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SOHP Essentials


This section outlines various characteristics of doctoral programs and the associated research processes and resources that help to distinguish research degrees (Ph.D.) from applied degrees: DHA, DBA, EdD*, DNP, DMFT*.

The key research design differences between an applied and research degree are scope and significance. Both degree tracks require that the stated research design demonstrate scientific rigor. However, the applied degree will be limited in scope to the specific study context and the results should be significant to leaders and practitioners in the field. Research (Ph.D.) studies must have theoretical implications and make a contribution to the literature.

*Students in the EdD or DMFT program will complete a doctoral project/dissertation-in-practice via the Applied Doctoral Experience (ADE) vs completing a dissertation as part of the Doctoral Student Experience (DSE). 

The current guidelines are that a dissertation must:

  • Summarize, analyze, and integrate scholarly literature and research relevant to a topic area, focusing on developments in the area in the previous five years, and,
  • Present original research in an area related to a student’s program and specialization.

While Ph.D. dissertations demonstrate how the research contributes to theoretical development in an area, applied doctorate dissertations typically contribute to practice.

Differentiating between Doctorate Degrees

The current DSE standards include the non-negotiable requirement of every doctoral manuscript (Ph.D. or applied doctorate) to include a comprehensive, up-to-date, and critically evaluative review of the professional and scientific, peer-reviewed literature pertaining to its topic. A Ph.D. requires original ideas about a specialized topic, as well as a high degree of methodological/scientific rigor (Nelson, & Coorough, 1994). As is traditional in higher education, a Ph.D. is only going to be awarded for a piece of work that will actually make a difference to the theoretical context of the field --- the Ph.D. dissertation is a new contribution to the body of knowledge.

An applied dissertation requires the practical application of scholarship (Nelson, & Coorough,1994; Wergin, 2011). Examples of an applied investigation may include a replication study, a case study, program evaluation, or a special project (such as, for example, the creation of a curriculum, training program, clinical protocol or policy, or educational artifact), followed by an evaluation. A doctoral project for a professional degree does not have to be an original contribution to the body of knowledge that impacts the theories in the field but typically responds to a practical problem or proposed innovation (Archibald, 2010).

The fundamental differentiation between Ph.D. research programs and professional degree research programs is that the focus of the Ph.D. is to contribute new knowledge to the field. The focus of professional degree research programs is to apply theoretical knowledge to the advancement of practice in the field (solve complex problems) (Archibald, 2010; Corley & Giola 2011; Huba, Shubb & Shelley, 2006).



Archibald, D. (2010). “Breaking the mold” in the dissertation: Implementing a problem-based, decision-oriented thesis project. The Journal of Continuing Higher Education, 58(2), 99-107. 

Corley, K. G. & Giola, D. (2011). Building Theory about theory building: What constitutes a theoretical contribution? Academy of Management Review, 36(1), 12-32. 

Huba, M. Shubb, J. & Shelley, J. (2006). Recasting doctoral education in an outcomes-based framework. In P. Maki & N. Borkowski (Eds.), The assessment of doctoral education: Emerging criteria and new models for improving outcomes (239-272). Sterling VA: Stylus. 

Nelson, J.K., & Coorough, C. (1994). Content analysis of the Ph.D. versus Ed.D. dissertation. The Journal of Experimental Education, 62(2), 158-168.

Wergin, J.F. (2011). Rebooting the Ed.D.. Harvard Educational Review, 81(1), 119-140.

Contribution of New Knowledge

Contribution of New Knowledge

Differentiating scholarly contribution of new knowledge between Ph.D. and applied doctorates (e.g., DBA, Ed.D. and Psy.D.) includes two criteria to determine contribution: originality and utility.


Originality is measured by assessing whether the knowledge derived in the research has the quality of being either, "incremental" (appropriate for professional degrees such as a DBA, Ed.D. or Psy.D.) or "revelatory" (most sought-after for the Ph.D.). This means that the research adds value in such a way that it either advances our understanding of prevailing theory (incremental), or it allows us to see something that we have never seen before (revelatory).


Utility means the research must generate knowledge that is of either "scientific value" or “practical value.” Scientific value (predominate measure for Ph.D.) advances our conceptual rigor or enhances its potential for operationalization and testing, broadly. That means the scope of a project must be great enough such that it contributes to, extends, or facilitates extension, of theory. Practical value advances our ability to apply theory directly, in managerial and organizational pursuits, in education and healthcare settings, or in therapeutic or counseling settings.