As we, as working professionals, go through our careers, sometimes we ask ourselves, “What’s next?” Sometimes, the next job assignment or training class isn’t enough. Or maybe that master’s degree you earned way back when no longer has you on top of your field. Or perhaps you want to take things to a new level. Well, you might want to consider doing a doctorate. In the coming paragraphs, I’ll lay out some things for you to think about, as well as some reasons for taking this plunge—and a couple of reasons why you shouldn’t!
The doctorate—sometimes known as a “PhD,” even though there are many kinds of doctorates—isn’t just the top-level degree. It is also a unique academic process and experience. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever undertaken. Unlike other degrees, the doctorate comprises not just a curriculum of courses, but it also requires a successful doctoral dissertation—a book-length research project that results in an original and substantial contribution to your field’s scholarship or practice—or both.
Two Types of Doctorates
There are two types of academic doctorates: scholarly and professional. (A third type, first-professional doctorates are for specific fields like medicine and law—beyond the scope of this post.) Scholarly doctorates, typically ending in the award of the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), are primarily (but not exclusively) designed to make original contributions to an academic discipline and (again, primarily but not exclusively) to prepare one for entering academia. But many people earn the PhD and enter the workforce, and many people already in the workforce opt for pursuing the PhD. More on them later!
The other type of doctorate is the professional doctorate. In the U.S., the professional doctorate looks very much like the scholarly doctorate described above. The three biggest differences are (a) the degree is designed for working professionals to continue in their careers, (b) the research usually contributes to practice instead of scholarship/theory, and (c) the degree designation is an alternate to the PhD, like the Doctor of Education (EdD), Doctor of Business Administration (DBA), and my own Doctor of Social Science (DSocSci). (I also hold a PhD.)
There is some overlap between these concepts, with some PhDs being awarded for research that contributed to practice, and some professional doctorates (like mine) actually required a contribution to scholarship like the PhD. Go figure. But these guidelines should help you in your decision.
Traditional and Nontraditional Delivery
Traditionally, the doctorate requires 2 or more years of full-time study on campus, with one or more years of research beyond that—sometimes on-campus, sometimes away. The bottom line: pursing a doctorate traditionally means taking a very long break from your career—and earning a living. Until the 1970s, that’s just the way it was, until a number of schools cropped up to make the doctorate available to working adults. And with the advent of the internet, things have just exploded!
These days, you can pursue a doctorate without leaving your home or career. (The work it takes to do it might make your family feel you’ve left them, but I’ll leave managing that to you!) Many traditional universities now offer doctoral programs with little or no on-campus residency. Also, there are dozens of accredited nontraditional universities specifically designed to cater to working adults. You can now earn a doctorate—scholarly or professional—while continuing your career. But there’s a catch.
Traditionally, the doctorate—especially the PhD—was used by graduate students as an entry-level credential into academia, becoming a professor who teaches and researches for a living. If your goal is to leave your career and enter academia, taking the PhD (or other doctorate) online and/or off-campus won’t help you much. Sure, you can earn the degree, but you won’t have the on-campus experiences and connections that will help you get started in an academic career. Sure, some people use the doctorate to transition from their working careers into academic careers, but it is rare. There’s very little literature on this, but it seems that people who make this transition do so by entering academia nontraditionally—their career histories, plus their doctorates, make them attractive to certain schools in certain situations. But I would caution you about making this a goal. Be sure you’ve cultivated the connections necessary and know that there’s an opportunity awaiting you down the line.
Reasons for a Working Professional to Pursue a Doctorate
So why do this time-consuming, life-altering, expensive, long, hard sorta crazy thing? I’ll suggest a few reasons for doing it, and one more reason for not doing it.
Master Your Field. There’s nothing like pursuing a doctorate to put you in touch not only with the most forward thinking in your profession, but also with the underlying scholarly theory and thinking that makes your field go. (I posted about the scholar-practitioner earlier this year; I’d encourage readers serious about taking a doctorate to take a look.) Doing a doctorate will demand you get on top of the thinking, literature, and concepts of your profession. You will become a thought leader in your field.
