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What's the Difference Between a PhD and a Professional Doctoral Degree?

A PhD and a professional doctorate help you gain different types of expertise.

Holding any type of doctoral degree can help you earn over 50% more than those with a master’s degree.* The professional doctorate and PhD degrees are considered terminal degrees, meaning you have achieved the highest formal degree in the field; as such, they can significantly enhance your résumé and your career. However, when it comes time to choose, it’s good to know that each doctoral degree has its strengths, and your decision should be based on what you want to study and how you want to use your degree.

In many fields of study, you can choose between a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree and a professional doctoral degree. Professional doctoral degrees include the Doctor of Business Administration (DBA), Doctor of Education (EdD), Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), and Doctor of Public Health (DrPH), as examples. If you know you want a doctoral degree and have started your search, you might be asking: What is a PhD exactly and how is it different from a professional doctorate? You’re hardly alone in asking these questions. Even though both earn you the title of “doctor,” there are differences between these doctorates.

What's the Difference Between a PhD and a Professional Doctoral Degree?

Core Difference

A PhD is an academic degree focused on original research, data analysis, and the evaluation of theory. A professional doctorate focuses on applying research to practical problems, formulating solutions to complex issues, and designing effective professional practices within your field.

Program Differences

A PhD is designed for college graduates who are interested in doing original and applied research that tests theory and adds to the existing knowledge in their particular field or discipline. A PhD program can help you learn how to:

  • Analyze theories and concepts within your field.
  • Evaluate the relevance of seminal, current, and emerging theories within your field.
  • Assess identified gaps in the current research literature.
  • Advance the body of knowledge in your field through original research.
  • Communicate effectively to an academic audience and general stakeholders.

A professional doctorate is designed for working professionals who have practical experience in their field and want to increase their knowledge, advance their careers, and translate their work experience into a higher position of credibility, leadership, and influence. A professional doctorate program can help you learn how to:

  • Evaluate the relevance of current and emerging theories and practices within your field.
  • Formulate effective solutions to complex, real-world problems common to your field.
  • Apply current research to practical problems in your field.
  • Design rigorous research that expands the professional body of knowledge in your field.

Walden’s online doctoral programs provide a path for lifelong professional and personal achievement.

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Degree Completion Differences

While all colleges and universities establish their own policies on how you earn a degree, the methods by which you earn a PhD or a professional doctorate almost always differ. Though it can vary by degree program and university, PhD candidates usually complete a dissertation while many doctoral candidates complete a doctoral study.

A PhD dissertation requires you to conduct research into an approved area of study within your discipline. While this can be in an area that has not yet been explored, it often complements existing knowledge by adding new or missing research. Completing the dissertation takes multiple steps including:

  • Drafting a dissertation prospectus and orally defending your proposal to a committee.
  • Completing the research.
  • Writing the research dissertation, which includes your methods, findings, literature review, and conclusions.
  • Orally defending your completed dissertation to a committee.

A doctoral study requires you to identify a real-world problem within your field and research it thoroughly with the intent of uncovering new understandings that can eventually lead to new solutions. Completing the study takes multiple steps, which may include:

  • Creating a proposal that describes the problem you want to solve, the design of your study, and the methodology you’ll use.
  • Orally defending your proposal to the committee.
  • Collecting data and writing findings.
  • Orally defending your findings to the committee.


Not all universities offer fellowship programs, however many of the stronger ones do. And while fellowships are often offered to PhD students conducting research, there are also programs designed for professional doctoral degree candidates.

How You Can Earn Your PhD or Professional Doctoral Degree

PhD degrees and professional doctorates have this in common: you can earn either through an online university. Why should you add online options to your list of universities to consider? Because online education provides a number of benefits you won’t enjoy at even an exceptional campus-based university.

At an accredited online university, you won’t have to worry about moving to be close to campus. You won’t even have to drive to a campus. Instead, when you earn a degree online, you can complete the majority of your coursework from home. Plus, both online PhD programs and online professional doctorates offer a flexible format that doesn’t require you to attend class at a specific time of day. With online degree programs, you can arrange your learning schedule so that it works with your full-time job and other family responsibilities.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering a wide number of PhD and professional doctoral programs online. Walden’s Doctoral Fellowship Program for PhD in Management and PhD in Psychology programs gives new doctoral students the opportunity to develop their teaching and research experience, gain further insight into their field of interest, and position themselves for future career success.

*Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupations that Need More Education for Entry are Projected to Grow Faster, on the internet at

Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,

Walden offers both state-approved educator licensure programs as well as programs and courses that do not lead to licensure or endorsements. Prospective students must review their state licensure requirements prior to enrolling. For more information, please refer to

Prospective Alabama students: Contact the Teacher Education and Certification Division of the Alabama State Department of Education at 1-334-242-9935 or to verify that these programs qualify for teacher certification, endorsement, and/or salary benefits.

Note to all Washington residents: The Doctor of Education (EdD) program is not intended to lead to teacher certification. Teachers are advised to contact their individual school districts as to whether this program may qualify for salary advancement.