A Persnickety Point About Doctorates

Warning: this is a pedantic, if brief, attempt to clarify something about which you probably do not care but should.

There are four distinct types of doctorates:

  1. Academic (PhD/DPhil)
  2. Professional (DMin, PsyD, DBA)
  3. Honorary (LLD, LittD)
  4. Diploma Mill (PhD)

In the USA the distinction between these is not always observed. Further, the selling of doctorates (types 3 and 4) has become a lucrative business as schools cash in on the desire for quick credibility. If, however, some distinction between these is not observed, the credibility for sale will lose its value just as currency loses its value during when inflated. E.g., a lunch in downtown Caracas costs north of 600,000 Bolivars (= about $2.60). That is hyper-inflation. A degree is a sort of intellectual or professional currency.

I was reminded of this question by a podcast by Mike Rowe, “Just What the Doctor Ordered” (#105 of The Way I Heard It; July 24, 2018), in which he told the story of the writer and poet Maya Angelou (1928–2014), who was awarded numerous honorary doctorates and an endowed professorship in American Studies at Wake Forrest University. In the episode, Rowe, who produces an outstanding podcast, repeatedly spoke of an “honorary PhD,” which, of course, was not correct. I told you that this post was pedantic.

An academic doctorate, a PhD or its equivalent is an earned degree granted in recognition of the completion of coursework capped off with an original piece of research which meets academic standards and is judged to make a contribution to a field of learning. Typically, in the USA (and elsewhere) it takes about 5 years of full-time study and research to earn a PhD. Along the way a PhD candidate earns at least one MA and (usually) passes some sort of comprehensive examination before beginning the dissertation (or thesis) phase of their program. That dissertation must pass muster with an advisor (or a committee of advisors) and then must be judged by an external examiner (or committee) and the candidate must sustain a defense. A PhD dissertation is expected to work in original languages and some programs (e.g., in the Netherlands) even require the candidate to publish the work. A good PhD program will have a relatively high “wash out” rate, i.e., a significant percentage of those who enter the program will not finish. It is meant to weed out those who are not capable of doing the work. Thus, an earned PhD from a serious university is supposed to signify a certain degree of accomplishment and skill. Properly understood a PhD is an academic degree and thus, ordinarily, the phrase “Academic PhD” is oxymoronic but necessary in this context.

A professional doctorate is not expected to meet the same standards. This class of degree began to emerge in the 1980s as a kind of continuing education for professionals. The most ubiquitous form of professional doctorate may be the DMin or Doctor of Ministry degree. At the outset it was understood that the professional doctorate was not to be regarded as the equivalent of the PhD. I have been involved two different professional doctorate programs and it is clear that they operated on a different basis, had different admission standards, different goals. The work done was not expected to be original research in original sources. The focus of these projects was practical rather than academic. They are not held to the same academic standards. In recent years, however, I have noticed those with professional doctorates using the honorific title, doctor. In view of the differences between the standards and the nature of the programs, it used to be considered inappropriate for holders of professional doctorates to use the honorific.

We might also continue to ponder David Wells 1992 critique of the “DMinization” of ministry:

In the seventies many seminaries were hard pressed financially but now had, in the D.Min., a lucrative product to sell. At the same time, many ministers were hard pressed psychologically as they sensed their growing marginalization in society, the decline of their status, and the corresponding loss of power and influence. The shotgun marriage was consummated (p. 180).

Why did pastors feel the need to add to their credibility by obtaining a professional doctorate? Continuing education is a fine thing and recognizing that with a professional doctorate may be necessary—how many elders are going to support their pastor’s ongoing education if there is no degree at the end of the process? Perhaps this gets us to a fundamental question? Is the ministry inherently worthy? We used to think so. As late as the early 20th century, the credentials of the minister rested on his ordination and his office: VDM (Verbi Dei Minister), Minister of the Word of God. Cultures change and faithful pastors are swimming hard to keep up and if a professional doctorates help them, that is a good thing but we ought to recognize some difference between an earned degree and a professional degree just as we have between an earned degree and an honorary degree.

Honorary doctorates are given in recognition of service, in recognition of an outstanding contribution to an institution or field of endeavor or in recognition for one’s life’s work. They take a few forms but in the USA LittD stands for “Doctor of Humane Letters” and the like. As in the case of professional degrees, holders of honorary degrees are not normally entitled to use the honorific doctor. There are cultural and institutional exceptions. As long as I have been aware of him J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937) has been known as Doctor Machen. According to Princeton Seminary “J. Gresham Machen also received honorary doctorates from Hampden-Sidney College (1921) and Wheaton College (1928).” Certainly Machen’s Origin of Paul’s Religion (1921) was superior to most PhD dissertations I have read and quite worthy of a PhD but the PhD did not play the same role in the academy before World War II that it did after. E.g., C. S. Lewis did not have a PhD nor did John Murray. It is a little ironic that more than a few people have earned PhDs writing about Lewis and Murray, who never needed one. It was probably not until the degree inflation of the 1960s and 70s that the PhD became essential to an academic career.

