Also known as a terminal degree, a doctoral degree is a graduate-level degree that is considered the highest one an individual can earn in any given field of study. Typical careers that require a doctorate include research positions as well as those where state licensing is a requirement.

Individuals may choose to earn a professional doctorate, which demonstrates mastery in the skills required for a certain career, or an academic doctorate, which concentrates on academics and original research. Programs may be available through traditional campus-based schools, online, or in a hybrid format.

Recent years have seen significant increases in the number of doctorates granted between the 2000-01 and 2015-16 academic years — 49 percent. Most degrees awarded at this level were in the health or legal fields, followed by doctorates in education, engineering, and biological and biomedical sciences.

4 Benefits of a Doctoral Degree

Those who choose to enter a doctoral degree program may motivated by a variety of personal and professional factors. Here are four compelling reasons to embark on the ultimate educational journey.

  1. Earning a doctorate can qualify individuals for the highest positions in academic and non-academic settings.
  2. Doctoral degrees can offer flexible career paths. For example, a doctoral degree holder who hopes to work in an academic setting may become a professor, department head, or researcher.
  3. Increased earning potential. The U.S. Census Bureau has found that doctoral degree holders earn $3.4 million during their working life, while individuals with a master's degree earn $2.5 million and those with a bachelor's degree earn $2.1 million.
  4. The opportunity to gain an unparalleled level of understanding in a specific field and to use that knowledge to make a positive difference in society.

Timeline of a Doctoral Degree Program

So how long does it take to earn a doctorate? Doctoral degree programs usually take four years to complete, after an individual has earned a bachelor's degree. Although requirements for online doctoral degrees vary from program to program, here's a typical timeline:

First Year
Students typically focus on completing coursework related to a preliminary exam, and they may even attempt a preliminary exam. There are usually weekly graduate student and research seminars to attend.
Second Year
Students should expect to be complete all of the preliminary exams during this year. This is also the time to select a research adviser. Students continue to attend graduate student and research seminars.
Year three
The primary focus at this time is on research projects and the development of a prospectus for a dissertation. The third year of doctoral degree requirements may also include a comprehensive oral exam.
Fourth year
Students typically spend their time on research and coursework in their area of specialty. Sometimes, a doctoral degree program can take more than four years to complete and involves completing and defending a dissertation. Also known as a thesis, a dissertation is a large research project that offers doctorate students the opportunity to select a question or proposition and present their findings. It is designed to evaluate the student's independent research skills.

Types of Doctorates

There are several different types of doctoral degrees available. Some of the most common ones include:

Top Doctoral Programs

Selecting a doctoral degree program is an important decision. Therefore, prospective doctoral students should take the time to understand the rankings that take into account factors and specific data points that can help to determine the best doctorates. Rankings typically take into consideration tuition and fees, acceptance rates, and other factors of each school's programs.


To be included in these rankings, all schools must meet the following initial criteria for the specific degree being ranked.

1. Offer a doctoral degree program, either on campus, online, or via hybrid format
2. Have awarded at least one doctoral degree in 2015-16
3. Have reported data for all 12 ranking variables listed below

Based on those criteria, we ranked 655 colleges and universities in the United States on 12 criteria, using 2016-17 data from the National Center for Education Statistics:

  1. Program prominence, based on how many doctoral degrees were awarded in 2016-17
  2. Ratio of graduate students participating fully or partially in distance education to total enrollment
  3. Average in-state tuition for graduates
  4. Number of programs that are offered at the doctoral degree level on campus
  5. Number of programs that are offered at the doctoral degree level via distance education
  6. Credit offerings
    • Life
    • Military
  7. Services
    • Academic/Career
    • Placement for Completers
  8. The availability of any tuition plans
    • Payment
    • Prepaid
    • Other
RankingSchool NameAverage Graduate TuitionCareer CounselingPayment PlanPlacement Services
1Arizona State University-Tempe$11,406YesYesYes
2The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio$2,995YesYesYes
3Texas A & M University-College Station$6,552YesYesYes
4University of Iowa$9,785YesYesYes
5Pennsylvania State University-Main Campus$21,540YesYesYes
6Liberty University$7,904YesYesYes
7Harvard University$46,384YesYesYes
8Texas Tech University$5,832YesYesYes
9Texas Woman's University$4,852YesYesYes
10University of Florida$10,770YesNoYes
Source: Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) 2018-19, National Center for Education Statistics,

Financial Aid

Pursuing a doctoral degree online is a large investment, but based on the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau's reports, it can be a wise one. Fortunately, there are various financial resources that may be available to help eligible students fund their doctorates. A few examples of these resources include scholarships, grants, and educational loans.

Why Accreditation Matters

Accredited online doctoral degree programs meet the strictest educational standards. By pursuing an accredited doctorate, students can trust the quality of the education they receive. In addition, they may be eligible for educational grants and loans and appear more attractive in the eyes of potential employers.

