What’s the difference between a PhD and a professional doctorate?

Some people say that a PhD prepares you to teach, while a professional doctorate is geared more toward a professional career. But the answer to the question is more complex.


Leaders in corporate organizations often benefit greatly from having a PhD, and individuals with a professional doctorate may hold adjunct or even regular faculty posts at universities. Everyone who obtains a doctoral degree from Capella University is a scholar-practitioner—equipped with a deep understanding of foundational theory and how it directly applies to the current and future needs of their profession, as well as the skills and knowledge to research, teach, consult, and lead.

Deciding whether to pursue a PhD or professional doctorate is not an either/or decision. The differences between the two doctoral program types vary in every field—and they are also evolving. In terms of program phases at Capella, all doctoral programs require coursework and an independent research project. Some programs require comprehensive exams, and most include residencies.


The one primary difference between PhD and professional doctorate programs is the type of research conducted in the independent research phase.

PhD students are expected to extend the body of knowledge in their field to apply the knowledge to solve for a real-world problem in their workplace or community. They demonstrate this through a dissertation.

Professional doctorate students are expected to apply existing knowledge in their field to a real-world problem in their workplace or community. Professional doctorate students demonstrate this through a doctoral capstone, comprised of a five-chapter applied dissertation or paper, product, or portfolio.

PhD and PsyD students are also required to take a comprehensive examination.


The following graphic shows the fundamental points of differentiation between a PhD program and the professional doctorate degree programs:



Professional Doctorate


DEGREE FOCUS Contribute new knowledge aimed at solving real-world problems. Apply existing knowledge aimed at solving real-world problems.
INDEPENDENT RESEARCH PROJECT Five-chapter dissertation. Five-chapter applied dissertation or paper, product, or portfolio.
CAREER INTENTION* More interest in consulting and/or conducting research. More interest in practicing directly in the profession.
 * In many instances, both a PhD and professional doctorate prepare students for teaching at the college or university level.


Ultimately, deciding whether to pursue a PhD or professional doctorate in your field of study should start with discernment regarding your career goals, how you plan to apply your degree, and what kind of research most interests you.

Use these questions to guide your self-reflection on what you see yourself doing in the short and long term.

  • What do you hope to do?
  • Where do you hope to apply your education?
  • What type of research do you want to do?
  • Which degree is required or expected in your desired profession? In the organization where you would like to advance your career?



Capella University offers PhD and professional doctorate degree programs ranging from business to education and health care to technology. Learn more about Capella’s online doctoral programs.

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