History of the Doctorate: From Auspicious Beginnings to Online Doctorate Degree

For hundreds of years, the doctorate degree has been held as the upper limit of higher education. The degree allows a close research-based focus on your chosen subject as you study to become an expert in your field. From academic degrees that allow for a lifetime of research and study to professional degrees that make you the authority of your chosen profession, doctorate degrees stand up to a high level of scrutiny.

In today’s increasingly Internet-based world, online doctorate degrees have brought this level of study to even the busiest people. Rather than requiring enough funding for years of dedicated studentship, earning a PhD, EdD, DBA, or other terminal degree can be done without putting everything else on hold.

The Doctoral Degree, Then and Now

The first doctorate degree was granted in Paris in the 12th century. In its earliest years, the primary subject areas for doctorates included theology, law, and medicine. Yale conferred the first doctorate in America in 1861, followed by Harvard soon after.

The number of doctorate degrees has increased dramatically since those times. By 1991, over 50 distinct doctorates were offered in the U.S. By 1998, 38 universities in the U.K. offered some sort of professional doctorate (as opposed to strictly academic doctoral programs). Among the most popular doctoral degrees:

Today, both online and on-campus doctoral degree programs are popular among students. Campus-based programs allow for the benefit of face-to-face interaction, while online doctorate programs can be completed anywhere in the world at a flexible pace.

Choosing to Pursue a Doctorate

Considering a doctorate? You likely have years of academic and professional experience in your field. When the time comes to choose your doctoral degree path, consider the ultimate application of your degree. Your degree can affect your job prospects, time in school, earnings, and more–so choose your field and method of doctoral study wisely.

Earning a Doctoral Degree Online

While some doctoral degrees require hands-on classroom instruction, many can be attained online as effectively as they might be in a traditional classroom. An online EdD program, for example, allows you to specialize in one of the following fields, among others:

  • Educational Technology
  • Higher Education
  • Counseling
  • Educational Administration
  • Education Policy
  • Educational Leadership
  • Curriculum and Instruction
  • Language/Linguistics

Choose your specialization based on your skills, previous degrees, and work experience. A degree from an online EdD program with a focus on leadership might make you a better candidate for administrative positions, while an educational policy degree could have you creating the procedures and bylaws maintained by school systems or universities.

Different Disciplines, Similar Degrees

Both the EdD noted above and the PhD in Education prepare graduates to work as professors at the college level or in an administrative capacity in schools. Similarly, doctoral degrees in public health are possible as either a PhD in Public Health or a Doctor of Public Health (DrPH).

Degrees like the DrPH are considered professional degrees, which prepare graduates to work as practitioners in the field. The PhD is often considered an academic degree and prepares graduates to work in academia, either teaching, researching, or both. In general, if there is more than one choice in a discipline, you can consider the PhD as the academic degree.

Bringing Experience to Research

Whether you’re interested in on-campus or online doctoral degrees, you should be prepared to do an extensive amount of research in your field. Both professional and academic doctoral degrees require a high level (both in quantity and quality) of research and writing. Depending on your discipline, the dissertation you complete to receive your degree can range from 50 to 450 pages. Research in any field tends to involve the following qualities:

  • Problem-focused in nature
  • Unique, with the aim of uncovering new knowledge
  • Application of existing theories to new problems–or the development of new theories to solve existing problems

As a general rule, professional doctoral degree research begins with what is known and applies that knowledge to new problems. Academic doctoral degrees, on the other hand, begin with a problem or query and attempt to create new theories to address it.

Whichever path you choose, it’s important to know what you’re getting yourself into academically. Assess your needs and aspirations, take stock of the doctoral programs available to you, and weigh the pros and cons. This isn’t a weekend seminar you’re about to undertake; it’s the capstone of your educational career. Be sure to research available education resources.



  • New Mexico State University, A Brief History of the Doctorate
  • Whatispublichealth.org, What is Public Health? FAQ
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