Guide to PhDs in Health

Health care, the largest industry in the United States, provides 14 million jobs to Americans. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that 7 of the 20 fastest growing occupations in the 2006-2016 period will be in health care, which will generate more new jobs during that period than any other industry. Factors contributing to this increase include an aging baby boomer population, longer life expectancies, and a renewed commitment by the government to overhaul the healthcare system.

PhDs and Other Doctorate Degrees in Health

The BLS states that most workers in the health care system have jobs requiring only four years of college education. However, those involving administration or management, in-depth research, clinical practice, development of public policy, or college-level instruction require doctorate degrees. Here's a look of some of the most notable health-related doctoral degrees:

  • PhD: Doctor of Philosophy in Health can cover a wide range of subjects, from health education to psychology. The benefit of a PhD in a health subject is that it allows you to focus on scholarly research and writing. "Doctorate" is Latin for "teacher," so this degree concentrates on theory, on preparing doctoral students for research and teaching positions, or on publish within the field.
  • PsyD: The Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) is similar to a PhD, except that it focuses on clinical applications as opposed to theory and research. For those interested in becoming practicing psychologists, the PsyD is beneficial in that it offers more training in psychological testing than a PhD, and prepares students for a variety of clinical settings.
  • DBA: A Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) in health sciences allows graduate students to build on their skills by developing in the areas of business and management. These skills enable graduates to lead health care organizations or insurance companies, or to work in academia.
  • DHA: A Doctor of Health Administration (DHA) is a specialized doctorate degree that focuses on the business of health care. The government's commitment to streamlining health information systems, and the increasingly stringent requirements for tax compliance and updating of patient records, will call for strong leaders with the ability to see the bigger picture, which the DHA can provide. This degree may lead you to manage health care institutions, public health organizations, or insurance companies, or to work in social service or public policy.
  • DMFT: The Doctorate in Marriage and Family Therapy (DMFT) prepares graduates to work primarily in clinical settings, to supervise, consult, research, or counsel in the realm of marriage and family.
  • DNP: The Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) is a clinical degree required for advanced practice nurses, including nurse midwives, nurse anesthesiologists, nurse practitioners, and clinical nursing specialists.
  • DPT: The Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) prepares graduates to work in clinical settings to provide physical therapy services. A tDPT, or transitional DPT, offers licensed physical therapists to earn clinical doctorate degrees.
  • EdD: The Doctor of Education in Counseling or Counseling Psychology prepares future researchers, by focusing on applying research to current clinical practices. Students typically enter these programs with master's degrees in social work, mental health, school or industrial/organizational counseling, marriage and family therapy, psychiatric nursing, or pastoral psychology, and are intent on serving as full-time researchers, executive directors, professors, or health care administrators.

These and other PhD and doctoral degrees in health are available online. The benefits of online PhD programs are that they can be completed from anywhere, at times that are convenient for students, meaning that there's no need to stop working full-time, and you can apply your lessons at work immediately.

Taking the Pulse of a PhD Degree in Health

According to the National Science Foundation, the number of Doctor of Philosophy in Health degrees increased by 12 percent from 2006 to 2007, a trend predicted to continue. This may be due to a number of factors, including recent changes in the law requiring that certain specialties be practiced by doctoral graduates, such as advanced practice nurses, and a recent push to recruit practitioners to the growing industry.

The health care industry is one rare case in which the number of open positions exceeds the number of unemployed persons. Many hospitals recruit nurses from overseas, making nurses who have completed PhD programs hard to come by and thereby extremely valuable, to provide advanced practice services. Additionally, the government's proposed reform of the health care system could expand the need for health care administrators, as well as leaders prepared to address and reform public policies. And finally, a leading contributor to the current nursing shortage is a dearth of college and university nursing professors, making PhD degrees in particular extraordinarily important.

Health Degree Specializations and Careers

Here are some of the most common career paths for those who possess a Doctor of Philosophy in Health or one of the many other health-related doctoral degrees:

  • Physicians and surgeons: The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 17 percent growth in the 2006-2016 period. Increasingly, these professionals are working as salaried employees at group medical practices, clinics, and integrated health systems, while employment in hospitals is expected to grow more slowly.
  • Physical therapy: Physical therapists help patients address physical pain through movement, improve function, and overcome physical disabilities. As the baby boomer population ages and people live longer, physical therapists will be essential in helping people to stay healthy, which is why growth in this profession is projected to exceed 30 percent.
  • Psychology: Those working in psychology study the human mind. While certain psychology positions may be attained without doctorate degrees, you cannot work in clinical practice, or as a college-level instructor, without one. The BLS states that because this field is fairly competitive, job prospects will be best for those with PhD or doctoral degrees in an applied specialty, such as school counseling.
  • Health Information Technology: A government stimulus package and a commitment to health care reform, as well as ever-improving technology, make health care information technology--which involves the management or patient records--a rapidly growing field.
  • Nursing: No other health care occupation is expanding as quickly, or is as essential to the growth of the industry, as nurses. A doctorate degree not only enables you to work in an advanced practice specialty, but it provides the tools necessary to teach at the college level. Projections by the BLS indicate that nursing jobs will grow by roughly 25 percent, and the severe lack of nursing professors may have a drastic impact on our ability to fill those jobs, meaning that those with PhDs in nursing will also be of the utmost importance.
  • Pharmacy: Pharmacies are feeling the strain that improved treatments and medications are placing on them. That's why pharmacist jobs are projected to increase by 22 percent from 2006-2016.

With competition increasing for jobs in all industry sectors, including in health and medicine, possessing the right skills is becoming even more important. Continuing your education either on campus or through one of many online PhD programs could be the next step to expanding your skill set and enhancing your marketability. Whether you thrive working with patients in a clinical setting or simply enjoy the challenge of exploration and research, a PhD in health can help make it happen.


  • American College of Healthcare Executives, Which degree should I pursue?
  • Forbes, The 10 Hardest Jobs To Fill In America, by Tara Weiss
  • National Science Foundation, 2007 Records Fifth Consecutive Annual Increase in U.S. Doctoral Awards, by Jaquelina C. Falkenheim and Mark K. Fiegener
  • The New York Times, Now Hiring, and Desperately Seeking, Specially Skilled Workers, by Louis Uchitelle
  •, 5 College Majors That Can Help You Get a Job, by AnnaMaria Andriotis
  • U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, healthcare
  • U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Psychologists
  • U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Medical and Health Services Managers


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