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A doctoral, or terminal, degree is the highest degree one can earn in a field, and in the social sciences, these fields include psychology, education, social work, and human services, and public policy and administration. Some typical terminal degree paths in the social sciences include PhD (Doctor of Philosophy), PsyD (Doctor of Psychology), EdS (Education Specialist Degree), and DPA (Doctor of Public Administration).

Online PhD programs, online PsyD programs, and other online doctoral degree programs are attractive options for some students, and worth consideration if you're concerned with financing, time management, or quality of education in your pursuit of a doctoral degree. Online doctoral programs offer quality education and allow you to structure your studies around your current schedule.

Social Sciences

PhD and DPA: The Research Doctorates

PhDs are perhaps the best known of the social science doctoral degrees. A PhD is almost always a requirement for careers such as university professor or researcher in certain subjects. A PhD is a research doctorate--the doctorate degree is awarded after the PhD candidate successfully completes an independent research project, culminating in a dissertation and the successful defense of that dissertation.

Before being admitted to a research doctorate program, students must have completed graduate level coursework. Once this has been accomplished, the prospective doctorate student must complete and pass written exams, and then, at the recommendation of doctoral faculty, the student will be advanced to candidacy for a doctoral degree.

Those considering online PhD programs or in-classroom PhD programs without a strong interest in a research-oriented career path may be happier with another degree path, as the PhD is not only focused on research for the duration of the program, but prepares one for a career of research and independent inquiry.

A Doctor of Public Administration (DPA) degree is similarly researched-based, and prepares public policy professionals for advanced careers as researchers and policy experts in government, non-profits, universities, and private companies. Areas of study often include DPA in Public Finance, Health Policy, and Program and Policy Evaluation.

PsyD and EdS: The Intermediate Doctoral Degrees

How is a PsyD or an EdS different from a PhD? Entrance requirements for a Doctor of Psychology or Education Specialist Degree program are similar to those of a PhD, but the focus of the degree is different.

A PsyD, which stands for Doctor of Psychology, is a degree tailored for clinical, school, and counseling psychologists, (i.e., those who intend to practice professionally rather than focus on research). Similarly, an EdS is an advanced professional degree, not a solely research-focused doctoral degree.

A PsyD or EdS is not the equivalent of a PhD, according to the U.S. Department of Education. PsyD and EdS degrees are considered Intermediate Degrees--above a Master's degree but not as advanced as a PhD or research doctorate degree. The completion of graduate level coursework is still necessary for admission to online PsyD programs or online EdS programs, as well as for traditional classroom doctoral programs.

The PsyD is a relatively new degree, first endorsed by the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1973. At first described as a "leap of faith" by some of its early recipients, the increasingly popular PsyD is now recognized and respected by universities, licensing boards, and fellow psychology practitioners alike.

Popular Specialties for Social Science Doctorates

Doctoral candidates--whether PhD, PsyD, DPA, or EdS--must choose a specialization for their studies. This specialization will likely be the topic of the candidate's dissertation, although the written and oral exams usually required for completion of the doctorate degree may cover this and other related areas.

Some common specializations for PhD in Social Science candidates include:

  • Anthropology
  • Public policy and administration
  • Psychology and behavioral science, including gender studies
  • Public safety management, including emergency management and public safety leadership
  • Social work and human services
  • Sociology
  • Economics
  • Geography

Students pursue PhDs in these areas to prepare for scholarly and leadership positions in government, universities, research programs, and elsewhere. In the world of public policy and administration, for example, the PhD is where professional knowledge meets research, combining both worlds for a well-rounded and thorough public policy expert.

Doctor of Psychology candidates might specialize in areas such as:

  • Conflict resolution and mediation
  • School counseling
  • Education psychology

Again, the degree and its specialties are generally tailored for professionals or those who plan to practice as clinicians as opposed to researchers. Pursuing a PsyD in conflict resolution and mediation prepares you for advanced positions in conflict resolution such as supervisor or educator, while a Doctor of Psychology in school counseling prepares you for a different set of professional responsibilities.

Doctor of Public Administration candidates often specialize in areas such as:

  • Public policy and administration
  • Public management
  • Public finance and budgeting
  • Environmental and health policy
  • Economics
  • International Relations

The degree is tailored for experienced professionals with a goal of enhancing their knowledge of public policy and public management for enhanced public leadership and responsibilities.

An Education Specialist student might specialize in:

  • School counseling
  • Special education
  • Education psychology

Those who pursue an EdS often have the goal of becoming an education administrator or pursuing a similar professional career path.

Online vs. Campus Education for Doctoral Degrees in Social Science

An in-depth study conducted by the Department of Education found that "on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction." This is not to say that online education is right for every person or degree path, but it points out that the benefits of online education sometimes outweigh the merits of in-classroom education for certain individuals.

It is not unusual for online doctorate degree programs to blend e-learning with face-to-face instruction. In some disciplines, a certain amount of classroom time is necessary to completion of coursework. Online education also offers features such as interactive classrooms and group chat rooms to communicate in "real time" with professors and fellow students. Replicating the experience of an in-classroom education, coupled with the freedom to study on one's own schedule, may make pursuing an online doctorate degree appealing for some students.

No one can tell you which route is best for you. There are advantages to both online doctorate degree programs and traditional in-classroom doctoral programs. Online PhD programs, online PsyD programs, and online DPA and EdS programs can offer great advantages for students, but in-classroom education may better suit some. The smartest way to decide is to do your research on each degree path, including thorough research on the schools and programs you're most interested in. Making an informed decision about your doctoral program may be the first step towards earning your doctorate degree in social sciences.


  • U.S. Department of Education, Structure of the U.S. Education System: Research Doctorate Degrees
  • U.S. Department of Education, Structure of the U.S. Education System: Intermediate Graduate Qualifications
  • U.S. Department of Education, Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies
  • Monitor on Psychology 31.1, The degree that almost wasn't: the PsyD comes of age, by Bridget Murray

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