Professional Degree Vs Doctorate
Learn what makes a professional degree different from an academic doctorate. Find out how these programs can differ, which sort of career each is best suited for, and more by reading on.
How Is a Professional Degree Different from a Doctorate?
When you first begin looking at the education needed for your desired career path, you may be surprised to see that there are multiple types of degrees which your studies could culminate in. A law student, for example, could pursue their Juris Doctorate (JD) or a PhD in Legal Studies. These degrees may sound very similar upon first hearing of them, but they have very different focuses and uses after graduating. Academic doctorates tend to be research-oriented, while professional degrees are designed around practicing within the field as a professional, as the name would imply.
Professional degrees and doctorates are not mutually exclusive; students who earn a professional degree may later obtain a PhD, and some PhD programs may even require a professional degree for admission. Dual degree programs also exist, which may award both a PhD and professional degree. Medical researchers, for instance, may need both the clinical experience of working directly with patients and the research-based academic approach to gathering data and testing hypotheses, so MD/PhD programs are among the more common of this type of dual degree program.
|Professional Degree||Academic Doctorate|
|Program Duration||1-5 years||3-6 years|
|Learning Outcomes||Applied knowledge; designed to meet licensing requirements||Create original research, often for academic purposes|
|Degree Level||Variable; usually post-baccalaureate||Doctorate, highest degree commonly awarded|
|Admissions Exams||May use GRE or specialized exams, such as MCAT, LSAT, etc.||GRE sometimes required|
|Careers Using Degree||Lawyers, doctors, dentists||University professors, scientific researchers, consultants|
An Overview of Professional Degrees
Professional degrees, which include the JD as well as other similarly named degrees, such as a Doctor of Medicine (MD), generally lead to professional careers within a chosen field. In order to practice law or medicine, it is necessary to earn the appropriate professional degree. Professional degree programs are based around the practical application of knowledge. To continue the earlier example, a lawyer learns how the legal system works in order to apply that knowledge in the courtroom or other legal environments. Programs that result in professional degrees are often very carefully designed so as to meet the expectations of that role, including any necessary licensing requirements.
Admission to professional degree programs can be very competitive, and many have their own admissions exams, such as the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) or the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), to help narrow the field, while others simply use the GRE.
While nearly all professional degrees today exist as post-baccalaureate degrees, they do not have to be. The Bachelor of Architecture is a modern example of a professional degree that exists at the undergraduate level.
An Overview of Academic Doctorates
Academic doctorates are graduate-level degrees that are primarily oriented toward academic careers. The most common doctorate is the Doctor of Philosophy, or PhD, which is intended to teach students how to perform original research within their chosen field. Creating a piece of original research, and thus expanding the knowledge of the field, is a necessary step in being awarded the degree. Many holders of PhDs work as professors at universities or researchers in government organizations and corporate laboratories, testing hypotheses and developing new products. Utilizing the same example, a law student who is interested in understanding legal theory and policy rather than the adversarial courtroom process may be better suited for a PhD program.
Admission to PhD programs of any type is often highly competitive, and most schools have relatively few doctoral students in a department at any one time. Doctoral programs might require passage of the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) before being admitted, although this is not a universal requirement, and even then does not guarantee acceptance.