PhD vs Professional Doctorate: What’s the Difference?

PhD vs Professional Doctorate: What's the Difference?

The main difference between a PhD vs Professional Doctorate degree is their focus. A PhD is an academic research-focused degree awarded for original research and contribution to the knowledge base of a field.

At the same time, a professional doctorate is a practice-based degree designed to advance knowledge in a particular professional field and solve practical problems through research.

This article discusses the key differences between a PhD and a professional doctorate, including their goals, requirements, and outcomes.

The Difference between a PhD and a Professional Doctorate (PhD vs Professional Doctorate)

Goals of a PhD and Professional Doctorate

Higher education plays an essential role in one’s personal and professional development. The PhD and the professional doctorate are two of the most advanced degrees one can earn. While both degrees require rigorous academic work, there are significant differences between them.

In a PhD program, the primary goal is to conduct original research that contributes to the knowledge of a particular area.

Researchers in the PhD program will be able to perform independent research, contribute to the academic community, and push the boundaries of their fields. Students must produce a thesis that significantly contributes to their field to earn a PhD.

However, the main objective of a professional doctorate is to prepare professionals capable of applying research to solve real-world issues. Practitioners seeking advanced knowledge and skills can benefit from professional doctorates.

Students typically complete a research project addressing a practical problem in their field as part of a professional doctorate program emphasising professional practice.

Requirements of a PhD and Professional Doctorate

There are a variety of requirements for a PhD, depending on the institution and field of study, but most PhD programs require both coursework and research.

Students typically complete coursework and prepare for their comprehensive first stage viva voce during the first few years of their program. Following their viva exams, PhD students conduct research and write thesis for the remainder of the program.

Students pursuing a professional doctorate typically have to complete coursework and a research project.

In the coursework, students will gain advanced knowledge and skills in their field, while in the research project, students will address a practical problem. Industry partners or other professionals may collaborate on the research project.

Outcomes of a PhD and Professional Doctorate

The outcomes of a PhD and a professional doctorate differ significantly. PhDs are primarily academic degrees designed to prepare students for academic careers, research, or other scholarly pursuits. PhD graduates are often employed as professors, researchers, or consultants.

On the other hand, professional doctorates are designed to prepare students for advanced practice. Professional doctorates provide graduates with the knowledge and skills to solve real-world problems. Professional doctoral graduates typically work as practitioners, consultants, or executives.

Examples of PhD and Professional Doctorate Programs

Examples of PhD programs include Doctor of Philosophy in Human Resources Management, Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology, and Doctor of Philosophy in Law.

Examples of professional doctorate programs include Doctor of Education (EdD), Doctor of Business Administration (DBA), and Doctor of Public Health (DrPH).

The key differences between a PhD and a professional doctorate

PhDProfessional Doctorate
GoalConduct original researchApply research to solve real-world problems
FocusAcademicProfessional practice
RequirementsResearch-based, coursework and researchCoursework and a research project
Duration3-5 years (or longer)3-5 years (or longer)
OutcomeAcademic career (professor, researcher)Professional practice (consultant, executive)
Examples of ProgramsDoctor of Philosophy (Mathematics, etc.)Doctor of Education, Doctor of Business Administration, Doctor of Public Health
PhD vs Professional Doctorate

Note that both degrees’ specific requirements, duration, and outcomes can vary depending on the institution and field of study. However, this table provides a general overview of the main differences between a PhD and a professional doctorate.

Which degree is more academically focused, a PhD or a professional doctorate?

A PhD is considered to be more academically focused than a professional doctorate. A PhD is designed to develop student’s research skills and contribute to advancing knowledge in a particular field, often leading to a career in academia or research.

In contrast, a professional doctorate is designed for students who want to apply research to solve practical problems in their professional field, such as education, business, or public health.

A professional doctorate program usually includes coursework and a research project focused on improving professional practice and solving real-world problems.

Are the research requirements for a PhD and a professional doctorate different?

PhDs and professional doctorates have different research requirements. As part of a PhD program, students typically conduct original research and write a doctoral thesis that contributes significantly to their study area. A PhD research generally aims to advance knowledge by advancing theory.

In contrast, a professional doctorate program typically requires students to apply existing research to solve practical problems in their professional field.

It is possible for professional doctorate programs to place a greater emphasis on coursework and practical training than PhD programs, as well as solving real-world problems and improving professional practice.

How do I choose a topic for my PhD or professional doctorate research project?

When choosing a topic for your PhD thesis or professional doctorate research project, it is important to consider your interests, goals, and field needs.

Identify the areas of your field that you find particularly interesting or challenging, and determine how your research can contribute to knowledge advancement or solve practical problems. In selecting a topic, seek guidance and support from faculty members and other professionals in your field.

Conducting a thorough review of existing literature in your area of interest will help you identify knowledge gaps your research can fill. Finally, make sure your chosen topic is feasible within the constraints of your program’s requirements and resources.

What are the most important skills and qualities for success in a PhD or professional doctorate program?

For success in a PhD or professional doctorate program, it is important to possess a strong work ethic, critical thinking skills, the ability to conduct independent research, time management skills, self-motivation, and effective communication abilities.

A PhD or professional doctoral student must be able to analyze complex information, synthesize information from various sources, and think creatively and critically.

You must manage your time effectively and work independently, as both programs require considerable self-direction and time management skills. In addition to writing and presenting research findings, effective communication skills are essential for success in these programs.

How important is the institution’s reputation when pursuing a PhD or professional doctorate?

A PhD or professional doctorate’s reputation can affect employment and funding opportunities after graduation, so it is crucial to consider it when pursuing one.

Students can benefit from the resources, faculty, and research opportunities of institutions with strong reputations in a particular field.

The degrees of graduates from prestigious institutions may also be valued more by employers, leading to greater opportunities.

However, it is important to note that a student’s research and accomplishments are ultimately the most important factors in determining their success, regardless of the institution they attended.

Conclusion: PhD vs Professional Doctorate

It is important to understand these differences when considering either degree because both require rigorous academic work, but their goals, requirements, and outcomes differ significantly.

While PhD and professional doctorate degrees require significant commitment, research, and advanced knowledge in a particular field, they differ in academic focus, research requirements, and career outcomes.

It is important to carefully consider your interests, goals, and field needs when deciding which degree to pursue. Ultimately, the choice between a PhD and a professional doctorate will depend on your career aspirations and the role you wish to play in advancing knowledge and solving problems in your field.


  1. Alison Lee, Marie Brennan & Bill Green, Higher Education Research & Development, “Re‐imagining doctoral education: Professional Doctorates and beyond“.
  2. Dieter Fink, International Journal of Doctoral Studies, “The Professional Doctorate: Its Relativity to the PhD and Relevance for the Knowledge Economy“.
  3. Ruth Neumann, Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, “Doctoral Differences: Professional doctorates and PhDs compared“.

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