The last category is the most problematic and the most sensitive. There are institutions that realize the market value of the PhD. They  know that busy Americans are more willing to pay for a degree than to earn one. Thus, these diploma mills will sell a PhD. How does one know if someone is trading on a diploma mill PhD? Such businesses are almost always unaccredited, i.e., they are unaccountable to any outside agency (e.g., a regional or national accreditation agency) to oversee academic standards, libraries and research facilities, and faculties. This category can be messy too. There are instances where good people, who have done good work in their careers, have taken this shortcut—no names please. It is messy because there were occasions (usually pre-World War II) when a school might recognize the a piece of research by of one of their graduates by granting him a PhD. Some unaccredited schools have done this sort of thing in the modern period. Still, generally, a PhD granted by an unaccredited school, even if some sort of written project was submitted (e.g., one “dissertation” I read was an average 30 page term paper), is not playing by the same rules or adhering to the same standards as an academic PhD earned from an accredited university or graduate school. In too many cases, diploma mills simply award PhDs for cash. In a completely unrelated matter, I am still searching for the learned critique of “S. Scott Clark” (whoever that is) on the distinction between law and gospel.

So, caveat lector, let the reader beware. Simply because someone calls himself “doctor” does not mean that he has run the same gauntlet or done the same quality of work as those with a PhD earned from an accredited university or graduate school.

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. Things get even more confusing abroad. In Italy, if you have a degree of any kind you are by law a doctor.

  2. I believe the order is doctor of theology then doctor of philosophy then jurisdiction doctor or J.D. according to the ancient protocol. I may have Ph.D and Th.D reversed but those are the big three. Johnny come lately science and engineering degrees did not exist and doctor of medicine was the equivalent of doctor of vodoo

  3. The professional degree distinction gets muddy once you add the MD and EDD. The problem is that there is no standard. There is only convention.

    • Jeremiah,

      Technically, an MDiv is a professional degree but it is true that the quality of the degree varies dramatically. MD is much more demanding professional degree than most MDiv degrees and I would stack top notch MDiv (that requires Greek and Hebrew and serious work) against any EdD or PsyD.

      Standards? If by that you mean objective, universally accepted standards? Perhaps but let’s clarify by distinguishing masters level degrees from doctoral.

  4. In an otherwise useful, informative essay I would strongly disagree with your assertion that “A good PhD program will have a relatively high “wash out” rate.” A high dropout/failure rate is, to me, a sign of (A) an incompetent admissions committee and/or (B) a department with a lot of freshman-level classes that need very cheap teachers, with those teachers to be tossed aside after a couple years.

    • Don,

      Any program where most every one completes the program is, in my view, probably a weak program. The admissions people can screen until they are blue in the face but no one but the student and his advisors knows (and perhaps only the student really knows) whether the student will be willing to undergo the grueling, lonely, journey of the PhD dissertation.

      The screening process can determine who has the ability to do the work academically but it cannot determine who will trudge off the the library day after day, who will track down obscure resources or pull a book of the shelf to find a hidden manuscript in an ancient library. That can only be seen over time.

      Over the years I have seen lots of very bright, very able people fail (and some mediocre people such as I succeed) because of hard work. Some aren’t willing to do it and some are.

      My analogy would be the SEALS. They have a very high washout rate. Do we fault the admissions program? No. Who knows who will ring the bell or who will persevere until they do? A good PhD program isn’t quite the SEALs but it should be quite challenging.

    • Certainly it depends on what one thinks a “high” wash-out rate is. Besides the workload, there may be changing family situations, better job offers that come along, etc. But above some threshold, I doubt that a higher wash-out rate equates to a better program.

      On the other hand, if you’re reacting to some idea that the wash-out rate ought to be zero percent, then I agree with you.

      What I was mainly commenting on is the intent of the department. Of the few graduate programs I’m much familiar with, there are some who said they wouldn’t admit anyone, whom they didn’t expect could succeed. And there are others (think huge state schools) which have the reputation of admitting more grad students than they can handle, just so they can use a certain percentage as teaching assistants for a couple years and then dismiss them with a terminal masters.

