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Easy Doctorates? Are All Ph.D.s Created Equal?

by Tamar Snyder

That's the debate currently raging in the academic world as more and more professionals are assuming the title “doctor.”

While the designation “Ph.D.” refers specifically to the traditional doctor of philosophy, there are now more than 30 distinct professional doctoral degree programs. Several of these programs have been around for ages in fields like medicine (MD), law (JD), and dentistry (D.D.S.). In recent years, however, the number of professional doctorates has mushroomed, with such degree programs springing up in fields like nursing (DNP), audiology (Au.D.), pharmacy (PharmD.), and physical therapy (D.P.T.).

Unlike Ph.D.s, which emphasize original research and academic scholarship, professional doctorates focus on training competent professionals–not scholars. Also known as clinical doctorates, these programs often take less time to complete and generally do not require a major research project.

According to a 2006 report by a committee of the North Central Association of Colleges (NCA) and Schools’ Higher Learning Commission, however, there’s a lack of consistency among various professional doctoral degree programs in terms of program length, content, and rigor.

“Almost overnight, baccalaureate programs were transferred into doctorate programs,” says Steven Crow, president of The Higher Learning Commission of NCA. “It’s an ongoing struggle trying to figure out whether they added to the master’s program or simply replaced it.”

The NCA established a task force in 2005 to study the emergence of professional doctorates and determine eight to 10 common hallmarks necessary for accreditation. These may include set length and content of the programs, as well as the number of hours of practice required.

Establishing these markers is no easy feat, though. “With this many degrees, it’s hard to suddenly say, 'Now there’s a certain way the degrees need to look,'” says Crow. “Everyone is a little resistant to commonality. But in order for the degrees to be credible in the long run, they must share common characteristics.”

But until then, with a dearth of standards to define the professional doctorate, is doctoral education being cheapened? Are professional doctorates merely “Ph.D .s Lite”?

Filling an economic need
For Richard Adkisson, professional doctorates offer a real-world advantage.

“I don’t think professional doctorates per se cheapen doctoral education,” says Adkisson, director of New Mexico State University’s (NMSU) recently created professional doctoral program in economic development. “What threatens the education process at any level is that, with the emergence of the Internet, some have come to think of delivering degrees–and not necessarily education–as a for-profit activity.”

NMSU’s doctoral program in economic development is being designed to educate practitioners already working in the field, rather than train academics. Adkisson hopes that incoming students (many of whom already hold master’s degrees) beginning the three-year program this fall will discover new ideas and strategies for implementing economic development projects to help improve the economy in New Mexico and beyond. Since most will already have work experience, they will also be able to identify real-world economic development problems that can then be studied in an academic environment.

The Doctor of Economic Development is not a substitute for a Ph.D.–it serves a different purpose, Adkisson stresses. “If someone was trying to decide between our Doctor of Economic Development and a Ph.D. in economics, I would first ask what his or her career goals are,” he says. “If the goal is to join the faculty of a university, I would encourage him or her to pursue the Ph.D. If the goal is to learn more about the economic development process and the analytical tools used in economic development so that he or she could do a better job of selecting projects, I would encourage him or her to choose the Doctor of Economic Development degree.”

Although the program is not a distance education program, NMSU will offer “flexible delivery,” allowing mid-career students working full-time to take advantage of face-to-face courses in non-standard times and places.

Ticket to entry-level therapy job
In certain fields, including the health sciences, a professional doctorate is becoming less of a status symbol and more of a job requirement. This is especially true of pharmacy, audiology, physical therapy, and occupational therapy.

Many professional organizations—including pharmacy, physical therapy, and audiology –recommend raising entry-level programs to the doctoral level, in part because hospitals no longer have the time or resources to mentor therapists. The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) envisions that, by 2020, all physical therapy will be provided by Doctors of Physical Therapy (D.P.T.). Although the organization has yet to make a statement regarding when educational programs will be required to institute clinical doctorates, “more than 85 percent [of programs] already have,” says Mary Jane Harris, APTA director.

The D.P.T. helps physical therapists keep up with advances in healthcare delivery and provides them with additional knowledge and skills, including the ability to screen clients for medical referral. “In 42 states, it’s legal to come into physical therapy off the street, having never seen a physician,” Harris says. “The extra training assists therapists in making sure that what they’re treating is not something a physician needs to treat.”

Although some D.P.T. programs require students to complete more than the minimum 30 full-time weeks of clinical work, most D.P.T. programs must currently meet the same criteria as master’s programs to be accredited. This has resulted in a slight decrease in enrollment in master’s programs, as students realize that for almost the same amount of work, they can earn a doctorate–which may yield perks like a better job and a higher salary. That doesn’t bother Harris, though. “Doctorates are the wave of the future,” she says. “Eventually, master’s programs may be phased out.”

When a doctor is really a nurse
Doris Young holds two doctoral degrees. Upon earning a doctorate in healthcare ministry from the Graduate Theological Foundation in South Bend, Indiana, she decided to pursue a second doctorate–this time a Ph.D. But Young is no direction-challenged lifelong student; she’s worked as a nurse in a hospital for 25 years and was eventually promoted to director of surgical services. But after a mini-breakdown as a result of burnout, she put her doctoral degrees to use by becoming a speaker and consultant whose goal is to “cure” nurse burnout. So why did she pursue that second doctorate? “People recognize a Ph.D. as having a certain level of expert knowledge,” she says.

As the demand for registered nurses increases–nursing will create the second-largest number of new jobs among all occupations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics–several new nursing programs have opened their doors. And just as nurses are feared to be in short supply in the future, so is nursing faculty. That’s one reason why many doctoral programs are on the rise, specifically in nursing.

But there’s also an increased demand for highly trained nurses in several specialty areas.
Columbia University School of Nursing led the way in 2004, when it became the first school in the United States to offer a Doctorate in Nursing Practice (DrNP) degree. This clinically based, 30-credit, doctoral program requires a one-year, full-time residency as well as a portfolio of case studies and published research articles. It is open to registered nurses who already hold a master’s degree in advanced nursing practice from an accredited program. “It’s an advanced way of treating patients, with complex case studies, a full-year residency, and 11 core competencies,” says Mary O’Neil Mundinger, DrPH and dean of Columbia’s nursing school.
At the same time, Columbia is currently planning to disband its Doctorate of Nursing Science program and turn it into a Ph.D. in Nursing. “We expect it within the next year,” she says.

This move is in line with the American Association of Colleges of Nurses statement that master’s programs in nursing should be phased out by the year 2015, and all advanced nursing practice should be completed at the doctoral level.

But Mundinger says, “I’m not sure that’s wise,” noting that this is not an issue of quality. She was the lead author of a 2000 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicating that primary care nurses with master’s degrees provide equivalent care to nurses with doctorates. “If we require four additional years of study above the baccalaureate degree, we’ll limit who can afford to go into these roles.” Students who opt to earn a doctorate to be able to handle caring for older patients, those with chronic conditions, and the acutely ill should be rewarded for the extra work, she says.

Professional doctorates in the health care field don’t seem to be going away anytime soon. “We’re getting to the point where everyone who treats a patient will soon be referred to as ‘doctor,’” says Crow.

But in order for these professional doctoral programs to gain widespread recognition of credibility–similar to a Ph.D., JD, MD, or DDS–these programs will need to conform to some sort of litmus test of consistency, Crow stresses. They will also need to prove that they are training students to conduct more research and cultivate skills above the master’s level. The value of a doctorate depends on it.

Article Source: © 2006 Classes USA, Inc. All rights reserved.

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