What Can You Do With a Doctoral Degree?
A doctoral degree — also known as a terminal degree — is the highest level of education you can receive in a given field of study. Less than 2% of people in the U.S. have earned this coveted advanced degree, but those who have typically assume top leadership positions in their fields, conduct important research, or pursue some of the highest-paying occupations, such as doctors and lawyers.
What Is a Doctoral Degree?
There are two types of doctoral credentials. A Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) is a research-oriented program that trains graduates to teach at the postsecondary level, conduct research in industry, and advance knowledge in their field. On the other hand, professional doctorates are awarded in practice-focused fields such as law, medicine, nursing, education, and business. These degrees teach students to apply their knowledge in real-world settings associated with their chosen profession.
In short, a doctoral degree is a highly specialized credential that can lead to lucrative and rewarding careers in a wide variety of industries — many of which are at the cutting edge of science and technology.
Learn more about the difference between PhD programs and professional doctorates.
Skills Learned in a Doctoral Program
It takes several years of academic and professional preparation to earn a doctoral degree. Given this, graduates develop in-depth knowledge of the theories and practices associated with their area of study — along with a keen understanding of how to apply their training in practical settings. In addition, however, doctoral students also pick up a wide range of soft skills during their time in academia, which can qualify them for a wide variety of career paths. Some of these skills include:
Most, if not all, doctoral programs contain a significant writing component. Whether in the form of research papers, white papers, or a full-scale dissertation, students have several opportunities to sharpen their writing skills, often with an emphasis on how to present technical information succinctly and accurately.
As individuals with significant subject area expertise, doctoral degree holders spend many years honing their ability to communicate complex information to different audiences. Programs that include a teaching component train graduates to present information at the college level, while those that encourage students to attend conferences train them to converse with individuals in policy, government, and other professional circles.
Research is a fundamental component of any doctoral program, with students expected to collect original data and present their findings in public settings. They tend to develop strong skills in various data collection and analysis strategies. In many cases, students develop expertise in one or several methods, such as interviewing, statistics, and textual analysis. Depending on their chosen field, they may also have the choice to focus on either qualitative or quantitative strategies.
Doctoral students are trained from the very beginning to practice their knowledge in real-world circumstances. This can involve learning to apply their understanding of the law, medicine, or other disciplines in relevant settings. With this training, doctoral students tend to develop strong critical thinking skills, allowing them to think out of the box, apply their evidence-based judgment, and explore new ways to observe and understand the world around them.
A large part of one's doctoral training involves solving problems that affect how we live, communicate, and interact with each other. Learning how to address challenges — often through previously unexplored avenues — is a skill that doctoral degree holders excel at.
Interested in an online doctoral degree? Explore our list of the Best Online Colleges for Doctoral Programs.
Common Careers That Require a Doctorate
Many careers require a terminal degree, but the amount of time needed to earn the degree varies according to the type of degree. Professional doctorates in health care, for example, involve significant levels of technical knowledge and often require at least four years of additional education beyond an undergraduate degree. Doctorates that focus on conducting research in disciplines like science or technology also take four to seven years to complete. However, applied research doctorates — those that teach students to apply existing knowledge to problems in fields such as education or social services — can often be completed in three years.
The following are some of the career options available to those who earn doctoral degrees:
Biochemists or Biophysicists
As scientists, biochemists and biophysicists research the physical and chemical properties of living organisms, including humans, plants, and animals. Their work involves studying molecular and cellular processes to understand, for example, how DNA is transferred, the characteristics of hereditary diseases, and the processes of growth and decay. While their work is essential in developing new medication, biochemists and biophysicists are also involved in areas such as food science, agriculture, and environmental science. In many cases, these professionals also write research papers and publish their findings in scientific journals.
Chiropractors work closely with patients suffering from spinal problems, including sciatica, herniated discs, or misalignment. Their job is to offer relief to individuals suffering from back, neck, or nerve pain. To do so, chiropractors use various techniques, such as spinal manipulation, massage therapy, or physical rehabilitation, depending on an individual patient's need. In addition to seeing patients as regular individuals, chiropractors also typically develop exercise or movement plans that can help manage chronic conditions.
While all dentists help patients with their oral health, most specialize in a particular area. For instance, orthodontists work to repair misaligned teeth and jaws through tools like braces and mouthguards. Others carry out corrective or cosmetic procedures, including extractions, crown fittings, and fillings. Some dentists may also focus on dental hygiene, working with patients to identify common gum and teeth diseases, as well as prescribing medications to manage oral pain.
