What actually is a Doctorate?

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There are almost as many names for doctorate degrees as there are universities in the world. Some people might be doing a PhD while others do a professional or vocational doctorate. It can be confusing to know what each means, where yours stands in terms of perceived value and exactly what’s required – especially when you look internationally.  So what is the difference between a PhD and another type of doctorate? Let’s explore it a bit. 

Highest level of education

The Doctorate is the apex of the pyramid of academic achievement. The three most widely understood qualifications are Bachelors, Masters and Doctorate. This is a wide-based pyramid, with estimates suggesting that around 24% of bachelors’ graduates also have a Master’s degree, which is roughly 6% of the population in total.  Around 1.1% of the total population in the OECD countries have a doctoral degree, so you can see how the numbers decrease rapidly.

Understandings of the structure of advanced degrees have been influenced significantly by work coming out from the European Commission, specifically with the Bologna agreement.  This has set out the ‘three tier’ structure discussed above.  It also encourages standardisation of requirements at each level. Work is far from complete here, but the vision is strong and development of consistent expectations is ongoing. 

This does not mean that everyone will be doing the same thing; far from it.  But it does point us toward a common understanding of each level, and will – eventually – provide an easier answer to the question that prompted this blog: what do the different terms mean?

Bookshelves, desk and computer
Studying for a doctorate can become overwhelming!

A quick history of doctorate degrees

The first recorded doctorate degrees were awarded in the 12th Century, and gradually the level of study increased to what we now expect. By the late 17th Century, we have records of doctoral degrees – which became known as the ‘PhD’ – being awarded. In the early 19th Century, Prussia led the way when universities started to demand a contribution to knowledge as the standard for the award of a doctorate. 

Right up until the 20th Century, the model was basically an apprenticeship for outstanding scholars to learn how to be academics. They would conduct the work of their professors, observing and being taught to become an advanced scholar. The teaching qualification was part of this practice, thus enhancing the growth of educational institutions.

Our expectations of education have changed in the last 50 or so years, though, and ‘modern’ doctoral programmes are far more about preparing people for careers outside the university, leading to the situation we are discussing here.

What does PhD ‘mean’?

The PhD is an ‘earned degree’; that is, it requires extended independent study and the production of an extended report (called the ‘thesis’). The thesis proves that the research undertaken is of adequate quality to make a significant contribution to existing knowledge in the field of study. Normally, a PhD thesis is 80-100,000 words.

A PhD programme may have some taught courses embedded. These will cover key areas such as research design and philosophy but will not ‘teach’ subject-specific skills. Subject knowledge is assumed at this level – normally as a progression of previous study at the Bachelor’s and Master’s levels.  

Other models of doctorate study

Alternatively, there are many programmes of study which have more ‘taught’ content and also lead to doctoral-level qualifications. Technically, they are all on the same level.  You may see professional doctorates (DProf) – typically linked to students’ work experience, and specialist or vocational doctorates (DClin / EdD / DPsych etc.)  These are equal to a PhD in academic value. The content and intent of the programme will be different though. The latter tend to have prescribed courses of study for the first one or two years, then a shorter ‘dissertation’ phase. This leads to an output (the ‘thesis’ or ‘dissertation’) which is generally around 40,000 words.  

Some doctorates are cohort-based, where you progress through with others at the same stage as you. Typically, this is a model used for professional programmes, whereas PhDs tend to be more individual – certainly in the social sciences. Just because the study may be hard doesn’t mean you need to do it alone though! It’s important to have the company of people who understand whilst you are on the journey.

As the name suggests, professional and vocational doctorates are focused on using students’ experience and work-based skills as the basis for their study – with progression back into the workplace, whilst PhDs tend to be seen as the gateway into academia because of their pure research focus.

What is the value of a doctorate?

How do you count the value of a doctorate? 😉

Whatever you go on to do after your doctorate, you will have grown in your thinking and problem-solving skills. You’ll also have much more experience of managing complex projects and (in many cases) people.  In many roles, there is a salary premium attached to having a doctorate. For some industries, it is a requirement for entry – but in all situations, it is a badge of advanced logic, tenacity and perseverance.  

Ultimately, most of us do a doctorate because we want it.  And the self-confidence that comes from achieving it will prove the value – once you’ve got it, no one can take it away from you.  
Understanding how our education system has evolved throughout history can help us to situate our own challenges in a wider perspective.  The information above will not make your study easier, but it might give you a greater sense of your part in the longer story. 

What other questions do you have about the system you find yourself in? Let me know in the comments!

Why not join my email list to get regular updates on all things doctorate?

Allan Noble, Keith (2001). Changing doctoral degrees: an international perspective, Society for Research into Higher Education, 1994, p. 8; Bourner, T., Bowden, R., & Laing, S. (2001). “Professional doctorates in England. Studies in Higher Education. Vol. 26. pp. 65–88. doi:10.1080/03075070020030724.

de Ridder-Symoens, Hilde (2003). A history of the university in Europe: Universities in the Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-36105-7.


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