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Doctoral Degrees

A doctoral degree is not for the faint of heart. Regardless of whether students pursue a Ph.D or another doctoral degree, the journey can be an arduous one, replete with long hours spent in the library, either studying or working on a dissertation.

There are some specific differences between a doctoral degree and a Ph.D. While all Ph.D's are doctorates, not all doctorates are Ph.D's. The Ph.D, which stands for Doctor of Philosophy, is often awarded in the arts, sciences, and humanities. It is geared towards careers in academia, and many choose the avenues of industrial and government research. Other doctoral degrees, such as a J.D. to practice law, an Ed.D for educators who hope to climb the administrative ladder, and an M.D. to become a Doctor of Medicine, prepare candidates for fields outside university settings. The program requirements of each of these doctoral degrees vary, but each provides rigorous training to equip graduates with the knowledge and skills needed in their field.

As the highest degree anyone can earn, a doctoral degree provides extensive expertise in a specialized field. It is for those who enjoy research and scholarship. Recipients regard the process as a lengthy and challenging, but ultimately rewarding, one. Regardless of what they do after they receive their doctorates, candidates share a passion for the field they have chosen and a willingness to devote several years to its study. This interest is absolutely necessary, because Ph.D programs can require 4 to 8 years to complete. In fact, it typically takes a candidate 7.7 years to receive a Ph.D, from the time they begin the program to completion. Fifty percent of students drop out along the way, and many students languish in the A.B.D. – All But Dissertation – phase.

What to Expect

A Ph.D program generally begins with two to three years of coursework. It entails a copious amount of required reading, and this period also consists of a series of comprehensive written or oral exams, commonly known as "comps." Students must demonstrate a firm grasp of the material in order to move forward. Some fields, such as psychology, may require an internship as well.

Following this phase, students research and write a publishable dissertation, an independent research and writing project designed to contribute new and meaningful knowledge to their field. Students can expect to form strong working relationships with professors, including their advisor, during this period. Many simultaneously work as teaching assistants for undergraduate courses. When they complete their dissertation, they must present and defend it in front of a committee of experts. It can be a harrowing process, evidenced by the fact that some students take years longer than it should take to complete their dissertation.

In financial terms, a Ph.D is often less costly for students than a master's degree. This is because Ph.D programs often provide sources of financial support. Many offer a living stipend, grants, fellowships, scholarships, and paid teaching positions. Some even offer full scholarships. This means that, in the end, obtaining a Ph.D may cost less than earning a master's degree. A report by the National Science Foundation

found that more than two-thirds of doctorate recipients in the life sciences and more than three-quarters of those in the science and engineering fields graduated with no debt. 8% to 11% of doctoral degree holders graduate with less than $10,000 in debt.

Popular Programs

According to a report by the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 50% of the 67,700 doctoral degrees awarded from 2008 to 2009 were awarded in the fields of health professions and related clinical sciences; education; engineering and engineering technologies; and biological and biomedical sciences.

The NSF report found that the number of doctorate degrees awarded in the fields of science and engineering is growing, while the number of doctorates awarded in social sciences, education, and humanities has declined in the past decade. Still, more people are pursuing these degrees than ever before.

What to Consider

When applying to doctoral programs, students should ensure that the institutions they apply to are accredited by legitimate bodies. Accreditation agencies evaluate higher education institutions and programs to ensure that they provide a basic level of quality. Accreditation is important for several reasons; students who attend unaccredited schools may not receive financial aid, and employers may not hire candidates who attended unaccredited schools. For those who plan on pursuing further education, credits from unaccredited schools may not be transferrable. The U.S. Department of Education maintains a list of accredited institutions. Consulting this database can save students both time and money.