Differences Between a Ph.D. and an Applied Research Doctorate
The Ph.D. is the most common research doctorate. Although the title stands for "doctor of philosophy," students can earn Ph.D.s in a wide range of subjects, including science and technology. In contrast, applied research doctorates often relate to specific fields, such as education, music, or social work. The main difference between the two is the approach to research, although there are several other distinctions as well.
In a Ph.D. program, doctoral candidates focus on contributing to the body of knowledge about a particular subject by conducting original academic research. Coursework introduces students to a range of research concepts and explains various methods for analyzing data. People with Ph.D.s often devote their careers to working in academia or for think tanks, where they continue to conduct research and develop new knowledge.
By contrast, doctoral students in applied research doctoral programs focus on using existing knowledge to solve real-world problems. They usually begin by identifying a specific challenge in their field — often drawn from their professional work experience — and then formulating a solution and developing an implementation plan, all of which is backed up by research. Once they've earned their applied doctorate, they typically assume high-level positions in their field where they continue to apply their problem-solving research skills to important issues.
The number of years it takes to complete any doctoral program varies based on a number of factors, including the type of program, previous college experience, and the culminating project. For example, some applied research doctoral programs require just 36 credit hours of coursework to graduate. Other programs — especially dual degrees or joint programs that combine a complete master's degree program along with all doctoral requirements — may require the completion of up to 120 credit hours. Also, doctoral candidates have a somewhat flexible amount of time to complete, defend, and revise their dissertation or capstone project. In general, however, applied research doctoral candidates often finish their programs in as little as three years, while Ph.D. students may need four to seven years.
Many on-campus Ph.D. programs, particularly in the sciences, are fully funded programs. When a school itself is conducting research in a particular field — biology, chemistry, or computer science, for example — it is often willing to compensate Ph.D. students for participating in the research. Doctoral candidates may work part- or full-time on campus as a research assistant or teaching assistant while earning their doctoral degree in exchange for some combination of tuition, stipends, and health insurance provided by the university.
However, if the university is not conducting research in a particular field, its doctoral program may not be able to provide much, if any, financial support to candidates. For this reason, some Ph.D. candidates — such as those studying the social sciences or humanities — and all applied research candidates may not receive funding from their programs. They would need to pay their tuition fees and other expenses themselves, possibly with the help of grants, scholarships, and loans. Students who are completing their doctoral studies online are also not likely to receive funding from their doctoral program if they cannot engage in on-campus research or teaching activities.
What All Research Doctorates Have In Common
Whether the program involves conducting new research or finding new applications of existing research, a research doctoral degree program is likely to have the following traits.
In the first two or three years of a research doctoral program, students typically examine existing research data and literature while also learning about various research methods and data analysis techniques. Students in Ph.D. programs then move on to conducting new research, while applied research doctoral candidates focus on framing an existing problem and using data to develop a practical solution.
Both programs end with a final project that includes some original work, whether it's actual research or a plan for using information to solve a problem. It may be called a dissertation, or it may be called a capstone project or another similar name. All candidates must present and defend their culminating project before a review panel. If the project does not pass this review, the candidate must revise the presentation until it's approved.
Admission Criteria and Prerequisites
Admission criteria vary from school to school, but there are a few commonalities. Most universities require doctoral applicants to have earned at least a bachelor's degree, if not a master's degree. In some cases, the earlier degree or degrees must be in the same field as the doctoral degree, while in other cases they may be in a different field of study.
Additionally, schools usually look for applicants who did well in their previous college coursework and maintained at least a 3.0 GPA. Other application requirements may include persuasive personal statements from the applicant, positive letters of recommendation from colleagues, and high GRE or other standardized test scores. One final requirement often limited to applicants for applied research doctorates is a certain number of years of work experience — perhaps five to eight — in the relevant field.
Many research doctoral programs are offered through traditional colleges and universities. Therefore, the school should be accredited by one of the six regional accrediting agencies approved by the U.S. Department of Education or the Council of Higher Education Accreditation. However, if the school offers primarily online degrees, it may be nationally accredited by the Distance Education Accreditation Commission, which is also sanctioned by the USDE and CHEA. Individual doctoral programs may also be accredited by one of many approved programmatic accrediting bodies.
Before enrolling, prospective doctoral students should confirm that their school of choice is accredited to ensure a quality education. They can establish the accrediting body for any school as a whole and for individual doctoral programs within the school by searching the Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs or the Database of Institutions and Programs Accredited by Recognized U.S. Accrediting Organizations.