Professional Doctorate vs. Ph.D.: Choosing the Right Degree

With the number and types of advanced degrees available today, it can be overwhelming to decide which one is right for you. Many potential students don’t understand the difference between degrees such as EdD, DBA, and Ph.D. or the variations within these degree programs. 

A Ph.D. is best for people who are interested in research. Professional doctorates are better for those who want to teach, hold a leadership position, or do other work in the field. To choose between a professional doctorate and a Ph.D., you should consider the outcomes, your career goals, and the cost. 

In this article, I’ll discuss each of these considerations for both professional doctorates and PhDs so that you can make an informed decision that best suits your academic and professional goals. 

This post was written on behalf of Dave Maslach for the R3ciprocity project (Check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback software). R3ciprocity helps students, faculty, and research folk by providing a real and authentic look into doing research. It provides solutions and hope to researchers around the world.

What’s the Difference Between a Professional Doctorate and a Ph.D.?

Professional doctorates include both academic terminal degrees and professional degrees. Though these degrees have much in common, there are also many differences and pros and cons for each, depending on your post-graduation goals. 

To help decide which of these degrees is right for you, check out this article!

Academic Terminal Degrees

An academic terminal degree typically refers to the highest degree available within the field. Usually, the highest degree attainable is a Ph.D. or Doctor of Philosophy. However, there are some fields where the terminal degree is a master’s. 

If you’re thinking about a Ph.D., you should check out this video which discusses the level of difficulty for obtaining a Ph.D. versus a “normal job.” 

More people are interested in obtaining an advanced degree than ever before, with the number of doctorate degrees more than doubling over the last two decades. However, in recent year-over-year comparisons, there has been some evidence that the number of PhDs awarded is decreasing.

Still unsure about your academic future? Take this quiz to see if a Ph.D. is right for you!

Professional Degrees

According to Northeastern University, a professional degree is designed to help prepare you for a career in a specific field, such as law, education, or business. These degree programs typically involve a lot of “real-world application.” 

Common professional degree programs include EdD (Doctor of Education) and DBA (Doctor of Business Administration), in addition to JD and MD for attorneys and medical doctors. 

EdD and DBA recipients tend to have different career paths, goals, and academic experiences than Ph.D. graduates. The focus of the training and education is different, as are the outcomes and career trajectories for those who earn the degrees. 

To understand the differences between a Ph.D. in Business Administration and a Doctorate in Business Administration, you should check out this video.

Comparing Outcomes for Ph.D., EdD, and DBA Programs

One of the major considerations you should make when determining a degree program is your intended outcome. In other words, what do you want to do with the degree? While much of the material in the programs will be similar, the outcomes are typically much different. 

Who Should Complete a Ph.D. Program?

Ph.D. programs are very much focused on research and academics. Many (but certainly not all) students who go this route have followed a traditional trajectory, completing their undergraduate and master’s programs before moving on to the terminal degree.

Check out Dave’s video about common misconceptions people have about PhDs:

People who complete Ph.D. programs should be interested in research. To get through the dissertation process, at minimum, they’ll need to have research skills. However, not everyone ends up doing research and working in academia for the rest of their careers. 

Some students realize that they really don’t enjoy research as much as they thought and they end up on a completely different career path than when they first started their Ph.D. journey. 

According to The Princeton Review, academic teaching positions are increasingly difficult to obtain. You should make sure that you do some very realistic thinking about your career options, including whether you’re willing to move and how much you’re hoping to earn when considering a Ph.D. program.

If you’re still unsure of exactly what it means to “work in academia,” take a look at this post which discusses whether you should consider becoming an academic.

Who Should Complete an EdD Program?

People who complete a Doctor of Education degree program typically go into an administrative role or educational leadership. Many EdD recipients are interested in working for a college or university.

Professional degrees like the EdD are ideal for people who have already entered the workforce or have otherwise been out of the college or university setting for some time. Of course, this is not always the case, but it is a common situation for many professional students. 

If your goal is to continue work in the K-12 school system, either as an administrator or in a leadership role, then the EdD may be an ideal degree program. Similarly, if you would like to work in administration within a college or university, the EdD would be an option. 

However, if your goal is to be a college professor, or if you would like to do research and publish literature about education and theory, then you should consider a Ph.D. rather than the EdD.

Here are some examples of common career paths for people who earn an EdD: 

  • College president (Rare)
  • Provost (Rare)
  • School superintendent
  • Professor (usually not tenure-track)
  • Associate dean
  • School principal 
  • Chief Learning Officer
  • Curriculum developer
  • Policy maker
  • Training and development manager

Who Should Complete a DBA Program?

Some people who complete a Doctorate of Business Administration degree program end up teaching at a business school (at a college or university) or using the degree to apply for various jobs or roles within the private sector. DBA programs build on the knowledge obtained through earning a master’s degree in business, such as an MBA.

For more information about the pros and cons of a DBA program, check out Advantages and disadvantages of a doctorate in business.

Like the EdD program, many DBA students are professionals who are already on a career track. The good thing about professional degree programs is that they typically can be completed on a part-time basis. Leaving the workforce altogether to go back to school is simply not an option for many adults, making these professional degree programs the best choice for continuing their education.

One significant difference between a Ph.D. and a DBA is the outcome. A Ph.D. typically can lead to a career in academia and adds to the body of knowledge in the field.

On the other hand, a DBA is more focused on those with practical experience in the field. Those who obtain a DBA will be able to apply existing knowledge to present issues and problems they may face in the field (in their own organization).

