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A Professional Doctorate, also referred to as a Specialist, or Taught Doctorate, is a postgraduate qualification which is common in the USA and has also been available in the UK since the 1990s. Professional doctoral programs are field-specific (e.g. law, psychology, health or education) and the research element focuses on scholarly research relevant to that professional field in order to facilitate the integration of professional and academic knowledge. Students undertaking a professional doctorate program are expected to contribute to both theory and practice in their chosen field.
Dr David Wainwright who is the Director of Studies for the Professional Doctorate in Health at the University of Bath explains, "Our professional doctorate is designed to meet the needs of health and social care professionals who want to develop as practice-based researchers. As well as conducting a doctoral level research project, students also study research methods, evidence-based practice and comparative health policy.”
The design and format of professional doctorates will vary between different institutions and will also be influenced by subject considerations. However, a core component in all courses is the requirement that students complete a research task. As with a traditional PhD pathway, this work is then presented as a doctoral thesis to be examined by a subject specialist. Most often, the research will focus on some issue of substance, relevance, and concern, which relates to professional practice within the subject area. Consequently, the research context and/or location is often down to the student’s own organisation – and in fact some professional doctorates, like the Professional Doctorate in Health at the University of Bath, are taught via distance learning. Dr David Wainwright says, “Our Professional Doctorate in Health is delivered by distance learning using a state of the art virtual learning environment, which provides the flexibility and resources required to combine doctoral level study with professional/clinical commitments."
Another feature of most professional doctorates is a substantial taught element which is usually delivered to classes rather than individuals. The purpose of some of these assessed modules is to introduce students to academic research methods, whilst other taught or directed-study modules seek to broaden and deepen student understanding in subject areas likely to offer research potential, or likely to provide opportunities for learning transferable skills.
Specialist doctorate programs
In most instances professional doctorate students are career professionals acquiring a qualification ‘midstream’. However, Clinical Psychology, for example, requires entrants to have a doctorate qualification, and Engineering similarly expects entrants to qualify early. Such specific demands create a need for ‘specialist’ doctoral programmes.
Professional doctorate status
Although both professional doctorates and PhD awards confer doctoral status, there are significant differences between the two. The traditional PhD, which is a research-based postgraduate program, has minimal taught content and adopts an academic focus entirely appropriate for those seeking an academic career. A professional doctorate, on the other hand, whilst being equally challenging and bestowing parallel status, is a qualification specifically designed to meet the needs of professionals.
Study modes and duration of professional doctorates
Professional doctorate students are usually practising professionals with career experience, and most programs of study are part time to accommodate student participants from this majority group. However, full-time courses do exist, especially courses which prepare students for entry to a profession, or where the degree acts as a ‘licence to practice’. Disciplines where full-time degrees are common include Engineering (EngD) and Clinical Psychology (DClinPsy).
A full-time professional doctorate can take 2-5 years to complete, and qualifying part time can take 3-8 years. Factors such as the duration of the research project, subject area, and student commitment, determine the actual completion time for a professional doctorate.
Entry requirements for professional doctorates
Individual awards will specify particular entry qualifications, but the general entry requirement is a masters degree, or equivalent, and at least three years professional experience in the chosen field of study. Entry for international students will require a masters qualification which is internationally recognised. When a professional doctorate program is open to students with limited experience, entry requirements may be adjusted accordingly.
For international students, establishing equivalent qualifications can often be complicated. As a guide, the British (2:1) is the second highest honours degree available under the British system. This equates to a minimum GPA (grade point average) of 3.3 under the US/Canadian mark system.
A recognised English language qualification such as TOEFL or IELTS will be required by those students who do not speak English as their first language.
Costs of studying a professional doctorate
The tuition fees for professional doctorates vary between institutions. Although some limited funding is available in certain locations, the usual assumption is that students will be employer-funded. Course fees for British and EU students are always considerably lower than for other international students. Typical annual costs for UK/EU students would be from £6,000 upwards for full-time study, or around £800 per 20-credit module. For international students, the comparable annual costs for full-time study would be from £10,000 upwards.
Professional doctorate programs are widely available for the ‘big three’ – Engineering (EngD), Education (EdD), and Business (DBA). However, many UK universities run professional doctorate programs there is a broad variety of other subjects on offer – including specialist areas such as Computer Science.
Institutions hosting professional doctorate programs
As of 2010, well over 300 UK doctorate programs were available at institutions throughout the UK, including London School of Economics; University of Bath ; University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford.
Find out about Doctoral Training Centres .