What Is a Doctorate?

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Learn more about the two major types of doctorate degrees, academic and professional, and when you might need each.

[Featured image] A Black female doctorate student in a coral pink sweater smiles into the camera while holding a yellow folder.

A doctorate is the highest degree you can earn in an academic field or profession. Earning your doctorate can help advance your career and increase your salary, while also showing others that you’re an expert in your subject area. 

In this article, we’ll review the two different types of doctorate degrees, the areas you can study, and the benefits of graduating with a doctorate. 

Types of doctorate degrees

There are two types of doctorate degrees available to earn: academic and professional. Each type is a terminal degree, meaning it’s the highest degree you can earn and shows true mastery over a subject. The type of doctorate you earn will largely depend on what you want to study. 

Academic doctorate 

An academic doctorate, often called a PhD (short for Doctor of Philosophy), is a research degree that typically requires completing a dissertation. Students enrolled in a PhD program may be interested in working in academia as a professor or conducting research in their field. However, a growing number of PhD students go on to apply their specialized knowledge and skill set to various careers outside of academia as well. 

Examples of academic doctorates include:

  • Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

  • Doctor of Education (EdD)

  • Doctor of Design (DDes)

  • Doctor of Fine Arts (DFA)

  • Doctor of Nursing Science (DNS)

  • Doctor of Theology (ThD)

Professional doctorate

A professional doctorate is also referred to as an applied doctorate, and has more to do with a specific profession, such as medicine, law, or business. Students in professional doctorate programs enroll to learn specific knowledge and skills they will need to pursue their chosen career path.  

Examples of professional doctorates include:

  • Doctor of Business Administration (DBA)

  • Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS)

  • Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD)

  • Doctor of Podiatric Medicine (DPM)

  • Doctor of Chiropractic (DC)

  • Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM)

  • Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine (ND)

  • Juris Doctor (JD)

Learn more: What is a Professional Degree?

Doctorates: Time and costs

On average, it takes between four and seven years to earn an academic doctorate. That lengthy timeline often has to do with the dissertation phase, which requires extensive original research. 

The time it takes to earn a professional doctorate varies. A JD degree takes three years of full-time study to complete while earning a Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree takes four years of full-time study before you begin a residency, which can last between three and seven years depending on your specialty. Careers that require a professional doctorate also often include studying and passing a licensure exam.  

Costs of a doctorate

As with timing, the costs of a doctorate degree will depend on what you choose to study and where you go to school. The average cost of a PhD in 2021 was $98,800, while a Doctor of Education degree cost an average of $111,900 [1]. The average total cost of medical school in 2021 was $218,792 [2].

What does it take to earn a doctorate? 

Both types of degrees involve completing advanced coursework and conducting original research. With a professional doctorate, you'll tend to focus your research on solving existing problems, whereas with an academic doctorate, you'll tend to focus your research on contributing a new theory or analysis to your field.

Beyond that, the path to earning your doctorate will depend on what you want to study—an academic subject or a professional one—and where you go to college or university.

Professional doctorates

Your time in a professional doctorate program will be spent advancing your knowledge in your field—medicine, law, or otherwise—and developing important skills to begin doing the work required by your chosen profession. 

The common requirements include: 

  • Coursework 

  • Internship (clinical rotation) 

Medical students spend around two years taking courses in a pre-clinical phase, followed by two years rotating through various medical specialties in a clinical phase. On the other hand, law students might spend two years completing their coursework before enrolling in a capstone project in their third year that might include interning or completing a writing project. 


Both medical and law students will need to seek licensure after finishing their program. Law students who pass the bar exam can go on to practice, while medical students will typically need to be licensed before beginning their residency program. 

Academic doctorates

Your time in an academic degree program will also be spent advancing your knowledge in your field by learning more about its history, theories, and key figures. From there, you will begin exploring how you can contribute original research to further people’s understanding of some aspect of the subject.

The common requirements include: 

  • Coursework 

  • Comprehensive exam 

  • Dissertation 

Learn more about the requirements to get an PhD.

Applying for a doctorate 

Each type of doctorate requires similar admissions criteria. Requirements generally include: 

  • Institution’s application

  • Resume or CV

  • Transcripts

  • Entrance exam (MCAT, LSAT, GRE, or GMAT) 

  • Personal statement

  • Letters of recommendation

Learn more: GMAT vs GRE: Which Should I Take?

