potential for both men and women with doctoral degrees is about equal, and yet for professional degrees, men realize significantly larger gains in income than their female peers.
TIP: Many people think you must hold a doctorate degree to teach at the college level. While this is true for most full-time, tenured faculty in residential colleges, most who teach online or who teach at the community college level only hold master’s degrees.

What Types of Doctoral Degrees are There?

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

Research Degrees

The most common degree is the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), which is awarded in most humanities and scientific subjects. The PhD is the usual qualification for people who wish to become full professors at postsecondary institutions. The PhD is also required in many research jobs in everything from plasma physics to population studies. PhDs are available in many different specific subjects.
The course of study will usually include two years of advanced courses and then an allotted time such as two years to complete a final project that advances the field of study in some way. These advances may be the discovery of a whole new phenomenon or theory, or they may build on advanced research of previous scholars. For scientific or social science projects, the research may include experimental results and study 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 other 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 more geared towards applying the knowledge gained in the industry or field, and there are often licensure requirements for the specialized and advanced jobs that they qualify students to obtain.
The Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) is an advanced degree often requiring long experience in the managerial side of business 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 allow entry into the highly paid professions as doctors or lawyers, along with qualifying exams and possible work experience in the profession. After finishing a bachelor’s degree, 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 after the 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 students to succeed.

When to Seek a Doctorate Degree

When You …
• Know that a doctorate or professional degree is required for your career
• Have already earned a master’s degree and want to qualify for a higher pay scale
TIP: Some careers may require a very 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 some very specific courses. Check with your state licensing board before enrolling in any bachelor’s degree program in accounting, education, nursing, counseling and engineering, in particular.

See Online Doctorate Degrees


Below is sample doctorate degree so you can see the type of curriculum commonly required. Universities will vary in exact degree requirements. Compare colleges carefully on the courses they will require you to take to earn your doctorate degree in any one major area.

Capella University logoCould not look up degree for "Capella University" using "261808"! 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)



Residental 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 Courseroom
Dissertation with Project Mentoring 1 (6 hrs)

Dissertation with Project Mentoring 2 (6 hrs) is a consumer group that publishes online college rankings along the dimensions that matter most to online students themselves: affordability and credibility. All of our information is sourced directly from college and university websites as well government websites such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Our mission:

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