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What is the difference between an M.D., Ph.D., J.D., Ed.D: Who is a ‘real’ doctor?

 Which Doctorate is for Me

As a university professor, my students call me Dr. G. When people outside of the university hear this, I often get asked: “what kind of doctor are you?” The next question often is “so that means you aren’t a ‘real’ doctor right?” Well, I can’t take out your appendix or write you a prescription, so no, I am not that kind of doctor. I am a doctor none-the-less.

What does it mean to be a doctor?

Anyone that wants to be a doctor must complete the education, certification, or licensure to earn the title. A doctor is someone that holds a doctorate, which is the highest educational award a student can earn for graduate study. Because it is the highest formal degree in your field, it is often referred to as a terminal degree. There are various acronyms associated with the completion of different doctoral programs. Doctorates are grouped by academic or research doctorates and professional doctorates. Whatever field is studied, earning a doctoral-level degree is a major accomplishment with years of study and practice supporting it.

What is a ‘professional’ doctorate?

Typically, when people generically refer to a doctor, they mean a medical professional that has the training to practice medicine. A medical doctor or M.D. is one of many degrees considered a professional doctorate as either an applied degree or practitioner degree. A professional doctorate is an advanced degree that qualifies recipients to work in a specific profession. A person that receives a professional doctorate applies their training in their workplace or community. Professional doctorates can be earned in

  • Business (DBA)
  • Dentistry (DDS)
  • Education (EdD)
  • Information Technology (DIT)
  • Health Administration (DHA)
  • Law (JD)
  • Nursing Practice (DNP)
  • Podiaty (DPM)
  • Psychology (PsyD)
  • Public Administration (DPA)
  • Social Work (DSW)

What is an ‘academic’ or ‘research’ doctorate?

Typically, when people refer to an academic doctor, they mean a Doctorate of Philosophy or a Ph.D. The National Science Foundation (NSF) National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics and three other federal agencies sponsor the annual Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED) in the United States. Their latest report published in December 2019, calls attention to the major trends of the data from its inception in 1957 to 2018. In this report, they define a research doctorate as “a doctoral degree that is oriented toward preparing students to make original intellectual contributions in a field of study and that is not primarily intended for the practice of a profession”. There are 331 recognized fields of doctoral study grouped into 35 major fields and aggregated into the eight broad areas of:

  1. education
  2. engineering
  3. humanities and arts
  4. life sciences
  5. mathematics and computer sciences
  6. physical and earth sciences
  7. psychology and social sciences
  8. other non-science and engineering fields

Which is better a professional doctorate or an academic or research doctorate?

Which degree is ‘better’ will depend on what you plan to do. One university describes the distinction between the two as research doctorate recipients are expert in creating knowledge while professional doctorates are expert on using knowledge. Think about these four would-you-rather questions and decide which of these appeals to you:

  • Would you rather create new knowledge or use that knowledge?
  • Would you rather conduct research or analyze and apply it?
  • Would you rather work in an academic setting or a professional setting?
  • Would you rather identify issues or solve them?

You should think about your career goals and the time needed to complete an advanced course of study. You should think about what degree will help you attain the next steps you plan to take in your career. You should also think about what kind of research makes the most sense for meeting your goal. I’ve created a table of some of the key differences for you to consider when making a decision between the two:

Professional DoctorateResearch Doctorate
The main focus is to apply knowledge to industry to solve new and emerging problemsThe main focus is to develop advanced research skills and create new knowledge to share with others
Considered a terminal degreeConsidered a terminal degree
Admissions testing is usually focused on the field of study such as the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) or for law school, the LSATAdmissions testing is usually focused on academic skills such as the Graduate Record Examination (GRE)  
English as an additional language (EAL) students are usually required to take the Test Of English As A Foreign Language (TOEFL)English as an additional language (EAL) students are usually required to take the Test Of English As A Foreign Language (TOEFL)
An applicant’s resume should emphasize skills and experience in the fieldAn applicant’s resume should emphasize academic achievements
An applicant’s letters of recommendation are often an important deciding factor in determining admissionAn applicant’s letters of recommendation are highly important for those considering your candidature
Typically programs require 60-120 semester creditsTypically programs require 90-120 semester credits
Completion ranges from 3-7 yearsCompletion ranges from 5-10 years
Course work emphasized discipline specific content and practical applicationCourse work emphasizes research and theory
Usually earned by successfully completing credentialing exams and or a doctoral project focused on formulating solutions to the issues or challenges faced by professionals in the fieldUsually earned with the completion of a research study that is written up as a doctoral dissertation and defended orally
Focuses on practical work experience and sharing knowledgeFocuses on research and publications that fill a gap in the knowledge base for your field
Preparation for a leadership position in your chosen fieldPreparation for a future faculty teaching or research position
Tend to go back to industry positions with a first-year post-degree position median expected salary range between $81,000 – $130,000Tend to work in a post-degree first-year post-doctoral position with the median expected salary range between $47, 000 – $60,000
Table 1. Comparison of a Professional Doctorate and an Academic or Research Doctorate

What about the trends in doctorate education outcomes?

In reading the report from the latest data in the Survey of Earned Doctorates (NSF et al., 2019), I found some interesting and in some cases unexpected information in regard to gender, minority status, and debt. I have created a table below with the most important findings. This data is publicly available at the National Science Foundation website.

Doctorate degrees awardedThe number of doctorates awarded shows a strong upward trend—average annual growth of 3.2%
Education-related debtSurprisingly, in 2018, 57% of doctorate recipients reported no education-related debtFor the 43% with debt, graduate only debt had a median of $25,000Asian and white doctorate recipients were the least likely to have graduate debtDoctorate recipients whose parents had a high school education or lower or some college were the most likely to have graduate debt and higher levels of graduate debt
Underrepresented minoritiesThe number of Hispanic or Latino and black or African American doctorate recipients increasedNative Americans decreased
WomenWomen earned half or more of the doctorates awarded in life sciences, psychology and social sciences, education, humanities and arts, and other non-S&E fields
Temporary Visa holdersThe share of doctorates awarded to temporary visa holders increased in every broad field of study
Table 2. Gender, Minority Status, and Debt From the Survey of Earned Doctorates

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