The Doctoral Degree

Advanced education culminates with the awarding of the doctoral degree. Allen R. Sanderson and Bernard Dugoni, in the 1997 edition of their annual survey of new doctoral recipients from U.S. universities, identified fifty-two different research doctorates. Traditionally, the nonprofessional doctoral degree most often awarded is the doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.), although other degrees such as the doctor of education (Ed.D.), doctor of arts (D.A.), and the doctor of science (D.Sc./Sc.D.) are being offered in greater numbers. Professional doctoral degrees such as the doctor of jurisprudence (J.D.) and the doctor of medicine (M.D.) also indicate the ending of advanced education, but the requirements for these doctoral degrees differ from those of the Ph.D. and its equivalents.
Requirements for doctoral degrees are generally established within the United States. While there are differences with course requirements and completion rates, the basic doctoral degree begins with one to two years of course work and ends with the oral defense of the dissertation. Credit hours generally range from sixty to seventy-five points beyond a master’s degree, and course work is most often individually tailored based on the student’s background, interests, and professional goals. In addition to completing class work prior to the dissertation, doctoral students are required to take comprehensive exams. Depending on the program, a student may be required to take more than one comprehensive exam throughout the course of study. Typically, a comprehensive exam is administered immediately following completion of course work, and the exam itself may take various forms such as a daylong session where students answer questions based on knowledge obtained in their studies. In most circumstances this is a closed-book exam and, after faculty have had the opportunity to grade the exam, doctoral students must defend their responses orally before a faculty panel.
The Dissertation
The dissertation is an original topic of research investigated by the student in his final years as a doctoral student. A typical dissertation completed by a Ph.D. candidate will include five chapters: the first is a general introduction, the second is a thorough literature review of the subject, the third chapter contains the methodology or how the research is to be conducted, the fourth chapter shows the findings from research, and the final chapter is a discussion of the findings with suggestions for possible future research.
Prior to conducting the dissertation research, the graduate student must defend her proposal to her dissertation committee, which is generally made up of three to five members. The proposal is typically the first three chapters of the dissertation. After the proposal is approved the doctoral student may begin her research and work to complete the dissertation. After the research has been conducted and data analyzed, the doctoral student must again orally defend the dissertation before her committee. Each Ph.D. candidate must show a thorough knowledge of the subject being studied and present original research and findings that add to the body of knowledge for her discipline.
Ph.D.’s, M.D.’s, and J.D.’s
The Ph.D. is the typical doctoral degree awarded at universities, although the areas of study range from the basic humanities to the sciences and education. Those receiving Ph.D.’s have traditionally gone on to faculty positions at colleges or universities. It is not uncommon, however, for Ph.D. recipients to go immediately into careers outside of academe.
Professional doctoral education, as previously mentioned, is postbaccalaureate study in the professions. Two of the most established professional education fields are medicine and law. The requirements for obtaining an M.D. or J.D. are rigid and do not vary greatly at different universities. In contrast, students in research doctoral programs have more flexibility in their individual courses of study. Professional doctoral students enter their graduate program as a cohort, take the same classes, and graduate within the recommended time period unless serious circumstances delay their progress. The curriculum focuses on more applied areas of study. Unlike a Ph.D. where the dissertation is the culmination of study, often after the professional education is completed, the graduate is required to take state-regulated exams in order to practice their profession such as medicine, law, or nursing.
Sanderson and Dugoni’s 1997 doctoral survey shows several trends that are expected to continue. One is an upward trend of Ph.D.’s awarded. While the number of doctorates awarded annually is typically the greatest for the life sciences, the largest growth during the 1990s came in engineering. Doctorates granted to women have been on an upward trend since the late 1960s, but women continue to receive the fewest doctorates in the physical sciences and engineering. Racial/ethnic minority groups also have seen increases in the numbers of Ph.D.’s awarded.

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