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What is a Doctorate: Everything You Need to Know

Already have a master’s, and thinking about taking your education further? Unsure of what that actually means and what your next options may be?

The pinnacle of educational attainment is the doctoral degree. But…what exactly is a doctoral degree, what can you get your doctorate in, and what is involved in the process? Consider this your introduction to all things doctorate.

What Is A Doctorate Degree?

The doctorate degree is the most advanced degree you can earn, symbolizing that you have mastered a specific area of study, or field of profession.

The degree requires a significant level of research and articulation. Those who earn the degree must have researched a subject or topic thoroughly, conducted new research and analysis, and provided a new interpretation or solution into the field.

The doctorate positions the professional for top-tier consulting and education career considerations and advancement in their current profession, and gives them the edge to staying relevant. In many cases, completing the doctorate means achieving a lifelong personal goal.

Earning a doctorate is challenging and rewarding, but do you know what to really expect? Download this free guide for tips and insights to help you prepare for success.

So, what types of doctorates are available?

Two Types of Doctorate Degrees

There are two major types of doctoral degrees: the research-oriented degree, and the professional application degree (also called an applied doctorate). The difference between the two types of programs may be a bit murkier than you think.

Here’s a breakdown of the two common types of doctorate programs.

The Ph.D.: A Research-Oriented Doctorate

These degrees are commonly referred to as Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.s). Some common research-oriented doctorates include the following:

  • Doctor of Arts (D.A.)
  • Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
  • Doctor of Business Management (Ph.D)
  • Doctor of Education (Ed.D.)
  • Doctor of Theology (Th.D.)
  • Doctor of Public Health (DPH)

“Philosophy” in this sense refers to the concept of research and pursuit of knowledge, as opposed to the actual subject of philosophy. A core component of this type of degree is the dissertation process.

The Professional Doctorate: An Application-Oriented Program

The professional doctorate (also called an applied doctorate, or terminal doctorate) is a degree that focuses on the application of a subject within real-world contexts or scenarios.

Most likely, you’ll want to pursue this type of degree if your goals include career advancement, meeting the requirements for certain high-level corporate jobs, establishing teaching credibility within industry, or building a consulting business.

Some common professional doctorates include:

  • Doctor of Business Administration (DBA)
  • Doctor of Healthcare Administration (DHA)
  • Doctor of Professional Studies – Instructional Design Leadership
  • Doctor of Finance (DPH)
  • Doctor of Social Work (DSW)
  • Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm.D.)
  • Juris Doctor (JD)

This type of degree may or may not require a dissertation. Unlike the academia-focused research doctorate, the curriculum of the professional doctorate will encourages you to tackle real-world issues within their field, research and present a solution.

How A Doctorate Works

The path to a doctoral degree is typically comprised of four stages of coursework: a core set of research and prep classes, a set of major area emphasis courses, electives and dissertation courses.

The Research Core

In most doctoral programs, you begin the journey to your degree with a common core of classes. The research core establishes the foundational skills you will need to complete the level of work required for the degree.

This core often includes advanced writing methods, research methodology and design, applied statistics, colloquium courses, and courses in qualitative and quantitative research and analysis.

Major Focus Area

Once the research core is complete, you will typically take courses in your major emphasis of study.

For example,

  • If you’re earning a DBA (Doctor of Business Administration), you will likely take courses in organizational behavior, organizational systems, strategic thinking and decision making, ethics and change management.
  • If you’re earning a DHA (Doctor of Healthcare Administration), you will likely take courses in healthcare policy and regulations, healthcare economics and finance, quality improvement and process improvement, and health information governance.
  • If you’re earning a Ph.D. in Human Services, you will likely take courses in advanced study in research methods for public service, social influences of behavior, ethics in decision making, and advanced communication for the human services leader.


In most doctoral programs, you will also be required to take certain electives within your field. This helps provide a rounded worldview to apply your doctorate in real-world environments.

For example, if you’re pursuing a DPS (Doctor of Professional Studies) with an emphasis in Instructional Design Leadership, you may take a course from the DHA track if you want to apply your doctorate in the public health environment.

Dissertation Requirements

Once the foundation work, major area of focus, and electives are completed, you’ll begin working on your dissertation. That can take different forms, determined by the Ph.D. or applied doctorate.

For Ph.D. students, the dissertation is typically a five-chapter dissertation. This is commonly broken into three phases. In phase 1, you’ll submit a prospectus for approval from the dissertation committee. In phase 2, you’ll finalize the first chapters of your dissertation and begins collecting data. In phase 3, you’ll complete the writing of your dissertation and orally defend it to the program leaders.

For applied doctorate students, the dissertation may look different. In these programs, you will be required to create a solution to a real world problem.

Investigate Dissertation Structures

Since your dissertation will be a crucial hurdle to defeat, it’s important you know what you’re getting yourself into from the beginning. Do some research on dissertation structures when you’re looking at prospective schools for help narrowing down your list. Ensuring the school will do everything to help you succeed with your dissertation can make all the difference when it comes down to crunch time.

At Franklin, we’ve intentionally designed a dissertation structure to help you complete your dissertation step-by-step, beginning with your enrollment in the program. We’ve also built-in faculty mentoring and guidance, and peer-to-peer support so you’re never left to “figure it out” on your own.

For example, throughout the DHA program, you’ll develop important research skills and the necessary writing prowess to publish a dissertation as a capstone project to your studies. Your dissertation will showcase your ability to identify a topic of interest within the workplace, develop a proposed solution to a problem, and test your hypotheses in the real world.

How Long Will It Take to Earn Your Doctorate?

The answer depends on the path you choose.

The degree requires anywhere from 60 to 120 semester credit hours (or, approximately 20-40 college classes). Most Ph.D.s require the full 120 hours, while most applied doctorates are closer to the lower end of that spectrum. For example, the DBA and DHA at Franklin both require only 58 hours.

On average, a Ph.D. may take up to eight years to complete. A doctorate degree typically takes four to six years to complete—however, this timing depends on the program design, the subject area you’re studying, and the institution offering the program.

Pro Tip: Some innovative institutions, such as Franklin University, have streamlined their doctorate degree programs and offer creative transfer options. The program design, which includes an embedded dissertation and a community of support, also helps students earn their doctorate in as little as three years.

Why Choose to Earn a Doctorate?

A doctoral program is a serious commitment with a serious return on investment.

If you want to teach at a higher education institution, the degree is table stakes to get in the door. If you want industry leadership, the degree can deliver substantial credibility. And, if you’re eyeing for that top-floor corner office, the degree can be a huge differentiator.

So, which one is right for you—research or applied? Check out these five truths about Applied Doctorates.

Free Guide:
How to Complete Your Doctoral Journey
Discover common pitfalls and the 5 key metrics that will help you finish your doctorate degree.