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When Should You Pursue a Ph.D. or Applied Doctorate?

  • Posted on: December 17, 2019

The difference between the Ph.D. and the applied doctorate is the focus. A Ph.D. is considered a research-based degree, whereby you must master a subject completely, and then extend the body of knowledge about the subject. An applied doctorate requires that you also master a subject completely, and then apply what you know, in theory, and in practice, in your chosen field.

View our Doctoral Degree Guide to learn more about the doctoral degrees offered at CTU.

CTU Doctorate Guide cover

The Big Difference

Despite a 49% increase in doctoral degrees being granted in the United States from 2000 to 2016, only 178,000 doctorate degrees were awarded in 2016. To put that into context, that year more than 4.6 million degrees were granted below the doctorate level (i.e. master’s, bachelor’s, etc.).1 If you’ve decided to join the ranks of that proud minority, then you know the commitment required to bring this goal to fruition. Most doctoral programs take between three and ten years to complete, and those years are full of academic rigor, so knowing the difference between doctoral degree programs is critical to achieving your goals.

You are probably familiar with the Ph.D. designation, a doctoral degree also known as a Doctor of Philosophy. A Ph.D. can be earned in a variety of fields, from psychology and education to science and engineering. However, there is another type of doctoral degree—an applied (or professional) doctorate. Degrees like an M.D. (Medical Doctor) for doctors and a J.D. (Juris Doctor) for a lawyer are commonly recognized applied doctorates, though there are many other fields of study in which one can pursue an applied doctorate degree.

Ph.D. or Applied Doctorate?

A Ph.D. is a research-based degree that asks you to explore, investigate and contemplate. An applied doctorate is a professional degree that challenges you to grow, integrate and apply what you learn into your profession.

So What's The Difference?

The biggest distinction between the Ph.D. and the applied doctorate is focus. A Ph.D. is considered a research-based degree, whereby you must master a subject within your field, and then extend the body of knowledge about the subject. Comparatively, an applied doctorate requires that you also master a subject completely, and then apply what you know—in theory and in practice— in your chosen field. The applied doctorate may be a practical choice for seasoned professionals looking to deepen their expertise in a key area of their profession.

How To Choose: Ph.d. Or Applied Doctorate?

Choosing the right degree can feel like a tough choice. Consider these three major questions:

  1. What is my long-term goal?
    Before enrolling in any doctoral program, it’s important to assess your long-term goals. Start by asking: How will I use my degree? For some careers, a doctoral degree is a minimum requirement. You might also seek the degree simply to gain deeper knowledge about a specific professional subject area.

    Whatever your reason, think about how a doctoral degree may help you achieve the success you want. For example, do you want to pursue a Ph.D. in Psychology? Or a Psy.D., which is an applied doctorate in the same field? Do you want to perform research in the field of psychology and possibly see patients? Or do you prefer to only see patients? While both programs require the same hard work, they may be treated differently professionally.
    • Ph.D.: When you pursue a Ph.D., you are training for research. It is the standard degree sought by professionals who plan to move into research-based careers. In fact, the Ph.D. is usually required to earn a tenured faculty position at most traditional universities and colleges. Of course, a Ph.D. doesn’t limit you to a career as a professor. You might also pursue careers in areas such as psychology, education or science that also have a research component although not the focus.
    • Scholar Practitioner: An applied doctorate offers the same status and academic challenge of a Ph.D.; however, it is most appropriate for those seeking professional applications for their degrees, rather than academic. The focus of an applied doctorate is less on research, and more on practicing and applying academic theory in a practical setting. For example, you might pursue a D.M., or Doctor of Management, degree to enhance your knowledge in the field of business management. The knowledge you gain in the program can have direct application in the work setting, letting you apply theories you learned in an active way.
  2. What are the program requirements?
    All doctoral programs have a dissertation element that involves months of research and writing to produce quality, publish-ready work. Some programs have residency requirements, which mean you’ll need to consider geography and your ability to attend in-person sessions. Get to know the requirements of each specific program that you are considering so you can make an informed decision depending on the greatly varying requirements.

    For instance, as a complement to CTU’s online doctoral courses, students are required to attend at least five quarterly symposia over the course of their program. At the symposia, students experience in-person instruction, meet with their faculty mentor and network with fellow doctoral students. Students are required to attend a symposium in their first term to develop a strong foundation for their program. Graduation also requires successful defense of a dissertation that requires a literature review and a research proposal.

What Obstacles Do Students Commonly Face And How Have They Overcome Them?

To be a part of the distinguished minority of Americans who hold a doctorate degree, you must identify in advance the potential hurdles you may face and make a clear plan to reach your education goal. There are many reasons why students may not complete their doctorate degree— be it family issues, medical concerns, procrastination on the dissertation or a number of other things. As you consider a doctorate degree, ask to speak with an admission advisor or program dean at your chosen university to get some guidance on the resilience it takes to succeed in their doctoral program. For more, visit CTU’s LinkedIn group and ask doctoral students and alums what attributes they believe are critical to achieving this top degree.

Where are the graduates now? Of the students who successfully graduated from the doctoral program you are considering, what types of careers did they move on to pursue? LinkedIn’s alumni tool is useful to explore student pathways. Also, look to your chosen university to provide insight by speaking with the doctoral program chair or faculty members to learn more about alumni who have moved on to successful careers.

  1. Do you have what it takes? A doctoral degree is a rigorous academic program which can take three years or more to complete. When considering if the time is right to pursue your degree, think about:
    • Time: Are you able to commit to extensive study and a dissertation, which will require a great deal of devoted time? To earn a Ph.D., you will likely need to make sacrifices or forego personal activities to be successful.
    • Self-motivation: A doctoral degree takes immense discipline and drive. Are you motivated to keep pace with degree requirements, even when it undoubtedly gets tough?
    • Curiosity: This is especially important if you’re pursuing a Ph.D., which is heavy on research, but it is also important for an applied doctorate degree. Do you have the ability to explore beyond what is dictated by your instructors to uncover new ways of applying what you’ve learned to your profession?
  2. Adaptability: The path to a doctoral degree is most likely different than the one you took to your bachelor’s or master’s degree. Can you adapt to change and chart a new course, especially when it comes to thinking and operating at a higher level?
    A doctoral program can be less structured, giving you more freedom to pursue your studies and dissertation proposal. This freedom requires self-discipline, however. You are responsible for expanding your breadth of knowledge, setting your own goals and determining how you’ll meet deadlines. Are you prepared for that level of responsibility? Do you have a support system outside of faculty who will help hold you accountable?

The Bottom Line?

Doctoral degree programs vary dramatically when it comes to classroom experience and program requirements. Some universities require full-time on-campus attendance, while others like CTU offer a hybrid model so you can work toward your degree online with select opportunities for network building and faculty interaction. Assess your readiness alongside these factors to choose the program that best fits your goals and your lifestyle.

Choose The Right Degree For Your Goals

This guide gives you a snapshot of the demands of a doctoral degree program and has hopefully helped you determine the type of doctorate you’ll pursue—research or applied. If you choose to take the path of an applied doctorate, CTU offers 15 doctoral degree programs in management and computer science. A member of our dedicated Doctoral Admissions team is ready to discuss how a CTU doctoral degree might be the right choice for your future.

If you have questions along the way, we’re here to help. Call or visit us online to learn more.

Call: 855.230.0555
Visit: coloradotech.edu/degrees/doctorates


1. “The Condition of Education 2018.” U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from: https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2018/2018144.pdf (Visited 12/3/18).

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