Monday, November 22, 2010

Professional or Research Doctorates

Professional or Research OT Doctorates: Which One is Right for You?

One of the things I love about occupational therapy practitioners is that most are committed to advancing their knowledge base through continuing education and some practitioners further their knowledge base through graduate study.  Since I received my PhD in 2001, I am often asked by friends and colleagues:
  • about the different types of doctorates available for OTs to pursue and  
  • which doctorate is the best one to pursue
So, I thought I'd put my thoughts down in this post for all posterity.  ;)  Actually, I hope this information is helpful for any occupational therapist or other health care practitioner considering a post-professional doctoral degree.
First, it is critical to understand that my statements here are based on the information in my references/website bibliography (see the end of the post) and my experience in pursuing a research doctorate, teaching in post-professional programs and serving as a dissertation committee member for students in professional and research degrees.  Having said this, please note that each university’s graduate program sets the standards for both professional and research doctoral degrees, and these requirements can vary greatly from one program to another within a university and from one university to another.  This fact creates some confusion about the status of the doctorates as well as the value of the doctorates.  While both a professional doctorate and a research doctorate would provide the degree recipient with the title of 'doctor', the intended purpose, career pathway and external status for each are different.  In addition, anecdotal and empirical evidence suggests that differing status is accorded to each type of doctorate by funding bodies and academic institutions (Reeves, et al. 2007).   In other words, persons who have research doctorates are more likely to receive research funding, particularly as a primary investigator and are more likely to attain a tenure-track academic position than the person with the professional doctorate (AOTA, 2007) and these facts are critical when considering which doctorate to pursue and which will help you achieve your long-term goals.  Let's start with further understanding of differences and similarities of the professional and research doctoral degrees:

Clinical or Professional Doctorates: These doctorates are focused in a specific profession and while some component of scholarly research is usually a part of the course of study, the emphasis is towards the profession itself or towards advanced clinical skills.  “The professional doctorate is a product of its time introduced for the purpose of developing and improving clinical practice.” (Ellis, 2007).  Professional Doctorates include (but are not limited to): MD (medical doctorate which most physicians have) or DO (doctorate in osteopathy), DN (doctorate in nursing), DBA (doctorate of business administration), JD (juris doctorate - a graduate degree in law), EdD or DEd (education doctorate), DPS (doctorate of professional studies), DPT (doctorate in physical therapy), OTD* or Dr.OT (occupational therapy doctorate), DAu (doctorate in audiology), etc.  
*Special Note:  At this time, there are two kinds of professional doctorates in OT - an entry-level OTD, which is as it states, an entry-level doctorate that may be equated to a DPT; these students will often have an undergraduate or master’s degree in a related field and then enroll in the entry-level OTD program to be an occupational therapy practitioner.  The other is a post-professional OTD or Dr.OT; this doctorate is for practicing occupational therapist seeking an advanced degree in the field of occupational therapy.  These programs will often require the student to have either an undergraduate degree in OT and a post-professional master's in OT or a related field OR an entry-level master's degree in OT.  For purposes of this post, I’ll be primarily addressing the post-professional OTD/Dr.OT.

  • Professional doctorates are generally not considered a 'terminal degree' or the highest degree offered in a field and the scholarship (research and publication) for a clinical doctorate is generally minimal.  
  • The scholarship at the professional doctoral level is not as rigorous or as structured as research doctorates.  Professional doctorate students may complete a small study that may be independently generated (meaning the idea for the study was developed by the student) or more likely is one part of a line of research developed by the doctoral student's research advisor.  In some professional doctoral programs, a small group of students will jointly conduct a research study and write a joint dissertation (i.e.: DPT).
  • Depending on the university, some professional doctorates require a dissertation (i.e.: EdD/DEd) and some do not (i.e.:  MD or JD).  Some programs require a publication based on some type of study but these are not an in-depth body of research or structured as a thesis or dissertation.  
  • This research may or may not be published in a peer-reviewed journal or it may simply languish in an obscure library with other unpublished dissertations.
  • Persons who have a professional doctorate may eventually work in academia but more likely as clinical faculty; in academia this is usually a lower ranking (and usually lower paying) faculty position and most clinical positions are non-tenure track.
  • Those who have a professional doctorate are far more likely to achieve senior-level positions, administrative/management positions, policy-making or clinical research positions in healthcare settings.
  • Persons with professional doctorates are likely to experience an increase in pay commensurate with the usually higher pay scale associated with the senior-level positions, administrative/management positions, policy-making or clinical research positions. 

