Difference Between a Doctoral and a PHD

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Difference Between a Doctoral and PHD Introduction

All PHDs are doctorates, but not all doctorates are PHDs. That’s the simple explanation of the difference between a doctoral and a PHD.

The word “doctoral” can describe numerous graduate programs, such as Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), Doctor of Medicine (MD), Doctor of Jurisprudence (JD), Doctor of Education (EdD), Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) and Doctor of Business Administration (DBA). While the PhD is generally reserved to describe programs that emphasize research, other doctoral degrees often privilege mastering the application of research and professional practices.

The PhD

The title “doctor,” indicating mastery of a particular subject, emerged in Italy during the 1100s. The modern form of the PhD, however, developed within the Germany university system in the 19th century. The contemporary PhD came to indicate that the degree holder had achieved original research in a field. Americans imported the PhD system into its own universities during the late 1800s. According to Stephen Marshall et al. in “Your Ph. D. Companion,” Yale University became the first U.S. university to award the PhD in 1861, when it conferred the degree upon Jame Morris Whiton.

Though Whiton earned his PhD through one year of study and a six-page thesis, modern PhD students spend an average of 8.2 years in graduate school, crafting theses hundreds of pages long, reported the New York Times in 2007. The PhD student is expected to perform original research and master the literature of her field, often in preparation of a university-teaching career.

Other Doctoral Programs

Other doctoral programs are professional rather than research-oriented degrees. These professional degrees include the MD and the JD, where students master the knowledge of their field. MDs go on to complete their training through an internship, residency and possibly a fellowship, whereas JDs are admitted into their profession after passing the bar examination. These degrees, while rigorous, do not indicate that the holder has completed original research in their field.

Other fields, such as psychology, education and business administration have developed professional doctoral degrees. The Doctor of Education, according to Northern Illinois University’s EdD program, emphasizes how to put theory and research into practice. EdD dissertations are less experimental and more oriented toward studying local student populations. Like the EdD, the PsyD places less emphasis on pure research and more emphasis on preparing students to be professional psychologists. Similarly, the DBA is aimed at students hoping for a professional business career. Argosy University describes the DBA as preparing students for executive and administrative occupations, such as a CEO, a finance officer or a dean at a business school.


Although the term doctoral is often used only in conjunction with the PhD, a variety of doctoral programs exist to prepare students for careers in specific fields. The PhD is conferred upon students who achieve research excellence in many fields, but specific doctoral programs have been created for training professionals in areas like medicine, law, education, psychology and business administration.


Berger, Joseph. “Exploring Ways to Shorten the Ascent to a Ph.D.” The New York Times. 3 October 2007. https://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/03/education/03education.html

“Differences between PhD and PsyD Programs.” All Psychology Schools. https://www.allpsychologyschools.com/faqs/clinical-psychology-phdvpsyd

“Doctor of Business Administration.” Argosy University online. https://online.argosy.edu/college/business/dba/index.aspx

“EdD versus PhD: What’s the Difference?” Northern Illinois University. https://www.cedu.niu.edu/lepf/edpsych/phd.pdf

Marshall, Stephen et al. Your Ph.D. Companion: A Handy Mix of Practical Tips, Sound Advice and Helpful Commentary to See You Through Your Ph. D. (How To Books, Ltd, 2007).