How to Get a Doctorate

how to get a doctorate
October 25, 2023 6 min read Liaison

In this article, we discuss what a doctoral degree is, how to get your doctorate, and the benefits of earning it.

Key Takeaways

A doctorate is the highest academic degree. There are two types of doctorates: research and professional.

Usually, earning a doctoral degree can take at least four years, but the time varies from student to student.

To apply to a doctoral program, you'll need academic transcripts, a resume or CV, recommendation letters, a statement of purpose, and perhaps GRE or GMAT scores.

During undergraduate studies, apply for internships and aim to have a 3.0 GPA.

During your master's program, work on your problem-solving and analytical skills.

Workers with a doctorate may have more job opportunities and earn higher-than-average salaries.


If you're on your academic journey, you may be curious about the highest degree you can earn in a university – the doctorate. Here, you'll learn how to get a doctoral degree and what's needed along the way.

By completing a doctoral program, you'll gain problem-solving skills, critical-thinking abilities, and other valuable knowledge that will help advance your career. Also, you may be able to earn a higher salary than individuals with different types of degrees.

In this article, we talk about different types of doctoral degrees, what you need to do to apply to a program and complete your doctoral studies, and the benefits of earning this advanced degree.

What Is a Doctorate?

A doctorate is the highest level of graduate degree you can earn at a university. Doctorate holders are experts in their fields. You can do a doctorate in various fields, but only some job positions require this degree.

Research doctoral degrees are focused on research in a specific field. This type of degree is generally for those who want to work as professors or researchers.

  • Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
  • Doctor of Education (Ed.D.)
  • Doctor of Business Administration (D.B.A.)
  • Doctor of Arts (D.A.)
  • Doctor of Theology (Th.D.)

A professional doctorate, on the other hand, gives students the skills required to work in certain fields, such as law and medicine.

  • Juris Doctor (J.D.)
  • Doctor of Medicine (M.D.)
  • Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm.D.)

Ph.D. Versus Doctorate

The terminology associated with doctoral degrees can be confusing at times. A common question is what's the difference between a Ph.D. and a doctorate, so let’s start with a comparison of the two.

The Ph.D. acronym represents a Doctor of Philosophy designation. This degree can be earned in any number of fields and, despite the moniker, is not limited to the field of philosophy.

A Ph.D. is one type of degree within the broader category of doctoral degrees. A Doctor of Philosophy degree is characterized by its research focus. Those who pursue a Ph.D. spend extensive time researching their chosen area. In this research work, candidates rely upon science and evidence to reach the pinnacle of expertise in their field. This research-driven approach provides a more theoretical style of expertise that looks ahead for new ideas and ways of thinking. To that end, Doctor of Philosophy candidates in all fields are required to research and write a dissertation that must be accepted. The dissertation proposal describes the proposed research to be conducted; once approved, it becomes a roadmap for exactly how the candidate will proceed with their research project.

The broader category of doctorate refers to professional or applied doctoral degrees, such as those awarded to medical doctors and attorneys. This type of doctorate is distinct from the Doctor of Philosophy degree in that it is focused on the real-world application of concepts rather than academic research.

All types of doctoral degrees give hard-working and committed students the opportunity to achieve the highest level of knowledge and expertise in their field. Those who make the considerable commitment to earn a doctorate become true experts who learn as much as possible about their discipline.

When exploring your doctoral degree options, think about whether you want to specialize in implementing current theories and practices as a professional (e.g., doctor or lawyer) or developing new ones (e.g., university researcher). This insight will help put you on the right path. If you are interested in working on the cutting edge of discovery in your chosen field, and in driving new discoveries, a Doctor of Philosophy degree may be the best choice.

Doctoral Versus Doctorate

The difference between the terms “doctoral” and “doctorate” is worth noting. A doctorate is a noun, and in this case, it represents the advanced degree in question. A doctorate can be earned in many fields, and in that sense, it is a broad category.

Meanwhile, the term “doctoral” is an adjective used to describe such a program. For example, you would either talk about "earning a doctorate" or "earning a doctoral degree."

How Long Does It Take to Get a Ph.D. or Other Doctorate?

