Types of PhD Degrees: Overview of the Most Common Doctoral Programs

Apr 23, 2020

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the most popular Ph.D. fields of study by number of degrees awarded are in health professions, education, engineering, biological and biomedical sciences, and legal professions. Doctoral programs in these fields can result in degrees such as a Doctor of Philosophy, Doctor of Medicine, and Doctor of Education.

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Most Common Doctoral Programs

For individuals considering enrollment in one of the top five most popular fields for doctoral degrees, it can be helpful to find out what types of Ph.D. degrees are available.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) publishes statistical data on a variety of educational topics, including the most common doctoral degrees awarded. According to the NCES, the most common field for doctoral degrees in the 2016-2017 academic year was health professions. The NCES reported that 77,693 doctoral degrees in health professions were awarded in that year.

In order, the next four most common fields for doctoral degrees in the same year were legal professions, education, engineering, and biological and biomedical sciences. Together, these five fields accounted for over 140,000 degrees awarded. It is important to note that these figures account for all doctoral programs, not just Ph.D. programs.

Doctoral Programs in Health Professions

There are a wide range of doctoral degrees available in the health professions and related sciences. This field includes the Doctor of Medicine (MD), Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), and other degrees related to medicine and psychiatric health. MD programs typically last for four years and are designed to prepare licensed health professionals for clinical practice and leadership roles. There are also MD/Ph.D. programs that train individuals to research, develop, and implement solutions for the health industry. These students may focus their Ph.D. studies on topics like:

  • Biochemistry
  • Environmental health
  • Epidemiology
  • Genetics
  • Pathology
  • Pharmacology
  • Biotechnology
  • Immunology

Doctoral Programs in Legal Professions

The most common doctoral degree in the legal field is a Juris Doctor (J.D.), but some schools offer a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Law. Juris Doctor students initially study general law topics before focusing on an area of concentration, such as business, entertainment, or public law. The Ph.D. in Law program is for J.D. graduates and enables trained lawyers to conduct research in a particular area of interest, leading to a final dissertation.

Doctoral Programs in Education

Doctoral programs in education can lead to a Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) or a Ph.D. in Education. Students can major in education, educational leadership, or special education. There are also a variety of concentrations available, such as educational administration and policy, early childhood education, education policy, evaluation and reform, teacher leadership, and higher education.

Doctoral Programs in Engineering

Engineering professionals use knowledge of math, material sciences, natural sciences, and physics to develop ways of using materials and natural forces to benefit people in a wide variety of ways. Depending on the school and program, 36-72 credits may be required for a Ph.D. There are a variety of possible degree specializations, including:

  • Civil engineering
  • Electrical engineering
  • Computer engineering
  • Mechanical engineering
  • Petroleum engineering
  • Geological engineering

Biological and Biomedical Sciences

Ph.D. programs in the biological and biomedical sciences generally consist of lab research and advanced coursework. Before choosing a thesis lab, students may complete several rotations. Undergraduate teaching requirements may also be included in the curriculum. Schools offering doctoral degrees in biomedical sciences also offer several areas of specialization. Students can choose from concentrations such as biomedical engineering, developmental biology, biochemistry and molecular biology, virology, neurobiology of disease, cancer biology, immunology, genetics and genomics, gene therapy, and pathology.

Students who want to enroll in Ph.D. programs may want to choose one of the most popular fields for doctoral degree programs, as reported by the National Center for Education Statistics.

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