Fastest-Growing Occupations with Doctoral Degrees

If you're thinking about pursuing a graduate degree at the highest level, you might like to know about these occupations that the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts to grow the fastest during the 2016-26 time period. All of these occupations typically require a doctorate.
Current Employment : 31,010
Projected Employment : 4.5%
Anesthesiologists can be found working in hospitals, doctor's offices, or outpatient centers. They may choose to specialize in pediatric anesthesia, hyperbaric medicine, cardiothoracic anesthesia, regional pain, or hyperbaric medicine. The aging population as well as the increased number of individuals who have access to health insurance are contributing to this occupation's growth.
Biological Science Teachers, Postsecondary
Current Employment : 53,090
Projected Employment : 11.7%
While some biological science teachers solely teach courses in the broad field of biological sciences, others may teach and perform research in specific aspects of the field. They can work in public and private colleges and universities, junior or community colleges, or technical schools. Since enrollment at postsecondary institutions is expected to rise and there is a greater emphasis on STEM education, employment opportunities for these professionals is expected to continue to grow.
Current Employment : 35,010
Projected Employment : 7.4%
Although chiropractors focus on manually realigning the spine, they may also use tools such as braces and straps to help correct alignments so that patients find pain relief. Due to the fact that individuals of all ages are increasingly becoming interested in integrative healthcare, chiropractors are in high demand.
Education Teachers, Postsecondary
Current Employment : 61,300
Projected Employment : 7.8%
Typically, postsecondary education teachers are passionate about a certain subject and enjoy working with minimal supervision. They remain current in their subject area and often perform research and contribute to scholarly publications. As more and more individuals enroll in postsecondary institutions, there will be a greater need for teachers at this level.
Engineering Teachers, Postsecondary
Current Employment : 36,080
Projected Employment : 11.2%
Postsecondary engineering teachers may teach courses on chemical, civil, electrical, mechanical, mineral, or petroleum engineering. Some postsecondary engineering teachers write original articles or books on engineering-related topics. Since STEM education is increasing in popularity, careers in postsecondary engineering education are expected to grow.
English Language and Literature Teachers, Postsecondary
Current Employment : 67,930
Projected Employment : 4.1%
In most cases, postsecondary English language and literature teachers hold full-time or adjunct positions at a college or university. They usually teach two to three classes that occur several times a week and may conduct research. The fact that English is a general education class required for most majors, combined with the increasing number of students enrolling in postsecondary education programs, means that there is a greater need for English language and literature teachers.
Nursing Instructors and Teachers, Postsecondary
Current Employment : 59,680
Projected Employment : 20%
In addition to teaching nursing students, postsecondary nursing instructors and teachers prepare and deliver lectures on topics such as mental health nursing, pharmacology, and community healthcare. Nursing instructors and teachers are fast-growing occupations because the nursing profession as a whole is growing at rapid rate.
Current Employment : 39,420
Projected Employment : 9.5%
Most optometrists work full-time, including evenings and weekends, to accommodate the needs and schedules of their patients. Many of them choose to specialize in particular aspect of the field, such as pediatric optometry, geriatric optometry, ocular disease, or low vision rehabilitation. Since almost all health plans now cover preventative eye exams, the need for optometry is quickly growing.
Psychology Teachers, Postsecondary
Current Employment : 37,480
Projected Employment : 11.7%
Postsecondary psychology teachers may instruct students in a wide range of psychology topics including child, clinical, and developmental psychology. Many psychology teachers become members of the American Psychological Association, which can provide them with educational and networking opportunities. Occupations in postsecondary psychology education are growing due to the increasing enrollment in postsecondary education institutions and the fact that psychology is a commonly offered elective or prerequisite in many degree programs.
Surgeons, Except Ophthalmologists
Current Employment : 36,270
Projected Employment : 1.2%
Most surgeons work in hospital wards, operating wards, or in clinics. While some surgeons are trained to perform a plethora of surgeries that affect almost all areas in the body, others choose to specialize. Colon and rectal surgery, neurological surgery, orthopedic surgery, vascular surgery, and pediatric surgery are several examples of the surgical specializations available. The large numbers of the aging baby boomer generation, paired with the increase in chronic illnesses, are contributing to the fast growth of this highly trained medical occupation.

