A doctoral degree signals a high degree of mastery in your chosen field. It also means you’ve contributed novel scholarship via your dissertation. If you’re hoping to ascend a career ladder or break through an earnings ceiling, a doctorate could be the perfect way to do so — particularly in fields that value high levels of education or that have entry-level educational requirements.
If you’re contemplating a return to higher education, you need a deep understanding of all that a doctoral degree requires. While this advanced training can greatly improve your career prospects, a doctorate is appealing to employers precisely because it’s so challenging.
What is a doctoral degree?
A doctorate is, in most fields, the highest degree you can earn. It requires several years of additional education beyond your bachelor’s degree, as well as a dissertation.
A dissertation is a novel research project during which you conduct exhaustive research and then publish your findings and the theory or theories they have produced. For example, a teacher pursuing a doctorate in education might research best practices in special education or early interventions for struggling readers.
The dissertation is critical to the doctorate, because it shows you have put your education and training to work. At the end of a dissertation, a doctoral candidate must defend their thesis before a panel of experts — usually people who hold doctorates in their field, including professors at their chosen school. The dissertation is so challenging that some people finish their doctoral classwork, but not the dissertation, earning the moniker “all but dissertation” (ABD) degree.
Depending on which university you attend, there may be different methods or requirements for completing your dissertation. For example, students enrolled in SNU’s Doctor of Education in Administration and Leadership (Ed.D) work on small sections of their dissertation throughout the program, often as part of each individual class’s coursework. This structure makes it much easier for students to complete this massive piece of scholarship.
Doctoral degree holders are experts in their fields. This makes them sought-after consultants and advisors. In many fields and at many schools, a doctorate is also prerequisite to becoming a professor.
What are the benefits of graduating with a doctoral degree?
On average, doctoral degree holders earn more than any other group. In 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, median weekly earnings for doctorate recipients were $1,883 per week. That compares to $1,497 with a master’s degree, $1,248, with a bachelor’s degree, $887 for people who attend but do not graduate college, and $746 for those with just a high school diploma.
However, higher earnings are not the whole picture. The actual amount you can earn with a doctoral degree depends on the field you are in or hope to enter. In some fields, such as higher education or some sectors of public administration, you need a doctoral degree to advance in your career. In other fields, you can get your foot in the door with a bachelor’s, but you’ll need a graduate level education if you want to enter the upper echelons of management.
Some other benefits of choosing a doctoral program include:
- You’ll make industry connections, particularly if you plan to enter academia.
- You’ll publish a novel piece of scholarship that can help elevate your stature and your work.
- You’ll become a true expert on a sub-niche within your chosen field. This can make you an attractive candidate for industries and organizations that need that expertise.
- You may feel more confident in your industry knowledge, especially if you work with other academics.
What different types of doctoral degrees can you earn?
One of the most common types of doctoral degrees is the doctor of philosophy, or PhD. This degree generally applies to people who study the humanities. For example, a person with a doctorate in literature or sociology would generally earn a PhD.
Although this designation tends to be one of the most prevalent, there are many other doctoral paths. Some examples include:
- Doctor of nursing practice (DNP)
- Doctor of education (Ed.D)
- Doctor of business administration (DBA)
- Doctor of public administration (DPA)
- Doctor of theology (ThD)
There are some exceptions to the rule that a doctorate is the highest level of education. In medicine, you can pursue a doctorate in a specific field. For example, a nurse might pursue a doctor of nursing, but this does not make them a medical doctor. People who wish to become medical doctors must attend medical school. Similarly, in the legal field, the highest degree is a juris doctor, which is a professional degree rather than a PhD or doctorate. To receive a juris doctor (JD), you must go to law school.
What qualifications do you need for a doctoral degree program?
To be eligible for a doctoral degree program, you must first complete a bachelor’s degree. In some cases, you must have a bachelor’s in a related field. If you don’t, you may need to take remedial classes or complete a master’s degree rist. Check the program’s specific educational requirements. If you’re currently an undergraduate, you can save significant time by pursuing the right classes now rather than taking remedial courses later.
Check the program’s educational requirements to see what additional training or experience you may need.
Some other qualifications you will need to meet, depending on the program you choose, include:
- You will need to find a program that offers the coursework you want and that veterans in your field respect.
- You will need to fill out an application, that will likely include essays and recommendations.
- You’ll need to get your transcripts from all schools you previously attended.
- You may need to take an admissions test, though more and more schools are beginning to waive these tests.
- If you need financial aid, you’ll need to review your options with your school’s financial aid office.
Which strategies work for choosing the right doctoral degree program?
No two doctoral programs are exactly alike. The key to succeeding as an adult learner is to find the program that works for your needs. Some equations to ask as you compare options include:
- Do I have enough time to return to school? What schedule works best with my needs?
- Are online or evening classes available?
- How long will it take to graduate, and what support does the school provide?
- What percentage of students end up ABD? What dissertation support does this school offer?
- Is the school accredited, and if so, by whom?
- Who teaches the classes? Are they experts in their field?
- What support does the school offer to adult learners? At SNU, cohorts work together to support each other to graduate on time.
Which steps should you take to apply for your doctoral degree?
If you’re ready to commit to a brighter future, a doctoral degree might offer a path forward. To begin the process, you need to narrow down your school options.
Once you’ve narrowed down the options, follow these steps:
- Contact your chosen school’s admissions office to get an admissions packet. Be sure to put all relevant deadlines into your calendar.
- Request all transcripts from your past schools. Remember that you will need an official transcript to apply in most cases.
- Take any admissions exams. Be sure to allocate study and prep time.
- Get recommendations from employers or prior instructors.
- Submit everything by the application deadline.
- Meet with the school’s financial aid office to review your options for funding your education.
One of the things that makes SNU’s doctoral degree program so unique is that it can be finished completely online, which is a convenient option for busy adults. To learn about what this would entail, read this free guide, What to Expect From an Online Degree Program.