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Practitioner doctorate vs. PhD – 5 things to know before getting started

Doctoral graduates line up at commencement wearing their regalia

By Brian Fairbanks

At a glance

  • A PhD focuses on research, writing and publishing, while a practitioner doctorate focuses on applied solutions to problems.
  • Practitioner doctorates emphasize career expertise and prepare graduates for leadership roles.
  • A PhD primarily prepares graduates for research and teaching careers.
  • University of Phoenix offers five practitioner doctoral degree programs: Business Administration, Education, Management, Nursing and Health Administration. With five real-world programs, earning your doctorate starts here.

Why you should consider a practitioner doctoral degree

If you’re thinking of going back to school to get an advanced degree, it might be to either compete for a new position or pursue a leadership or teaching role in your field. Or perhaps you are simply a lifelong learner. Whatever the case, when considering a PhD or a practitioner doctoral degree, the question inevitably arises: What’s the difference between them?

Both offer real-world benefits, and both can help distinguish you as a highly disciplined, trained and knowledgeable graduate. Of course, both also require a lot of time and effort to study, research, write and possibly even publish your work.

With a PhD, graduates work toward scholarly publication and usually a role in academia. The focus is on basic research, writing, publishing and potentially teaching.

A practitioner doctorate, on the other hand, is ideal for people who want to be experts in their fields and seek to contribute to new, innovative industry solutions. Their research focuses on applied problems instead.

The difference between basic research and applied research lies in their respective aims:

  • Basic research is aimed at acquiring new, fundamental knowledge and theoretical understanding about basic human and other natural processes without any particular application in view.
  • Applied research is also conducted as an original investigation to acquire new knowledge, but it is primarily directed toward practical objectives to provide relatively immediate solutions.

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What is a practitioner doctoral degree?

As U.S. News & World Report writes, "A doctoral degree is a graduate-level credential which is typically granted after multiple years of graduate school, with the time-to-degree varying depending on the type of doctoral program. Earning a doctorate usually requires at least four years of effort and may entail eight years of work, depending on the complexity and onerousness of a doctoral program's graduation requirements."

While the commitment is substantial, Hinrich Eylers, vice provost at University of Phoenix, points out, earning an advanced degree can help graduates to pursue additional opportunities in their careers.

"All our practitioner degrees prepare students for leadership roles in general and in the area of their programs," he says.

If you’d like to distinguish yourself in your career, a doctoral degree may be an important first step. Available in both in-person and online formats, doctoral degree programs can help you achieve your educational dreams.

There are several major types of practitioner doctoral degrees, all emphasizing career expertise. A Doctor of Business Administration, for example, is perfect for a business person looking to innovate within the field of business and learn how to solve organizational challenges. A Doctor of Education might focus on how research could impact current educational issues.

If you’re thinking of getting a doctoral degree, consider going with an online program, which offers a more flexible schedule, a potentially lower overall tuition cost and potentially a shorter time frame for completion.

What is a PhD?

"PhD" is short for "Doctor of Philosophy," but don’t be fooled by the word "philosophy." Many PhD programs have nothing to do with philosophy as a subject, per se. Rather, a PhD is more about taking the wisdom you’ve achieved and sharing that knowledge with others, usually in a formal educational setting.

PhD graduates typically complete a dissertation, which is a kind of long-form essay (roughly the length of a slim book) on a subject chosen by the student that is relevant to their field of knowledge. Writing a dissertation takes discipline, good research skills, strong writing skills and time. Candidates usually complete two to four years of study in their field before tackling this project.

A PhD helps prepare you for a wide range of careers and professions, especially in research. The career options are too numerous to list here but include roles as a research associate, teacher, dean of students, copywriter, curriculum designer and many more in a number of fields.

Differences between a practitioner doctoral degree and a PhD

According to U.S. News & World Report, there are fundamental differences between a practitioner doctorate and a PhD.

Doctor of Philosophy degrees, or PhDs, are also commonly referred to as "research doctorates," helping people get ready to work in the research field, either for a private company (such as a pharmaceutical firm) or in the public sector (in a government position or at a college/university). These programs typically focus on educating students in how to research and "discover new knowledge within their academic discipline," and generally prepare students to compete in technical fields like mathematics or engineering, as well as sociology or philosophy. If you’re looking for a tenure-track college career, U.S. News suggests getting a PhD as a way to qualify for more jobs available within the university system.

Today, a doctoral degree is also becoming more of a pathway for people who know which industry they want to be in and envision themselves in a leadership role.

University of Phoenix focuses on online practitioner degrees, as they “align much better with our mission to enable students to develop knowledge and skills necessary to achieve their professional goals, improve the performance of their organizations, and provide leadership and service to their communities," writes Eylers.

