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Doctoral Degree vs. PhD: What’s the Difference?

written by: John Garger•edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch•updated: 5/17/2010

Doctoral degrees tend to carry with them an almost mystical quality because many people do not understand how one earns a doctoral degree or who should get one. Learn all about the difference between a doctoral degree and a PhD and which one may be the right degree for you.

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    The purpose of obtaining a doctoral degree or PhD is not generally understood by the general public. Held by most professors and other professionals such as psychologists, doctoral degrees and PhDs are often viewed as something only the super smart or life-long student would earn.

    However, doctoral degrees and PhDs are often a requirement to hold certain positions, and many state and Federal government laws require such as degree for licensure to practice some professions. Learn all about the differences between a doctoral degree and a PhD and what each one can do you for as a professional.

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    What is a Doctoral Degree?

    Differences between a Doctoral Degree and PhD The word “doctoral" is ultimately derived from the Latin word “docere" which means “to teach." In fact, “doctoral" is really a shorter version of the Latin phrase “licentia docendi" which translated from Latin literally means “teaching license."

    There is no agreed upon definition of what a doctoral degree is from country to country and educational system to educational system. However, in the United States and many other countries, a doctoral degree is referred to as a “terminal" degree because it represents the highest educational achievement a graduate can attain in a given subject of study.

    A doctoral degree is a professional or academic degree that normally requires significant study after earning a Master’s degree. Most doctoral programs require 4 to 10 years of study beyond a Master’s degree and combine four major elements before conferring the degree on a student.

    In the typical 4-year doctoral program, students must take classes, teach, pass comprehensive examinations, and author a dissertation. The dissertation is usually the last stage of the program where the student demonstrates his/her understanding of the subject matter so much so that he/she has earned the right to be called doctor. Many dissertations are empirical/scientific studies in which the student not only demonstrates his/her knowledge, but contributes significantly to the literature of the given subject of study.

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    What is a PhD?

    Among more specific degrees such as EdD (Doctor of Education) or JD (Doctor of Law), the PhD is a more general degree. Someone with a PhD may have studied psychology, engineering, management, or one of many other disciplines.

    The abbreviation PhD stands for “Philosophiae Doctor" and is generally translated into English as “doctor of philosophy." Literally translated from Latin, the phrase means “teacher of philosophy," although several other translations are acceptable.

    The PhD is a type of doctoral degree and, like other doctorates, is usually a terminal degree. The PhD is often a requirement for teaching and conducting research in a university. This is why most professors in a university or college hold this degree.

    The PhD was developed in Europe’s Middle Ages to distinguish it from degrees relating to law, medicine, and theology. Today, the degree is associated with learnedness and credibility. For example, many expert witnesses in court cases hold a PhD or other doctoral degree so no one will question whether the expert can indeed be considered an expert.

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    Differences between Doctoral Degrees and PhDs

    It is unfair to compare doctoral degrees with PhDs because a PhD is a type of doctoral degree. If you want to earn a PhD, you should prepare yourself for a minimum of four years of study in which you will be expected to significantly contribute to a field of knowledge or science.

    There is a high dropout rate in PhD programs because they are so unlike undergraduate and Master’s degree programs. The purpose of PhD and other doctoral programs is to transform the learner from a student to an independent teacher and researcher. Many students who do well in a traditional classroom setting struggle in a PhD program because the program is much less structured and the requirements to graduate are much less objective.