Doctorate. The Doctor in Ph.D. is another Latinate, originally referring to a religious teacher or scholar. The usage for medicine came after the usage for the person holding the highest possible academic degree, but the physicians have stolen it irretrievably away. Don’t refer to yourself as Dr. Smithers in a general public setting unless you want the universal assumption to be that you’re in medicine.
Throughout this book, I’m using “doctorate” and “Ph.D.” synonymously, which is the colloquial norm but isn’t quite accurate. There are fifty or more different kinds of doctorates offered in American higher ed, clustered into two major flavors: research and professional.
A research doctorate, of which the Ph.D. is by far the most commonly conferred, indicates a person who has contributed original scholarship to her intellectual discipline(s). The dissertation is intended to investigate previously unknown phenomena, to extend the body of knowledge of her field; it must be of peer-review quality, and be judged so by members of the scholarly community beyond her own committee members. A professional doctorate is a credentialing tool that certifies a person to have sufficient knowledge and skill to legally engage in medicine, dentistry, law, and other “learned professions.” The dissertation, if there is one at all, is intended to be a work of applied knowledge or strategy, akin to a white paper.
Doctorates proliferate as professions attempt to ratchet up their expectations (and to limit the numbers of newly licensed young competitors). Architecture, for instance, has had longstanding debates about whether its professional degree should become a D. Arch rather than the current M. Arch (or in some states, B. Arch); this is only partially about presumed increases in knowledge or expectation of scholarship, and more an attempt to bridge the perceived “prestige gap” between themselves and physicians or lawyers.
The Ph.D. is the degree that will allow you to pass through the gates of academia unquestioned. Any other, and you’ll be asked for documents, have your luggage searched, go through the supplemental screening.