Earning a Ph.D. or other types of doctoral degree typically takes 3-4 years if you're a full-time student. However, it's essential to note that this timeline can extend to up to eight years if you choose to pursue your degree on a part-time basis.

The duration of your doctoral journey largely depends on factors such as your field of study, research complexity, and the time needed to complete your dissertation. It's a substantial commitment, but the knowledge and expertise you gain during this time are often highly rewarding.

How to Get a Doctorate?

In order to get a doctorate, you need to complete your undergraduate and graduate degrees. Also, you need to find a school where you can enroll in a doctoral program aligned with your interests and area of academic focus.

Undergraduate Education

Earning an undergraduate degree usually takes up to four years in a full-time program. However, it depends on how many credits you can earn during each semester.

Note that one of the requirements for Ph.D. studies is a good GPA from your undergrad school. It should be at least 3.0.

As a doctoral candidate, you'll need some work/volunteer experience, so try to find an internship to gain experience in your area of interest.

Graduate Education

After undergraduate studies, you typically need to complete a graduate program. (Depending on the field, you may be able to go right into a Ph.D. program without first getting a master's.) Master's degree programs offer specialized knowledge and skills in a chosen study area.

Usually, students need two years to complete a master's program, but some schools offer accelerated programs that you can finish in a year.

Choose a master's degree program that aligns with your interests and desired career path.

During your master's program, start thinking about a doctorate and where you could earn it. As you evaluate each program, consider the following factors:

  • Industry reputation
  • Curriculum
  • Specialization options
  • The employment rate of graduates
  • Cost
  • Admission requirements

Steps to Getting a Doctoral Degree

Earning a doctoral degree is not for the faint of heart. Being selected for admission to a doctoral program is a highly competitive process, and the required coursework is also demanding. That said, many doctoral candidates and degree holders report that the work and commitment involved in earning their doctorate is deeply rewarding and becomes a huge source of personal pride.

So, once you know that you are interested in the possibility of earning a doctoral degree, what are the steps involved in making it a reality?

First, you’ll need to complete the prerequisite of an undergraduate degree, which typically takes four years. During that time, completing an internship in your area of concentration can give you a leg up when it’s time to then pursue your advanced degree. In addition, working to maintain a high GPA will enable you to meet minimum grade requirements for earning your advanced degrees. During the end of your undergraduate tenure, you may need to study for and take the GRE or other standardized test for entrance into grad school programs.

The next step on your journey to a doctorate is to earn your master’s degree. It’s important to note that a master’s degree may not always be required as part of your doctoral degree journey. Earning a master’s degree typically takes two years, but it can take longer, especially if you are working full time during your studies. Some master’s programs can be accelerated, allowing focused learners to earn their degree in less than two years. 

With an undergraduate degree and a master’s degree under your belt, plus a solid GPA and experience, you’re now ready to find your best doctoral program. Make a plan for applying to doctoral programs that truly excite you. After all, you may be working and studying for at least five more years. You want to be sure that the you program you select is the right fit for you and that you are setting yourself up for day-to-day success.

Once you have researched prospective programs that feel like a great fit, it’s time to apply. Because more supporting materials are required of you when you apply to doctoral programs, you should plan to devote plenty of time to gathering and organizing all the required documentation so you can be ready to send it out well before before the deadline. If at all possible, try to visit any program that you apply to in person; talk to staff and other students to gain insights that might not otherwise be easy to acquire.

As soon as you start hearing back from schools, it may be time to make some important decisions. Some experienced applicants recommend creating a spreadsheet with information about each program that accepts you. Top-level considerations include the cost to attend as whether you will be eligible for any aid, grants, or work opportunities. How is the housing market in that area?  Will you be able to live comfortably? Ideally, your answers and decisions should minimize any potential stress, allowing you to focus on your studies and bring home that coveted degree.

After you make the momentous decision to accept an offer from a doctoral program, it’s time to reap the benefits of your hard work: the opportunity to fully immerse yourself in your advanced studies. This can include advanced coursework which consists of both required and elective courses, research, discipline-related paid research/other work opportunities, and a dissertation. You will also have the opportunity to work closely with your advisor, who will act as a mentor during your doctoral studies. This advisor relationship is sometimes described as an apprenticeship of sorts. In addition, you will also have the opportunity to establish relationships with other mentors to support you through your studies.

