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Do Most Doctoral Programs Require a Thesis?

Knowing if a doctoral program requires a thesis can be challenging. Not all schools publicly post graduation requirements. Some academic fields require dissertations for certain career paths, while other fields rarely see any graduates complete a thesis. Before trying to decide on a graduate school, students should consider their future career path and the type of degree they’ll need for their long-term goals.

Related resource: 20 Best Online Schools for Doctorate Degrees

Allied Health Doctoral Degrees

Fifty years ago, pharmacists dispensed medication with only a bachelor’s degree. Today, these healthcare professionals complete a Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD) degree before working independently, but they don’t complete a thesis as part of their doctoral program. Instead, PharmD training offers hands-on practice and in-depth scientific education. Many other healthcare fields, such as nursing, physical therapy, psychology, audiology, and optometry, either require or will soon require all newly licensed healthcare providers to obtain doctoral degrees. However, only a handful of research-oriented graduate schools will require these healthcare professionals to complete a doctoral dissertation. Future clinical practitioners will continue to focus on putting research into practice through patient care.

Research-Based Doctoral Degrees

A Doctor of Philosophy degree, or PhD, is deceptively named. Students can obtain a PhD in almost any field, not just philosophy. However, you cannot earn a PhD without completing a thesis because this doctoral degree is heavily oriented towards research. PhD students must spend several years creating, conducting and analyzing a major research project intended to advance the field of knowledge in their chosen specialty. Some programs even require students to publish articles in peer-reviewed journals before receiving their degrees. The demanding nature of taking advanced courses, teaching undergraduate classes and completing a thesis may explain why just over half of PhD students actually complete their degree according to U. S. News and World Report.

Professional Degrees

Do attorneys, physicians, and other professionals complete a thesis? No. These fields rely on tests, like the bar exam for attorneys and the United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE) for physicians. Instead of completing a doctoral dissertation, students in professional graduate programs spend months studying full-time for intensive licensing tests. These tests often have similar failure rates as traditional PhD programs. For example, in 2018, about 54 percent of people taking the bar exam passed, according to the The Bar Examiner.

Value of a Thesis

Completing a doctoral dissertation shows tenacity, research skills and a love for academia. In some fields, like history or medical research, those traits are almost mandatory for career advancement. Plus, dissertations are often archived in a university’s library, meaning future generations of scholars may read today’s research projects. While completing a thesis is valuable, it’s not always practical, which is why many fields no longer require multi-year research projects to earn a doctoral degree.

In general, future researchers and academics should try to complete at least one thesis. Many students with these career guilds often complete major research projects during their undergraduate studies, then write a master’s thesis before entering a PhD program and completing a dissertation. By contrast, students looking for a professional or clinical career will need to pass challenging exams, but their doctoral programs will not require a thesis.