Requirements for a professional doctorate

Professional doctorate students must first earn their bachelor’s degree in a related subject. For example, many law students study English or communications as an undergrad given the amount of writing they will undertake as JD students. Med students, on the other hand, might study biology or chemistry.

It can be helpful to pursue an undergraduate degree that will prepare you for the advanced coursework a professional doctorate requires, but it is not always necessary. If you’re interested in beginning a professional doctorate after studying a completely unrelated subject, you will likely have to first complete prerequisite courses to show you can succeed in advanced science courses. In fact, postbaccalaureate programs are designed to help students interested in the medical profession become stronger applicants. 

Prepare for medical school with a series of specialized, free courses from Stanford University, University of Michigan, Duke University, the University of Chicago, and other leading US institutions.


Requirements for an academic doctorate

As with a professional doctorate, you will need to earn your bachelor’s degree, but you will also likely need to earn your master’s degree unless you are accepted into a dual degree program that combines the master’s and PhD into a shorter timeframe. Depending on what you study, a master's degree takes between one and three years to complete and further prepares you to go on and earn your doctorate.

Learn more: MA vs MS Degrees: A Guide

Demand for doctorates

The demand for experts who hold a doctorate degree depends largely on the field. The need for lawyers is expected to grow by nine percent (about average) between 2020 and 2030, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics [3]. But the demand for doctors and surgeons has slowed in recent years, though other health care professions, such as physicians assistants and nurse practitioners, which often require less education, are expected to increase significantly [4].

In certain professions, like business, it’s more common to earn a Master of Business Administration (MBA), but executives with several years of experience and an MBA may want to further their education and solve real-world business problems by earning their DBA. Doing so can be a lucrative venture. Because DBA graduates are not as common as MBAs, there may be more demand for their services.

Salaries for doctorates

For professional doctorates, earnings can be significant. For example, veterinarians make a median salary of $100,370 and lawyers make a median salary of $127,990, according to BLS.

Overall, both doctorates tend to make more than those who earn a master’s or bachelor’s degree, according to BLS. A doctoral degree graduate has median weekly earnings of $1,909 and a professional degree graduate has $1,924 compared to $1,574 for master’s degree holders and $1,334 for bachelor’s degree holders [5]. 

Is a doctorate right for you?

If your goal is to work in a specific field, like medicine, or to become an authority in your field, a doctorate can help you achieve either outcome. When considering whether you should begin a doctorate program, ask yourself the following questions to help outline the best path forward.  

  • Do you enjoy working with this subject matter?

  • What kinds of job opportunities are available after graduation?

  • How competitive is the job market for your chosen career?

  • Will a doctorate give you a unique career advantage?

  • Do you have time to dedicate to earning a doctorate? 

  • Can you afford the cost of a doctorate? 

  • Are there financial aid options available?

Alternatives to doctorate degrees

Depending on your career path and goals, a master’s degree may be a better option. Master’s degrees take less time and cost less than doctorate degrees, and are available in nearly every field, including health care, business, the social sciences, natural sciences, and humanities

If you’re more interested in skills development, a professional certificate program can be a strong option to help you develop job-ready skills in popular fields like data science, project management, and UX design. You’ll find an array of programs from industry leaders like Google, Meta, IBM, Salesforce, and more on Coursera

Learn more: Is a Master’s Degree Worth It?

Next steps

A doctorate can be financially, academically, and personally rewarding, adding important knowledge to your wheelhouse and a standout credential to your resume. Earning your master's can also help you discern whether an academic doctorate makes sense for your larger objectives. Explore degrees in computer science, business, management, or public health from leading US institutions on Coursera, all while enjoying greater flexibility than an in-person degree program tends to offer. 

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Article sources

1. Education Data Initiative. “Average Cost of a Doctorate Degree, https://educationdata.org/average-cost-of-a-doctorate-degree.” Accessed June 22, 2022. 

2. Education Data Initiative. “Average Cost of Medical School, https://educationdata.org/average-cost-of-medical-school.” Accessed June 22, 2022. 

3. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Lawyers, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/legal/lawyers.htm.” Accessed June 22, 2022. 

4. BLS. “Physicians and Surgeons, ​​https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physicians-and-surgeons.htm.” Accessed June 22, 2022. 

5. BLS. “Education Pays, https://www.bls.gov/emp/chart-unemployment-earnings-education.htm.” Accessed June 22, 2022. 

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This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.