How Much is a Doctoral Degree?

The final cost of earning a doctoral degree often comes down to the funding available from each program, which can vary considerably. As you explore various institutions and their programs, it’s always wise to ask about their costs to enroll upfront.

The largest single expense for doctoral students is tuition, which is based on the number of credits being pursued at any given time. Healthcare, fees, and WiFi charges are some of the other expenses that must be funded for each doctoral student.

The good news is that opportunities to earn money and offset the costs associated with earning a doctorate degree are more prevalent than in undergraduate and master’s programs and can be considerable. The result can be a net cost for a doctoral degree that is actually relatively low. 

Given the research focus of a Ph.D. candidate’s curriculum, students often have research-related opportunities for paid work. Many Ph.D. candidates receive a tuition waiver. In some cases, government-funded paid research work may be available.  Generally speaking, doctoral candidates are also eligible for teaching and research assistantships.

In addition, a number of foreign countries provide free or low-cost doctoral degrees at their public universities. But be forewarned: The requirements are usually quite stringent. For example, these can include rules around the designated language of study and the acceptable timeframe for a course of study. But for some candidates, the cost savings at these foreign institutions can be worth it.

Enroll in a Doctoral Program

A bachelor's and master's degree are usually required to qualify for a doctoral program. Typical application requirements for doctoral degrees include your academic transcripts from both your undergraduate and graduate studies, your resume or curriculum vitae (CV), GRE or GMAT scores, letters of recommendation, and a statement of purpose.

In a doctoral program, you'll engage in advanced coursework and research specific to your field. While the exact curriculum differs depending on the particular program, it typically includes:

With so much variability in the net cost of doctoral programs, candidates should seek a detailed description of how their target institution handles degree funding. Be sure not to make assumptions about a particular school’s approach.

  • In-depth classroom study
  • Extensive research
  • Writing a dissertation

The dissertation is a comprehensive research project that involves thorough study of a specific topic and a presentation of your findings to the program's faculty.

studying for a doctorate

Source: Unsplash

Is It Worth Getting a Doctorate?

In this section, we'll talk about the benefits of earning a doctoral degree.

  • Reputation — Obtaining a doctorate allows you to become more respected in your field and shows your expertise in an industry.
  • Higher salaries — Individuals with a doctorate usually have higher salaries than other degree holders because they have completed advanced coursework and demonstrated proven expertise in their field.
  • Gaining important skills — During a doctoral program, you'll gain problem-solving, research, analytical, and writing skills.
  • More specialized job options — With a doctoral degree, you can find a job focusing on very specific subjects at universities, government agencies, nonprofits, and private companies.

Start Your Doctorate Today!

A doctorate is the highest level of degree you can earn at a university or college. There are two types: research doctorates for those interested in academia and professional doctorates for career-specific fields.

Earning a doctorate typically takes three to four years, but part-time students may need up to eight years.

To pursue a doctorate, you need prior graduate and undergraduate degrees. You'll also need to submit an application that includes transcripts, recommendation letters, a statement of purpose, a resume or CV, and perhaps GRE or GMAT test scores.

Undergraduate degrees usually take four years to complete. Note that you'll need to maintain a good GPA because it's required for doctoral studies, along with work or volunteer experience. After your undergrad studies, you'll need a master's degree as well, which can take about two years. You should choose a program that lines up with your interests and career goals.

At a doctoral program, you'll engage in advanced coursework and research specific to your field, and you'll have to write a dissertation. Earning a doctorate offers benefits like enhanced reputation, higher salaries, valuable skills development, and broader job opportunities in academia and industry.


It can take four to five years to complete a doctoral program, but it can be longer. It depends on how much time you'll need to research and write your dissertation. In some cases, earning a doctorate can take from six to twelve years.

The cost varies based on factors including the type of degree, institution, and location. According to the Education Data Initiative, the average cost of getting a Ph.D. degree is $112,350.

Completing a doctoral program and getting a degree can be a long and rigorous process, including coursework, researching a topic, and writing a dissertation. Don’t expect it to be easy.

Some students work part-time, often as research assistants, while earning their degrees. Research and writing a dissertation can take much of your time, so working full-time could be challenging.

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