Research Doctorates:  Research doctorates are the in a discipline or field as opposed to a profession.  In the US research doctorates are considered the highest degree possible within the field and are sometimes called a 'terminal' degree.  The nature and purpose of the research doctorate is to prepare students for a lifetime of intellectual inquiry, creative scholarship and research, a much broader purpose than the professional doctorate.  Research doctoral degrees in the US typically include the PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) and the ScD or DSc (Doctor of Science).  The purpose of the PhD degree is to develop graduates who are independent researchers and are knowledgeable in a specific area of study.” (AOTA, 2007).  While the PhD is broader in scope, the ScD/DSc is somewhat more focused on applied science such as audiology, occupations, etc.  Other less commonly known research degrees include: DCJ (Doctor of Canon Law), DrPH or DPH (Doctor of Public Health), DA (Doctor of Arts), etc.; the status of these research doctorates in academic standing is usually on par with PhDs and ScD/DSc’s but external funding for research may vary in comparison to the PhD/ScD/DSc.

  • Research doctorates are considered a 'terminal degree' or the highest degree offered in a field and the scholarship (research and publication) for a research doctorate is generally rigorous.  
  • The scholarship at the research doctoral level is rigorous with most research doctoral candidates completing an extensive literature review and complete several studies or several components of a large study that are usually independently generated (meaning the idea for the study was developed by the doctoral candidate).   Sometimes the candidate may develop a body of knowledge/research that is part of a broad line of research by the doctoral student's dissertation chair or that is part of the doctoral program’s mission (i.e.: further development of a frame of reference or a theory). 
  • Research doctorates require a dissertation and usually publication of at least part or all of the dissertation in peer-reviewed venues.  
  • Persons who have a research doctorate are very likely to work in academia as tenure-track professors with expectations of continued scholarship (research and publication) as well as teaching responsibilities and supervision of graduate research. 
  • Despite the advanced training for research doctorates, sadly this status does not equate to higher pay.  In allied health and medical professions in particular, academia usually pays much less than clinical practice.

Ultimately, the post-professional degree you choose should be based on your long-term goals and current resources.  Questions to consider:
  • What do you want to be doing in 5, 10 or 20 years from now?  If you see yourself primarily in clinical practice with maybe some teaching responsibility and/or clinical research, the OTD/Dr.OT is probably ideal for you.  If you see yourself in academia and embarking on a career path as a scholar with some clinical practice (few OTs willingly give up working within the profession), then a research doctorate is probably ideal for you.
  • What are your current resources?  Any doctoral program requires money and unfortunately very few programs offer graduate scholarships or fellowships.  Also keep in mind that many doctoral programs are at private universities and that usually equates to a higher cost for that doctorate.  Many graduate students will need to take out student loans to pay for this education.  Be sure that you’ll be able to cover the loan payments once you’ve completed the degree as either a clinician or as an academic (remember that academics often make less than their clinic counterparts).  Other resources include family/home support.  Even if you pursue the doctoral degree on a part-time basis, it will still take up a MAJOR chunk of your time.  Plan that you will need to read the equivalence of at least 1-2 books per course per week PLUS complete various assignments and papers.  Please do not think that your doctoral studies (either the professional or the research doctorate) can be done after you put the kids to bed each night.  I cannot tell you how many doctoral students think that it can be done this way, only to realize that they sacrificed their sleep and their health to the point that they cannot work or study effectively or participate fully in family life.  These are not insurmountable obstacles, however; determine your priorities and make creative adjustments.  For instance, you may choose to work part-time and then dedicate the rest of your ‘work’ week for your doctoral work.  You could also choose to delegate all housekeeping duties to others or hire this work out.  At one point in my doctoral work (particularly once I began the dissertation), I hired someone to go to the grocery store and hired a cleaning lady; I even hired a personal chef for a brief period of time!  I also left town (and stayed in timeshares or friends’ empty homes) for 1-3 weeks at a time just to have dedicated time to write.  At this point in my career, I was Lead Therapist for a school district, supervising 14 OTs and OTAs and for some reason, if my staff knew I was in town, they would call to “just ask a quick question” but if they knew I was out of town, they only called in emergencies.  ;)  So, be realistic about your resources, be creative with your resources and understand that your goal is NOT to be Superwoman but to earn your doctoral degree.

Having addressed and dissected the differences between professional and research doctorates and discussed the pros and cons of doctoral degrees, you may feel a bit daunted by the process but in the experience of myself and my colleagues, despite the incredibly hard work that it takes to achieve a doctorate, we are happy that we did so.  I hope this post has been helpful to you as you explore whether a doctoral degree is right for you and which course of study will help you achieve your long-term goals.  For more information on specific programs that offer doctoral programs for occupational therapy, please click on the following .pdf document:

Do share your experiences or thoughts by commenting on this post below. 

American Occupational Therapy Association Commission on Education. (2007).  A Descriptive review of occupational therapy education.  American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 61(6): 672-677.

Morley M, Petty NJ (2010)Professional doctorate: Combining professional practice with scholarly inquiry. British Journal of Occupational Therapy, 73(4), 186-188.

Reeves, P. Hardy, M. & Stewart-Lord, A. (2007).  Thinking about a PhD?  Synergy. Faversham.  November. 26-29.

Website Bibliography:

© 2010 DeLana Honaker, PhD, OTR

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