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The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

Is It Doctoral Degree or Doctorate Degree?

Among the many style items involved in American English, references to academic degrees remain a common source of uncertainty. Do we write doctoral degree or doctorate degree? What is the difference between a Ph.D. and an M.D., and when should the credentials appear in our writing?

We’ll address such questions to provide direction you can apply.

What Is a Doctor?

Doctor is an academic title that originates from the Latin equivalent for “teacher.” It represents someone who has earned a doctoral degree, which is the highest academic distinction awarded by a college or university. A person with a doctorate has completed coursework, exams, a dissertation, and an articulated reasoning for that dissertation.

“Doctor” has been used as an academic title in Europe since the 13th century, when the first doctoral distinctions were given. Today, the contracted Dr. or Dr also represents someone who has obtained a doctorate in a field of study; an individual can be a “doctor” without a distinction in medicine. For example, someone might earn a Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) in history or economics.

Note that doctoral degrees are further distinguished into different types as well. The following are just a few of the titles bestowed:

D.D. Divinitatis Doctor (Doctor of Divinity)
D.D.S. Doctor of Dental Surgery
D.O. Doctor of Osteopathy
D.V.M. Doctor of Veterinary Medicine
J.D. Juris Doctor (Doctor of Law)
M.D. Medicinae Doctor (Doctor of Medicine)
Ph.D. Philosophiae Doctor (Doctor of Philosophy)

In speech, we would refer to the person with a doctorate in medicine and the person with a doctorate in history as “doctor.” The distinctions “Dr.,” “M.D.,” and “Ph.D.” are not interchangeable in writing, however.

Only an individual who has earned a Doctor of Philosophy degree would be identified as having a “Ph.D.”; this person has established specialized knowledge in a particular area but typically cannot treat patients or prescribe medications. Someone who holds an “M.D.” has earned a Doctor of Medicine degree, meaning the person has completed medical school, can diagnose and treat patients, and can prescribe medications. A person can hold both an M.D. and a Ph.D.

We would not use Dr. before the names of those who hold only an honorary doctorate. We also would not continue using the title in references following the first one (e.g., Dr. Emily Branson on first mention and then Branson, Ms. Branson, or Mrs. Branson).

Doctoral and Doctorate: Placement and Address in Writing

According to The Associated Press Stylebook, if mentioning a degree is needed to establish someone’s credentials, the preferred form is to forgo an abbreviation and instead use as phrase such as Emily Branson, who has a doctorate in philosophy.

If referring to multiple individuals with a doctorate, we can revert to the abbreviation to make the content less cumbersome. The abbreviation would follow the person’s full name and be set off with a comma: Emily Branson, Ph.D.; Roger Pendleton, Ph.D.; and Len Bryant, Ph.D.

If the individual holds a doctorate in medicine or psychology, dentistry, or veterinary medicine, we would place the abbreviated title “Dr.” before the name: Dr. Anthony Fowler.

We would not spell the title before the name: Doctor Anthony Fowler would be incorrect. We also would not combine the title “Dr.” with another distinction that may have been earned: e.g., Dr. Anthony Fowler, D.D., would be incorrect.

Likewise, we would drop titles such as Mr., Mrs., and Ms. if another title is used.

Correct: Harold H. Johanssen, Ph.D.

Incorrect: Mr. Harold H. Johanssen, Ph.D.

The names of academic degrees and honors should be capitalized when they follow someone’s name, whether abbreviated or written in full:

Bryan F. Wing, Doctor of Dental Surgery

Bryan F. Wing, D.D.S.

Style for punctuation of an abbreviated degree can vary. The Chicago Manual of Style recommends omitting periods unless they are required for consistency or tradition (i.e., use PhD in most references). The Associated Press on the other hand favors retaining the periods (Ph.D.). With that being said, you can choose your treatment according to your personal preference or the style guidelines you follow.

So Is It Doctoral Degree or Doctorate Degree?

You may have noticed that we’ve been italicizing the words doctoral and doctorate in our discussion. These are all examples of how doctoral and doctorate can be applied with precision in your writing.

In being precise, you can use doctorate as the identifying noun and doctoral as the identifying adjective (descriptor) of anything that relates to a doctorate. In other words, a doctorate is a doctoral degree. A doctorate would also have included a doctoral dissertation.

The AP Stylebook recommends not using capitals for degrees expressed in general terms (doctorate, doctoral degree) but using them when capitalizing specific degrees (Doctor of Dental Surgery, Doctor of Philosophy).

AP and CMOS agree that the field of study be written in lower case except when it contains a proper noun (e.g., Ph.D. in history, Ph.D. in French).

Related Topics

Capitalization of Academic Degrees
Is It Associate Degree or Associate’s Degree?
Is It Bachelors Degree or Bachelor’s Degree?
Is It Masters Degree or Master’s Degree?

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

8 responses to “Is It Doctoral Degree or Doctorate Degree?”

  1. Jay says:

    In addition to the distinction between doctoral and doctorate, there is a difference in the pronunciation of doctoral, with emphasis on the first syllable or second syllable. Emphasis on the first syllable is more common.

  2. Julie says:

    What is the history and/or reason that jurisprudence doctorate holders have been differentiated into lawyers instead of doctors?

    • says:

      We are not experts on the matter, but our basic understanding is that “J.D.” stands out as a more-immediate identifier of qualification in law than would be conveyed by a professional title or an academic marker that recognizes achievement in medicine, science, or liberal arts, for example.

  3. Gena R. Carter, M.D. says:

    “M.D.” and “D.O.” titles apply ONLY to individuals who have successfully completed the requirements to graduate from a school of medicine or school of osteopathy. Neither title applies to individuals with doctorates in optometry, psychology, dental surgery, veterinary medicine, physician assistant, or nursing practice. Each doctorate in these other fields do involve training in medicine, in its most literal term, but they are not “MDs” or “DOs” and are definitely not interchangeable. There is a *world* of difference between the training for doctorates in medicine or osteopathy — sometimes as many as 10,000 to 25,000 hours of training, including internship, residency(-ies), and fellowship(s) — and all the other medically related doctorates listed above. Some of the non-physician doctorates can be granted after 300 to 600 hours of study. Some of these non-physician doctorates can also be obtained online.

  4. Dorothy says:

    How would you engrave something if the person has earned a Doctorate degree in education? Would it be Dr. Susan Smith or Dr Susan Smith?

    • says:

      There are no rules specifically for engraving; however, a period is used with the title Dr. in formal writing.

  5. Hersh Mehta says:

    My understanding of difference between Doctoral vs Doctorate is: Last year Mr. Steve Jones was a doctoral candidate, who completed all requirements this year and obtained his Doctorate degree. Is this a correct difference/distinction?

    • says:

      The word doctoral is an adjective; doctorate is a noun. Therefore, we would rewrite your sentence as follows:

      Last year Mr. Steve Jones was a doctoral candidate who completed all requirements this year and obtained his doctorate.

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