The highest level of education a student can receive is a doctoral degree. These advanced degrees indicate that the recipient has in-depth knowledge and mastery of their particular area of study, and they're relatively rare. Less than 1 percent of the population in the U.S. holds a doctoral degree, according to the education firm Peterson's. While the Census Bureau reported the number of doctoral degree holders increased by 1 million from 2002-12, don't expect this level of education to become as common as bachelor's degrees or even master's degrees.
A doctoral degree may not be for everyone, as it entails a rigorous program that can take years to complete. Those who pursue this elite credential must have a love of learning and a strong desire to take their education to the very highest level.
What is a doctorate?
Even those not familiar with the doctorate degree definition may be familiar with the term Ph.D. The letters Ph.D. stand for Doctor of Philosophy, which is the most popular doctoral degree in the country. According to the National Science Foundation, science and engineering doctorate degrees — Ph.D. degrees — accounted for 74 percent of doctorates earned in 2012.
The following are other examples of doctoral degrees.
- Doctor of Education
- Doctor of Physical Therapy
- Doctor of Medicine
- Doctor of Dental Surgery
- Juris Doctor
Some of these doctoral degrees, such as those for medicine and law, are also referred to as professional degrees.
Do you need an advanced postgraduate degree?
Although a Ph.D. or other doctoral degree might be helpful in advancing some careers, it is only truly necessary for relatively few occupations.
These include the following positions.
- Most postsecondary teachers
- Doctors and surgeons
- Physical therapists
In addition, any person who is planning to do advanced research will likely need a doctorate, regardless of their field.
Other jobs requiring a Ph.D. include those in fields where a government license or professional credentials are needed. For example, a person with a bachelor's or master's degree in psychology may be able to work in entry-level positions. However, states may require a Ph.D. in psychology or a Doctor of Psychology degree before they will license that person and allow them to use the title of "psychologist."
Deciding to commit to a doctorate
Before entering a doctorate program, students should carefully consider the time commitment and their financial resources.
Peterson's notes that a Ph.D. can take up to nine years or more to earn, and many doctoral candidates are unable to work a full-time job during that time because of the rigorous demands of their studies. Fortunately, many institutions offer stipends and fellowships to graduate students to offset the cost of living, so check with universities that interest you about their funding options.
In other good news for prospective doctoral students, the National Science Foundation reports the average time to earn a Ph.D. has been declining in recent years. As of 2012, the following represents the median time, based upon field of study, from entering graduate school to earning a doctorate.
- Social sciences: 7.7 years
- Life sciences: 6.9 years
- Engineering: 6.7 years
- Physical sciences: 6.7 years
While the doctoral degree process can be challenging, it can also be immensely rewarding. Some Ph.D. jobs may pay significantly more than those requiring less education, but often the real value lies in the opportunity to explore an area of study the student finds meaningful and relevant.
Career counselors at schools with doctorate degree programs can help students learn more about whether this advanced degree is right for them. Interested students should request more information about both programs and entrance requirements, as certain qualifying exams, such as the GRE or LSAT, might be required..
- Ph.D. Programs are Rigorous Educational Experiences, Peterson's, Jan. 17, 2014,http://www.petersons.com/graduate-schools/phd-programs-rigorous-educational.aspx
- Census Bureau Reports Fast Growth in Ph.D.s and Master's Degree Holders, Census Bureau. Jan. 23, 2013,https://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/education/cb13-13.html
- Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities: 2012, The National Science Foundation,http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/sed/digest/2012/index.cfm
- Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor,http://data.bls.gov/projections
- Psychologists, "Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition," Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Jan. 8, 2014,http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/psychologists.htm