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The Best Post-Graduate Degree for You: JD, DM or Ph.D?

Jan 03, 2013   |   Higher Education
CTU Doctorate Degree - Doctoral Regalia

By CTU Faculty

When I completed my doctorate, my dissertation chair congratulated me and joked that I could now use the title “doctor” to get dinner reservations. He warned that this could potentially cause a problem if there were a medical emergency requiring a different kind of doctor. While most people think of the medical profession, the title “doctor” may be used to reference anyone who graduates with a doctoral degree. Doctoral graduates represent a wide array of skill, knowledge and capabilities.

History of the Doctor

The term “doctorate” is derived from the Latin “doceo,” which means, “to teach.” In the 13th century, a doctoral education was an apprenticeship for someone who wanted to become a teacher within a university. The earliest doctorate degrees were in divinity, medicine, law and philosophy, reflecting the division of universities into those four areas of study. The word “philosophy” comes from the Greek word “philosophia,” meaning “love of wisdom.” In 19th century Germany, the dissertation, a product of original research, first became a requirement for the doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) and provided an important distinction that continues today between doctors that study a profession such as medicine or law from doctors who are trained in conducting research.

In the 150 years since Yale University offered the first Ph.D. in the United States, the Ph.D. has been the highest-level academic degree in almost all disciplines. In parallel, law (JD) and medical (MD) degrees continue to be offered to graduates of professional programs. In 1921, Harvard University bridged these two models with the first doctorate of Education (Ed.D.). The Ed.D. serves as both a professional program that includes course work related to a field of professional practice while at the same time including the research aspects of a Ph.D. Since then, other research-based doctoral programs have emerged including the Doctor of Management (D.M.), Doctor of Business Administration (D.B.A.), and Doctor of Computer Science (D.C.S.). These programs combine education in a professional field along with original research, though typically the research is more oriented towards solving a real world problem related to the profession.

The National Science Foundation’s Survey of Earned Doctorates distinguishes a research doctorate and a professional doctorate with a simple test: does the program of study require a dissertation or other original creation OR does it primarily prepare someone for a professional career?

Which Doctor is Better?

With the diversification of doctorate-level degrees, a common question is: Which doctoral degree is better? The answer depends on context. Each degree offers benefits and prepares graduates for future work. The Ph.D. has traditionally been and continues to be a prerequisite, though not a guarantee, for a career in a research university. The April 21, 2011 issue of the journal Nature contained multiple articles criticizing the current Ph.D. citing an overproduction of Ph.D. graduates given the limited number of openings for new faculty and researchers in universities. In fact, a strong recommendation is made to offer more attention to the application of knowledge and preparing graduates for employment beyond research universities. Of course, degrees like the D.M. and D.C.S. have been meeting these goals from the beginning.

Another proposed solution is to simply reduce the scale of doctoral education, which would be a mistake. Businesses, governments, and non-profit organizations face increasingly complex problems that require a higher-level, well-educated professional to solve them. For example, a traditional Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.) curriculum typically focuses on how businesses in the past have solved problems. This can certainly be applied to today’s concerns. But in contrast, a D.M. curriculum expands on existing knowledge, introducing research and problem solving skills to prepare graduates to solve new, never-before-seen problems.

Whatever the title (D.M., Ph.D., Ed.D., or D.C.S., doctoral degrees) that enable graduates to solve complex and evolving problems – using an in-depth foundation of knowledge, research and analytic skills – will play a critical role in the future. When faced with a medical crisis we ask, “Is there a doctor in the house?” Increasingly, we are asking the same question when confronted with other, large-scale crises outside of the medical profession.

Image credit: Flickr/djprybyl

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