  5. Dear Clark,

    The following scholars had honorary doctoral degrees as far as can be determined; yet their influence is incalculable.

    A. T. ROBERTSON, M.A., D.D., LL.D., LITT.D.
    Professor of Interpretation of the New Testament in the
    Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
    Louisville, Ky.

    J. B. LIGHTFOOT, D.D., D.C.L., LL.D.



    Master of University College, Durham; formerly Fellow and Senior Tutor
    Trinity College, Oxford.

    W. M. RAMSAY, D.C.L., LL.D.

    Now, both Lightfoot and Ramsay had a D.C.L. (Doctorate of Classical Literature). Whether or not they are earned or honorary I do not know, but even then what influence the above have had on Biblical Scholarship.

  6. Plenty of DDs were given out in Scotland in the 19th century for other than academic reasons. There’s nothing new. In Australia the term ‘University” is a protected term which cannot be used except for accredited institutions. Of course there are degree mills, largely in the USA, that can be accessed from elsewhere. And of course one is concerned about standards in degree work at all levels. I’d say in earlier days earned degrees were more likely to be truly earned than now, and this despite the wonderful resources available via internet, particularly for those whose main field is history. The lack of precision and thoroughness in higher degrees is often evident.
    In Australia the usual minimum for a ThD/PhD is 3 years full time or six part time after a Master’s degree.
    Many factors can contribute to dropping out. Hopefully my two current PhD students will not be in that category. They are both excellent but illness, family issues etc. can always intervene.

  7. Just a quick clarification, when we hear that the old divines, Owen, Rutherford, Sibbes, etc, had D.D. degrees, that is short for “Doctor of Dentistry”, correct? And they had to pull teeth between lectures?
    (I only kid)

  8. In the UK it is comparatively uncommon to start a PhD and not to be awarded it. But such PhDs are genuinely earned to some extent. I scraped mine on the argument given in the viva that ONE of my findings had some originality, even though it was pretty minor and was only a result obtained during an investigation by myself into the methodology I was using. Otherwise I might have been consigned to a(n) MPhil. Mine was, so to speak, the dregs of PhDs actually awarded (The awarding faculty, by the way, was that of Science).

    • Jose,

      Great question. Properly, an MD is a physician. A good physician is a teacher of her patients but she is Jane Smith, MD. It’s a professional degree like the MDiv. She hasn’t earned a terminal academic degree. The modern social convention is to call physicians doctors. I don’t know when that began but it doesn’t seem likely to change and I address my physician as “Doctor” because I don’t want to irritate her.

    • Fair enough. However, your deference to your physician might show that there are different academic/social/clinical (and in some localities even legal) uses of the term “Doctor”. It might be inappropriate for your physician to use the title outside of a clinical setting, but it would also seem to be inappropriate for a PhD in economics to respond when a flight attendant asks whether there is a “doctor” on the plane. The flight attendant might be speaking imprecisely, but she is also being clear.

      • Jose,

        I agree. Context matters. Usage matters. It is also the case that physicians have a role in modern society that academic PhDs do not. As (I think) Bill Godfrey once said about his Dad many years ago, “He’s not the kind of doctor who can do anyone any good.” Academic doctors don’t dispense medicine nor are we the lab-coated priests of our time and culture. Physicians are. The culture has flipped. Physicians also have a legal authority that virtually no academic doctor does.

        My major point (that there is a discernible and genuine difference between the 4 categories of doctorates) stands, however, don’t you agree?

    • I do agree that there is a discernible and genuine difference between these 4 types of doctorates. I think that we may differ where the post seemed to imply that there is an overarching hierarchy of these types – with PhD being alone at the top. Perhaps I read too much into the post, but I felt free to quibble because the post was already self-admittedly pedantic 😉 .

    • In the UK the basic academic qualification for a physician is an MB. Someone with a(n) MD will have done some research (even if it only consists of taking blood samples, sending them to the lab, and discussing the results in a thesis).
      I don’t believe this was always necessarily the case on the Continent of Europe.

    • The minimum academic qualification for a physician in the UK is an MB (though you can be one with a simple professional qualification – Hudson Taylor was only LRCP – but his son had higher qualifications than that). Someone with an MD will have some research of some description under his belt.
      I believe this may not always have been the case on the Continent (of Europe).

  9. Dr Clark, one question that comes to mind is: what are we supposed call someone teaching at a seminary who has a D.Min degree? Most seminaries in the United States have “Practical Theology/Ministerial” courses taught by individuals who hold a D.Min rather than a PhD.

Comments are closed.