Putting a practitioner doctorate to practice

For Rose Lorenzo, a three-time University of Phoenix alumna and an entrepreneur, earning her Doctor of Management was a natural choice. She had worked as a business consultant and accountant for three decades, and she knew the doctoral degree would offer real value to her clients while helping her reach her goals.

Lorenzo explains: "I think that [those who earn] a PhD [are] really creating new research and developing new theories for other people to use. I got my Doctor of Management [practitioner doctorate] so I can take the research that’s out there and apply it to the gap and come up with the solution."

In addition to running her own accounting and business consultancy practice, Lorenzo currently operates Hackathon Jr., an organization that facilitates in-person and virtual workshops for kids who like to code and work with technology. Hackathon Jr. was born of her doctoral research — she and her colleagues sought ways to counteract the lower emotional intelligence prevalent among children who are heavily invested in information technology. Hackathon Jr. seeks to counteract that by creating groups of kids who must work together to problem-solve using technology.

Hackathon Jr. is just the beginning. Lorenzo also plans to open an online school of entrepreneurship in the near future and has her eye on running for political office someday.

5 things I wish I knew before I started my doctorate

While Lorenzo speaks of her successes with a grace that belies their difficulty, she does recognize the whole doctoral program would’ve been easier had she known a few things at the outset, including:

  1. Know what you want to study and stand firm. "Although I knew what I wanted to study, I wish I had known how to narrow that topic down before I started." Most people, Lorenzo concedes, have an idea of what they want to study, but figuring out where there’s a real problem in need of a solution can be trickier. And the firm part? Plenty of people, Lorenzo says, will try to sway you on your subject, your methodology and so on. Don’t let anyone steer you off course.
  2. Your chair is important. Lorenzo counts herself lucky because her first instructor ended up being her dissertation chair. He not only helped her narrow her focus but he also believed in her and her work. If you don’t have that support, Lorenzo says, it’s all too easy to waste time or give up.
  3. Document — and organize — all your research. This should be taught in the first class, Lorenzo says. For students like Lorenzo who begin their dissertation research early in the program, it’s imperative to know how to record and organize that data. When Lorenzo finally figured out she’d have to tabulate all the data, including search words she used to find data and which databases she accessed, "I was like, ‘Oh my God. I did that research two years ago!" she recalls. Plan and organize accordingly.
  4. Select the right methodology for your study. With a background in accounting, Lorenzo knew she’d opt for quantitative research over qualitative. But every subject and every person are different. Figure out what makes sense for your topic and stick with it.
  5. Networking matters. Lorenzo connected over Facebook with other students her chair was overseeing, but no one told her to do that. And it helped. Not only did they help each other along, but Lorenzo is still in contact with them today. "No one understands what you’re going through except for other doctoral students," she says.

Practitioner doctoral degrees at University of Phoenix

At University of Phoenix, five available practitioner doctoral degree programs focus on big-picture skills and strategies within their respective fields. They are also aligned with real-world skills and outcomes so that, upon matriculation, graduates are prepared to advance within their profession.

The primarily online school offers "four practitioner doctoral degrees that are similar in design in the College of Doctoral Studies and one in the College of Nursing [Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)]. The DNP degree program does not require a dissertation, but an applied project must be completed," says Eylers.

The five doctoral degree programs are:

  • The Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) degree focuses on solving organizational problems, becoming a business subject matter expert, learning how to design and conduct research studies in the field, and developing innovation.
  • The Doctor of Management degree is designed to cultivate tomorrow’s leaders. This program emphasizes the development of such skills as critical and creative thinking in the arena of managerial issues, the development of new business systems and processes based on organization theory, and how to make ethical decisions.
  • The Doctor of Education (EdD) degree does not lead to licensure or certification. Instead, it focuses on issues such as how to address legal, regulatory and compliance issues within educational organizations and how to evaluate current research and statistics to solve educational issues.
  • The Doctor of Health Administration degree is designed for health professionals interested in shaping policy and administration. Graduates learn how to improve care by analyzing the components and subsystems of the healthcare system and how to make sense of the economic and regulatory factors that impact healthcare sustainability.

The above doctoral degree programs all require two 8-week, online symposia, take a minimum of 38 months to complete and are fully online.

  • The Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree is designed for working nurses who wish to pursue their terminal degree or who need a doctorate for advanced practice. It does not prepare students for professional certification or licensure as a nurse or an advanced practice nurse but instead teaches students how to use research to develop solutions to healthcare problems and deliver high-quality, advanced nursing care steeped in research evidence. The DNP takes approximately 20 months to complete.

With a variety of online doctoral programs available, the path to leadership in your chosen field is clear. It’s just up to you to take the first step.


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