Doctoral degrees are prestigious, hard-earned accomplishments that usually denote the highest point of learning for a chosen field of study. A Ph.D. is a type of doctoral degree. However, there are some specific differences between a Ph.D. and other doctoral degrees.

Types of Doctoral Degrees

College student studying on lawn
College student studying on lawn

A person can be awarded a doctoral degree in many areas. For instance, a J.D., or a "Juris Doctor," is a professional degree for those wanting to practice law, while an M.D. is a Doctor of Medicine. Other doctorates include Dr.P.H.s (Doctor of Public health), Sc.D.s (Doctor of Science), D.B.A.s (Doctor of Business Administration), D.D.S. (Doctor of Dental Surgery) and D.C. (Doctor of Chiropractic).

A Ph.D. is a Doctor of Philosophy, which is awarded in several subject areas, and it is the pinnacle of learning about a subject. While all doctoral degrees require extensive research, similar course hours (usually around 60), and most schools require a doctoral thesis, the goal of a Ph.D. is an academic or research career, and it is often geared toward the teaching profession. A Ph.D. is required for gaining tenure at most universities.

Professional vs. Academic

Lawyer with client in court
Lawyer with client in court

Most other doctoral degrees are geared toward a profession outside a university or research environment. For example, lawyers are required to have J.D., dentists have a D.D.S., while medical doctors will usually have an M.D.

Highest Degree Available?

Doctor performing surgery
Doctor performing surgery

Some professional doctoral degrees are not an end-all for practicing a particular profession.

For instance, to practice law, a certificate to practice a certain type of law, such as immigration law or corporate law, is needed in addition to the J.D. Additionally, doctors can earn certifications to specialize their practice. A doctor specializing in heart surgery, for instance, needs further specialization beyond an M.D.

When deciding which higher degree is right for you, remember that if it is a professional doctorate, you might have to study for further certifications.

A Ph.D. is the highest academic degree available no matter the subject, although those with a Ph.D. can achieve professional growth through research accomplishments and teaching success.

Honorary Doctorate

Meryl Streep receiving honorary degree
Meryl Streep receiving honorary degree

A university awards an honorary doctorate to a person who has made a significant contribution to society or to the university itself. Honorary doctorates do not require the recipient to have any formal education or an education at the school itself, and those who receive an honorary doctorate can use the title of "Dr." if they wish. Adding "h.c." after the degree is a way to denote that it is honorary. For instance, Meryl Streep (an alumnus of Yale University), who received an honorary degree from Princeton University in 2009, can now refer to herself as Dr.h.c. Meryl Streep.

An honorary degree does not imply that the recipient is now allowed to practice the profession in which he or she received the degree or to apply to teach at any university, though some universities might honor them as academic degrees depending on their policies. An honorary degree is simply an honor, and it can even be awarded by nonacademic organizations such as churches. An honorary degree cannot be requested, and a person must be nominated by a committee to be considered to receive one.

Choosing a Program

Woman on laptop
Woman on laptop

Before deciding on a doctoral program, examine your long-term goals. If you are looking for a career-oriented, work-world environment, a doctoral degree could be more useful for you. However, if researching and sharing your findings with others is your forte, a Ph.D. could be the right choice.