Here are some example careers for someone with a DBA: 

  • Corporate executive (C-Suite)
  • Consultant (Likely)
  • Business professor (non tenure-track)
  • Economist
  • Government employee
  • Director of human resources

Cost Comparisons 

The cost of attending a Ph.D. program versus a DBA or EdD program can vary greatly. Part of the reason for the differing costs is the “clientele,” so to speak. For example, DBA programs are typically recruiting people who are already in the profession and are looking to advance their careers or grow their earning potential. Thus, they tend to be more expensive than the other two.

Using the University of Florida, a public state university, as an example, you can see the differences in cost between a DBA, EdD, and Ph.D. program. The DBA is significantly more expensive than the other two. 

The cost of a Ph.D. depends on the degree that the prospective student has when they begin the program (a bachelor’s or master’s) and the number of seminar courses needed.

Degree ProgramApproximate Cost (in-state tuition)
University of Florida DBA$108,159
University of Florida EdD$38,855 (in-state) 
University of Florida PhD$50,980-$89,000 

For more information about the average cost of a PhD program, check out this article

Can You Earn Money as a Ph.D. Student?

Most students pursuing a Ph.D. can lower their expenses even further by earning funding for research, filling research and teaching assistant roles, and being awarded other grants and stipends.

While completing a Ph.D. program, you may be able to receive a stipend to do research for the university through grants provided by the federal or state government or other private and public institutions. 

Check out this video about why Ph.D. students get paid to go to school! 

Ph.D. stipends typically cover the student’s tuition and at least some of their living expenses, but these amounts will obviously vary from person to person. However, this is certainly not just “free money.” 

Ph.D. students work very hard, and their research is extremely time-consuming. Many are significantly underpaid for the amount of time and work that they are putting forward in their research. 

In contrast, degree programs that are not based on research like Ph.D. programs do not offer the same opportunities for stipends and grants to help with funding the degree. When determining the value or cost-benefit analysis for your degree, this type of financial assistance is another aspect to consider. 

Is an Advanced Degree Worth it? 

Ph.D., DBA, and EdD degree programs can be very expensive. Another subject that you should consider is the degree’s value in terms of getting a return on your investment. In other words, is your earning potential going to increase by an amount that is at least equal to the cost of earning the degree?

Over the past decade, there has been significant discussion about whether advanced degrees like a Ph.D. are “worth it.” One study on this subject found that the value of the Ph.D. was mainly shaped by two factors: what the student did during their thesis and what they sought out to do professionally. 

Specifically, many students who went on to land valuable jobs did so within the specialty area of their thesis work, building upon relationships and research that began during their academic career. In other words, there is labor market value built-in to the research process when experience is gained within the field. 

Quality Concerns

In a competitive job market, especially within academia, the quality of your degree program may have an impact on its worth, at least in the eyes of prospective employers. There is evidence that supports a relationship between the quality of the school and the success outcomes of those who graduate from their advanced degree programs.  

Of course, some more prestigious schools also come with larger tuition bills. Those working toward a non-PhD terminal degree may find themselves facing a large student loan bill after graduation. 

The prospect of paying for your education over the next several decades of your professional life may serve as a harsh reality check. It’s a reminder of the importance of managing your expectations and formulating a plan for your expected outcomes once you’ve completed your degree program. 

This is not to say that everyone must attend the highest-priced ivy league schools. Still, the program’s reputation, rigor, and overall quality should be considered as a component of value when deciding to pursue an advanced degree. 

Legitimacy Concerns

Some advanced degrees, like the DBA, are not as widely recognized as a Ph.D. or even an MBA (Master of Business Administration). This is simply because not as many people have earned this particular degree, so those in the industry are not as familiar with what the DBA program entails. As a result, it may not carry the same sort of “prestige” in the mind of someone making a hiring decision (for example) as an MBA, which is more well-understood.

This is an issue with many terminal degrees, actually, unless it is one that is very well-recognized. Questions about legitimacy can become even more complicated when the component of online or distance-based learning is introduced into the equation. 

Part of the reason for these questions about advanced degrees stems from the surge of new degree programs that have occurred over the last twenty years. Fields of study that never had doctoral degrees now suddenly have programs popping up all over the country. 

Adding these so-called “professional practice” doctorates add an additional revenue stream for the college or university as they draw in a new batch of potential students that may have never otherwise returned to academics. This is especially true for schools that offer doctorate programs in an online or hybrid format.

Differentiating Doctorate Programs from Ph.D. Programs

In many fields, there are degree paths available where students can earn a terminal degree in the same field through different tracks, such as the EdD and a Ph.D. in education, or the DBA and a Ph.D. in Business Administration. 

Both degrees will prepare students for a profession in the field, and both will include research and training in knowledge, theory, and practicality. However, as I discussed earlier, the EdD is designed to prepare educators for professional practice, while the Ph.D. should focus on training researchers.

Though this distinction is clearly made, it’s not always the result in actual colleges and universities across the country. The end result can be degree recipients that are not on the trajectory that they planned, or there is so much overlap between the two curricula that there is not much of a distinction at all.

It’s important to do your research to understand what the program you’re considering truly entails and what it will offer you. You should compare and contrast the programs if there is a Ph.D. and a Doctorate track available for the same field. 

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, there are many things to consider when deciding which type of degree is right for you. There are advantages and disadvantages to each, but none are better than the others. It is a personal decision for each prospective student to make by considering their desired outcomes, the cost, and their professional goals. 

If you’re facing this decision, the best thing to do is start by researching the different programs and what they entail. Do some research on what it’s like to be a professor, work in academia, or what kinds of jobs are available in the private or government sectors in your field. This will give you a good place to start and allow you to make the best decision to meet your goals.

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