Highest-Paying Occupations with Doctoral Degrees

After investing significant time and dollars in a doctoral degree program, you might like to know about these high-paying occupations. According to the BLS, the occupations listed below — which usually require a doctorate — typically see the highest wages in the U.S.
Business Teachers, Postsecondary
Mean Annual : $105,440
90th Percentile : $196,980
Accounting, finance, human resources, labor relations, and marketing are several examples of the types of courses postsecondary business teachers teach. As an academic, they may also be required to conduct research, publish original books or articles, or speak at conferences. Since business-related majors continue to remain popular, there is a growing need for highly paid postsecondary business teachers.
Clinical, Counseling, and School Psychologists
Mean Annual : $87,450
90th Percentile : $132,670
While some clinical, counseling, and school psychologists work on their own, many are part of a team and collaborate with doctors and social workers or work with students, teachers, and parents in a school environment. These professionals enjoy high pay because they are needed to help the aging population cope with physical and mental changes, veterans who suffer from war trauma, and children and adults who wish to improve their mental health.
Dentists, General
Mean Annual : $178,260
90th Percentile : $208,000
When the word "dentist" comes to mind, most people think of oral exams and teeth cleanings. While general dentistry does involve oral exams and teeth cleanings, general dentists may also treat conditions like TMJ disorder and sleep apnea, and they may provide emergency dental care to patients of all ages. As research continues to link oral health to general health, the demand for dentists continues to grow. As as these professional are highly trained, they tend to be highly compensated.
Family Medicine Physicians
Mean Annual : $213,270
90th Percentile : $208,000
Family and general practitioners help to diagnose, treat, and prevent conditions that are common among the general population. They may also refer patients to specialists who can assist with further diagnosis or treatment. Most family and general practitioners work with nurses or other support staff in small offices or clinics. Due to their extensive education and the increased focus on preventing common diseases and injuries, family and general practitioners enjoy high pay.
Health Specialties Teachers, Postsecondary
Mean Annual : $121,620
90th Percentile : $208,000
Postsecondary health specialties teachers instruct students on a variety of health subjects, including medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, public health, and veterinary medicine. When they are not in the classroom, health specialties teachers may assist with research, administration, or student advising. As the aging population increasingly demands high-quality healthcare, the health specialties teachers who can prepare future practitioners are in high demand and therefore earn high wages.
Mean Annual : $145,300
90th Percentile : $208,000
There are many specializations lawyers can select. Some of these specializations include bankruptcy law, immigration law, divorce law, personal injury law, employment law, and estate law. Lawyers can be found working in private practice, government, social policy agencies, and businesses. Lawyers are compensated highly because individuals, businesses, and all levels of government depend on legal services to protect themselves, their property, and rights in general.
Mean Annual : $125,510
90th Percentile : $162,900
Pharmacists can work for independent or retail chain pharmacies as well as hospitals, nursing homes, colleges, schools, and the federal government. Technologies such as electronic prescriptions and prescription monitoring programs can increase their efficiency while promoting patient safety. Since patients depend on pharmacists to provide them with the right medication and medical doctors often turn to them for guidance, highly trained pharmacists are compensated well.
Physical Therapists
Mean Annual : $90,170
90th Percentile : $124,740
These professional work with patients one-on-one and help them to progress through treatment. Physical therapists can enjoy the reward of knowing they are making a positive difference in many lives. Physical therapists can choose to work in a wide range of settings including private practices, hospitals, nursing homes, home health agencies, and fitness facilities. Due to the large number of aging baby boomers and the prevalence of individuals with chronic conditions who rely on physical therapy to maintain mobility, physical therapists enjoy high compensation.
Physicians, All Other; and Ophthalmologists, Except Pediatric
Mean Annual : $203,450
90th Percentile : $208,000
Physicians and surgeons usually work in one or more specialties. They are well-versed in various treatments and injuries and are required to complete residency and internship programs to gain valuable hands-on experience. As highly trained professionals, physicians and surgeons are among the highest paid professionals in the country because their work can treat various health conditions and even save lives.
Mean Annual : $104,820
90th Percentile : $160,780
Veterinarians examine and treat all types of animals, including traditional household pets like dogs and cats, "pocket pets" such as hamsters and rats, exotic animals like lizards and snakes, and farm animals of all sizes. Some veterinarians decide to work for wildlife agencies, laboratories, feed corporations, or academic institutions. Veterinarians are paid highly because of the increases in consumers' pet-related expenditures.

What Comes After a Doctorate

After earning a doctoral degree, some individuals choose to become postdocs. A postdoc pursues additional research, training, or teaching in order to improve their skills and eventually begin a career in research or academia. They may be funded by a university or self-funded through grants.

Many doctoral degree holders receive a license in their state. A license formally recognizes that they have passed all the qualifications to practice their profession. Psychologists, optometrists, and physical therapists are examples of doctorate-level professionals that must hold a license.

Additionally, some individuals with doctoral degrees decide to immediately transition into their industry, join a start-up venture, or work in an administrative position at an educational institution or government agency.

Browse Doctorate Programs by Subject features colleges and universities that offer online doctorate degree programs in the following disciplines:

Art & DesignTechnology
EducationHospitality and Culinary Arts
Law and Criminal JusticeLiberal Arts and Humanities
Science and MathSocial Science
Article Sources
Article Sources


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  • Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) 2016-17, National Center for Education Statistics,
  • Lifetime Earnings Soar with Education, ThoughtCo.,, accessed August 2018
  • Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics,, accessed August 2018
  • O*NET OnLine,, accessed August 2018
  • Postsecondary Certifications and Degrees Conferred, National Center for Education Statistics,, accessed August 2018
  • Structure of Postdoctoral Study, Cornell University,, accessed August 2018
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