What are Professional Doctorates?

What are Professional Doctorates?

A professional doctorate is an advanced postgraduate degree that combines taught components with independent research in a student’s area of expertise. They offer candidates the opportunity to develop their career to a doctoral level so they can make novel contributions to their industry. This is achieved by arming them with advanced research skills and specialist knowledge in their area of expertise, so they have not only the ability but also the confidence to facilitate change at a corporate level.

Compared to traditional PhDs (Doctor of Philosophy), professional doctorates are relatively new. They were incorporated into UK higher education as a direct response to concerns that traditional PhDs aren’t well suited to careers outside of academia or research.

“If the traditional PhD degree is intended to develop professional researchers, then professional doctorate degrees appear to be designed to develop researching professionals”
Bourner, T., Bowden, R. and Laing, S. (2000), ‘Professional doctorates: the development of researching professionals’, in T. Bourner, T. Katz and D. Watson (eds), New Directions in Professional Higher Education. Buckingham: SRHE/Open University Press.
Bourner, T., Bowden, R. and Laing, S. (2000)

Consequently, the fundamental difference between a PhD and a professional doctorate is that while PhDs teach students how to conduct research to create new knowledge that improves the understanding of a field, a professional doctorate teaches a student how to evaluate, synthesise and apply existing knowledge in novel ways to a field.

Professional doctorates often lead to a specific career path depending on the degree, for example, candidates can gain advanced knowledge in the fields of engineering, business administration, education or public health. In many cases, a professional doctorate holder will qualify for certain leadership roles within their industry after completing their study.

Types of Professional Doctorates

There are many types of professional doctorates available, with the most common being:

  • Doctorate of Biomedical Science (DBMS)
  • Doctorate of Business Administration (DBA)
  • Doctor of Clinical Psychology (DClinPsy)
  • Doctorate of Criminal Justice Studies (DCrimJ)
  • Doctorate of Education (EdD)
  • Doctor of Engineering (EngD)
  • Doctorate of Health Science (DHealthSci)
  • Doctorate of Medical Imaging (DMedImg)
  • Doctor of Medicine (MD)
  • Doctorate in Nursing (DNursing)
  • Doctorate in Pharmacy (DPharm)
  • Doctor of Psychology (PsyD)
  • Doctor of Public Health (DrPH)
  • Doctor of Security Risk Management (DSyRM)
  • Doctor of Social Science (DSocSci)
  • Doctor of Sport, Exercise and Health Science

Differences Between a PhD And Professional Doctorate

A PhD is a university degree whose primary objective is to develop advanced research skills and build new knowledge that can be shared with others. In comparison, a professional doctorate focuses on the application of advanced knowledge and skills, making it suitable for people working in a professional environment. Although these programs can also help researchers develop their abilities, their primary goal is to provide individuals with the ability to solve new and emerging problems within their industry.

Is a Professional Doctorate equivalent to a PhD?

Professional doctorates are equivalent to PhD degrees in the sense that one receives a doctoral degree and the title “Dr” upon completing their programme. Professional doctorates, however, focus on a specific business context and differ in the skills they offer.

Who are Professional Doctorates suited for?

Professional doctorate programs

Professional doctorates are aimed at individuals from the public, private and third sectors. Like all postgraduate research programmes, you will need to carry out original research with guidance of an academic supervisor. The difference is that your research is based on your own profession and strives to develop an understanding that contributes more broadly to professional practice.

You must therefore be interested in your professional environment and be able to explore it through a structured research programme that helps you to understand this professional environment in an original way.

Doctoral candidates are often working professionals with many years of experience in their field. A professional doctorate enables them to advance in their careers and leads them to senior leadership positions where they have more influence over their area of expertise.

As such, a professional doctoral degree is best suited to a person who is interested in putting their knowledge into practice in an environment such as a company, training institution or hospital.

What does a Professional Doctorate involve?

An important difference in the format of professional doctorates is the need for increased subject-specific training through taught modules about the discipline and research in general. Because of this, professional doctorates are often regarded as ‘taught doctorates’.

Through the modules, you will become familiar with the theoretical problems relevant to your professional context and reflect on how you can incorporate these into your own research project.

During a doctoral programme, a student will focus on:

  • Assessing the current state of knowledge in their field,
  • Evaluating a real-world problem facing their industry,
  • Learn about various research methods,
  • Designing and conducting a research study,
  • Expanding the body of knowledge in their industry through their research findings.

A professional doctorate often ends with a thesis. This thesis identifies a real problem that the candidate investigates and proposes practical solutions for. This involves undertaking experiments, collecting results and documenting the process. In addition, general suggestions are made as to how others in their field can practically use the research findings, and other problem areas may be identified for future investigation.

While the doctoral thesis may have a lower word count compared to traditional PhD theses, for example, 50,000 words instead of 90,000 words, professional doctorates usually assign a considerable amount of written coursework alongside this. It is therefore not uncommon for professional doctorates to have a higher ‘total word count’ than PhD programmes.

Compared to PhDs, professional doctorates offer a more structured learning experience; they include taught lectures, assignments with deadlines, and the opportunity to learn with a cohort of like-minded professionals.

Is a Professional Doctorate internationally recognised?

A professional doctorate degree obtained in the UK is recognised as an international qualification by most countries; as a result, many EU and international students choose to undertake their doctorate in the UK. While most global employers recognise a professional doctorate obtained in the UK, you should ensure that this is the case in your home or destination country if you wish to work outside the UK. For example, in order to be recognised in certain countries outside the European Union, you may need to acquire a certificate depending on the requirements of the host country.

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How long does a Professional Doctorate take?

The duration of a professional doctorate programme largely depends on your specific course and whether you are studying full time or part time. Typically, however, a full time professional doctorate can last between two and five years, while a part time doctorate can last between three and eight years.

Since most professional doctorate students are working professionals with many years of experience, most will study part time whilst continuing their job. There are, however, exceptions to this, such as an EngD, which is predominantly conducted as a full time course.

It’s also worth noting that professional doctorates can be undertaken as a distance learning course, although not all universities offer this option. This is often the most practical solution for an international student who is unable to relocate.

What are the entry requirements for Professional Doctorates?

Entry requirements vary between each higher education institution hosting the programme, but most universities require a Masters degree in a relevant subject and significant professional experience in the same industry.

However, it should be noted that most universities will make exceptions for those who do not have a Masters degree but are strong candidates. In these cases, students are invited to an interview to determine whether they are suitable for the programme. Their success will depend on whether they have been actively involved in the development of their professional practice, through activities such as working on research projects, publishing papers, presenting at conferences and acquiring other professional qualifications.


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