At first glance, it’s easy to confuse the terms PhD and doctorate. After all, both represent the pinnacle of the academic experience – often the result of a lifelong pursuit – and those who hold the distinction are often referred to as “doctor.” Yet the differences, subtle as they may be, are noteworthy and require much thought when putting together a plan for your future. 

Is a PhD the Same as a Doctorate?

The PhD, also known as the Doctor of Philosophy, is a research degree, which is one of the most common types of doctoral degrees, and is awarded to graduates in many different fields. For those asking, “Is a PhD higher than a doctorate?” the answer is simple: no. A PhD lies within the doctorate category, so one is not better than the other. 

According to the American Psychological Association, the PhD is “intended for students interested in generating new knowledge through scientific research (i.e., setting up experiments, collecting data, applying statistical and analytical techniques) and/or gaining teaching experience.” 

What Does a PhD Student Study?

Despite the name, a PhD student doesn’t spend the entire college term studying philosophy, and very rarely are they aspiring to be professional philosophers. Rather, the emphasis is on scientific research and the new knowledge that you can bring to your field of expertise. There are dozens of PhDs offered at colleges and universities worldwide, including PhDs in human services, mathematics, business administration, zoology, literature, and more. PhDs often fall into categories that include: 

  • Business and Management
  • Commerce
  • Education
  • Engineering
  • Humanities
  • Law
  • Science 

You can truly understand the differences between a PhD and other doctorate programs by breaking down the learning outcomes for a degree. For example, the online Doctor of Philosophy in Education* at the University of Arizona Global Campus (UAGC) lists the following projected outcomes for the degree (all focus on research and critical thinking):

  • Evaluate theories, practices, issues, and trends in designing and implementing educational strategies 
  • Develop strategies for leveraging social and cultural diversity in offering education in organizations
  • Design policies and initiatives that adhere to ethical and legal practices in educational settings and learning communities
  • Propose solutions to societal problems through evidence-based application of educational research
  • Apply diverse methods and principles of inquiry, discovery, evaluation, and original scholarship to educational research questions and practices

Bottom line: A PhD program will train you to think like a researcher and approach problem-solving in new and different ways. Throughout your college tenure, you’ll examine the changes in your field of interest and challenge yourself to answer questions that include:

  • How are those changes affecting current research in my field?
  • How are those changes affecting policy decisions and leadership?
  • How are those changes evolving my field of interest?

What Is a Doctorate Degree?

Doctorate, or doctoral, is an umbrella term for many degrees — PhD among them — at the height of the academic ladder. Doctorate degrees fall under two categories, and here is where the confusion often lies. 

The first category, Research (also referred to as Academic) includes, among others:

  • Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)**
  • Doctor of Business Administration (DBA)
  • Doctor of Education (EdD)
  • Doctor of Theology (ThD) 

The second category, Applied (also referred to as Professional) includes, among others:

  • Doctor of Medicine (MD)
  • Doctor of Optometry (OD)
  • Doctor of Psychology (PsyD)
  • Juris Doctor (JD) 

As you can see, applied doctorates are generally paired with very specific careers – medical doctors, optometrists, psychologists, and law professionals. 

When it comes to outlining the differences between a PhD and doctorate, the real question should be, “What is the difference between a PhD and an applied doctorate?” The answer, again, can be found in the program outcomes. The online Doctor of Psychology** at UAGC lists outcomes that are heavily focused on your ability to put theory into practice in a professional setting. For example: 

  • Apply best practices in the field regarding professional values, ethics, attitudes, and behaviors
  • Exhibit culturally diverse standards in working professionally with individuals, groups, and communities who represent various cultural and personal backgrounds
  • Utilize a comprehensive psychology knowledge base grounded in theoretical models, evidence-based methods, and research in the discipline
  • Integrate leadership skills appropriate in the field of psychology
  • Critically evaluate applied psychology research methods, trends, and concepts

Bottom line: As the PhD is more academic, research-focused, and heavy on theory, an applied doctorate degree is intended for you to master a subject in both theory and practice. 

Can a PhD Be Called a Doctor?

The debate over whether a PhD graduate should be called a doctor has existed for decades, and if you’re a member of this exclusive club, you’ll no doubt hear both sides of the argument during your lifetime. After all, if a PhD is a doctor, can a person with a doctoral degree in music – the Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA) – be called a doctor as well?

Those in favor argue that having “Dr.” attached to your name indicates that you are an expert and should be held in higher regard. For some, the debate is at the heart of modern gender disparity. For example, on social media and in some academic circles, there is an argument that female PhD holders should use the “Dr.” title in order to “remind others of their expertise in a world that often undermines it.” 

The American Psychological Association has, for years, challenged the Associated Press (AP) and other news outlets to broaden its use of “Dr.” beyond those that practice medicine – MDs, dentists, etc. – in its reporting. However, the organization was rebuked, as the AP argued that, “It comes down to a basic distinction. Psychologists earn PhDs, and AP style allows the ‘Dr.’ title only for those with medical degrees.”

The AP has, thus far, refused to change their style guide when it comes to the “doctor question.” 

Doctorate Degrees Are In Demand

Whether you are pursuing a PhD, PsyD, MD, or JD, your decision to take your education to the next level puts you in elite company. A 2019 analysis found that the number of doctoral degree holders has more than doubled since 2000, to 4.5 million. 

That’s a sign that advanced degrees are in demand, but when you compare 4.5 million doctoral grads to more than 48 million bachelor’s degree graduates and 21 million master’s degree graduates, you recognize that doctoral students are still a small but distinguished and well-educated constituency. 

So, what’s pushing these high achievers to pursue PhDs, PsyDs, and MDs? It’s a love of lifelong learning and a passion for their chosen profession, plus all the benefits that come with advanced degrees. 

Your Path to the Pinnacle of Education

You know that a college education serves as the foundation for your professional future, but a doctorate degree is a big commitment. Before you make the decision, arm yourself with as much information as possible and ask yourself if you have the time and the passion to pursue what will be a life-changing degree. If you’re ready for that change, put together your questions and contact an advisor at UAGC today.

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*An online degree from the University of Arizona Global Campus does not lead to immediate teacher licensure in any state. If you want to become a classroom teacher, contact your state's education authorities prior to enrolling at the University of Arizona Global Campus to determine what state‐specific requirements you must complete before obtaining your teacher's license. Please see the University of Arizona Global Campus Academic Catalog for more information.

**Successful completion of this program by itself does not lead to licensure or certification in any state, regardless of concentration or specialization. Students seeking licensure or certification in a particular profession are strongly encouraged to carefully research the requirements prior to enrollment.

Certain degree programs may not be available in all states. 

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