Contribute New Knowledge to Your Field. Not only will you master the knowledge of your particular field, you’ll contribute to it. In a scholarly doctorate (typically the PhD), you’ll develop and/or test theory that drives your discipline. In a professional doctorate, you’ll likely focus on contributing to knowledge that other practitioners can put to use to advance your profession.
Develop Yourself. I hope you gathered that you’ll learn a lot along the way! Not just from the curriculum, but also from all the research you’ll for your class assignments, as well as the dissertation you’ll write. It will light a fire under you to push the boundaries of your profession and learn what lies beyond.
Become a Thought Leader. If you’re so inclined, doing a doctorate can lead you to other means and situations where you can share your insights regarding your field. You can actually shape its future! I mean, look at me. There must be six or even seven people reading this! Seriously, you can lead your field by teaching, writing, practicing, speaking, and in many other ways. Doing a doctorate in it will put you at the apex of your field and open up new vistas.
Advance in Your Career. Earning a doctorate can, for some people, be a career enhancer. Some employers will be decidedly non-plussed about your achievement, but others will be intrigued by what you studied and what you learned. The degree could also make the difference in a close call with other candidates for a job. But don’t be surprised if employers are less impressed with your accomplishment than you are. They often simply don’t get it. In fact, earning the degree might be the first step out of organizational settings.
Go Into Private Practice. Whether it’s due to retirement, a desire to get out of the “rat race,” or a desire to define and conduct your own practice your own way, there often comes a time when it makes sense to stop working for someone else and begin working for yourself. Earning a doctorate can help define who and what you will be in the future, a key aspect to understanding how you will practice. Plus, the credential can add credibility when engaging your clients. (This is true whether you set up your own practice or become a consultant in another company.)
Some Reasons for NOT Pursuing a Doctorate
General Cautions. If you’re concerned about your dedication, the time you have to put towards this degree, the costs, the residencies (time on campus or elsewhere—away from work and home) it will require, the academic work, the research (in some cases, the statistics!), or myriad other reasons associated with doing any degree, especially the doctorate, then proceed with extreme caution. But there are a few others I’d like to address specifically.
You Want to Be Called “Doctor.” Don’t laugh; this is a big deal to a lot of people. And I’m the first to argue that academics deserve the title as much as (or more than) physicians, chiropractics, and others who carry the title routinely. In short, we came first. But the desire for the title will not—cannot—carry you through the arduous process of earning the degree. Your ego will get tossed about like the S.S. Minnow on that 3-hour cruise. It will have to run much deeper than a desire for a title.
You Don’t Know What You Want to Become. Yes, it’s true that you will end up—at the end of your program—in a place you didn’t anticipate when you started out. But going in a different direction is not the same as not having one. In order to get through the gauntlet that awaits you, you’ll need as much momentum as you can muster. Graduate students who use a doctoral program to find themselves are the ones who linger year after year without graduating. It’s okay to change directions—I changed my dissertation topic twice for my PhD and three times for my DSocSci. But have a direction to start with.
You Want to Enter Academia (MAYBE!). As I stated earlier, earning a doctorate nontraditionally—the only way possible for people who are working in their careers—doesn’t bring you the experiences that create your entrée into academia. Also, earning a doctorate from a nontraditional university makes it even harder. (One of my doctorates is from a nontraditional university—Union—and the other is from a traditional one—Leicester—but also earned nontraditionally.) But some people do make this transition. If a school really wants to hire you—but needs you to have a doctorate—one earned at an accredited nontraditional university—or from a traditional university earned nontraditionally—might fill the bill. I don’t recommend starting out in this direction blind, but if you’re already in such a situation, the school in question will be thrilled that you earned a legitimate (accredited) doctorate…however.
Earning a doctorate while working for a living can be a thrilling and fulfilling endeavor. The results can be amazing—and unanticipated. But there are very good reasons not to pursue the degree—or, at least, to contemplate before proceeding. If you are interesting in this pursuit, do as much research as you can. I can’t possibly list all the available options here. But if you want to reach out to me with a question, feel free to send me a message or post to this thread. Good luck!