Economists work in a wide variety of sectors, including business, government, and the nonprofit world. Their primary job is to analyze the distribution, production, and availability of goods and services. To do so, economists use various statistical techniques and software packages to make predictions about demand and supply. Some also work closely with government officials to analyze the effect of existing or proposed economic policies. While it's possible to become an economist with a master's degree, a doctorate is typically required for those interested in research or government positions.
Judges form an essential part of the legal system. Aside from presiding over criminal and civil cases, they also conduct legal research, write legal opinions, and seek to apply the law in unclear circumstances. Judges are responsible for determining the admissibility of different types of evidence, as well as passing sentences and awarding damages. These professionals are public employees that are employed at all levels of government. Outside of court, they may work with different parties to settle legal disputes.
Like judges, lawyers are involved in different kinds of court proceedings. However, they also work on other legal matters such as arbitration, contract drafting, and estate planning. Their primary responsibility is to represent their client's interests in situations that require legal expertise. Given this, lawyers tend to specialize in a particular area of law. For instance, while some may focus on employment law, others work in areas such as environmental law, criminal law, and family law. Lawyers can have many different types of clients, including individuals, businesses, and government organizations.
In the fast-growing health care industry, medical scientists play an important role in researching and developing new drugs, as well as treatment procedures, medical equipment, and other devices. Their day-to-day responsibilities involve conducting clinical trials, writing scientific reports, and presenting their findings to various audiences. Medical scientists may also conduct research on the causes of long-standing or chronic diseases such as cancer. These professionals are typically employed in both the private and public sectors.
Optometrists are health professionals that work exclusively with patients needing eye care. They are trained to conduct eye exams, as well as prescribe eyeglasses and lenses for those who need to improve their vision. Additionally, optometrists may conduct research into the causes and effects of various eye diseases — such as glaucoma — to devise treatment plans. Beyond these responsibilities, these professionals carry out both minor and major surgeries, along with educating patients and the general public about how to promote eye health.
Postsecondary Education Administrators
Postsecondary education administrators work in colleges and universities, where they are primarily responsible for making sure that an institution runs smoothly. This typically involves managing processes such as hiring new employees, raising money for new projects, planning commencement ceremonies, and coordinating student registration. Education administrators at higher levels — such as deans or provosts — are involved in developing academic policy pertaining to tenure appointments, admissions, and budgeting. These higher management professionals are also responsible for managing endowments from public and private sources.
Postsecondary teachers, also known as professors, teach at the college and university level. In addition to designing class plans and advising students, these individuals may carry out various administrative suits such as hiring new personnel and distributing grants. While professors spend a considerable amount of time teaching and working closely with their students, they are also research scientists who strive to advance knowledge in their respective fields. To do so, they may conduct original research, write books and academic papers, and present their findings to other members of the academy.
Physicians or Surgeons
Physicians and surgeons help patients with a variety of medical concerns, including injuries, diseases, chronic conditions, and seasonal illnesses. They carry out a variety of tasks, including conducting medical exams, interpreting test results, obtaining medical histories, and devising treatment plans. Medical doctors almost always have a specialization. For instance, cardiologists focus on heart and cardiovascular health, while emergency physicians and neurologists deal with patients suffering from injuries or nervous system disorders, respectively.
Psychologists are professionals who are trained to provide treatment to individuals suffering from various mental and behavioral disorders. This can involve conducting one on one and group therapy sessions, observing patients, and prescribing medication in cases that require it. Many psychologists also research cognitive and social processes by conducting tests, gathering original data, and publishing their findings in academic journals. This research expands the field of psychology and is also often used to design new treatment measures.
Veterinarians provide healthcare to many different types of animals. In addition to conducting yearly check-ups and tests, they also perform triage care, administer common vaccines, carry out surgery, and diagnose animals for common ailments. While most veterinarians work in animal hospitals, some are also directly involved in public health practices. These individuals work to research diseases that are transferable between humans and animals, as well as develop protocols in cases where infections jump between species.
A doctoral degree is not necessary to become a writer. However, a terminal degree typically helps foster advanced research and writing skills, making writing a suitable profession for those who hold a doctoral credential. Writers may explore various fiction and non-fiction topics, depending on their expertise. They are often self-employed, working closely with web and print publishers to produce content such as books, manuals, blogs, and news articles. Some writers may be full-time employees in a publishing company or online media outlet. Still, others may also offer editing services to academic journals and printing presses.