Going to school to earn a doctoral degree is a huge endeavor. Engineering doctoral students must also make a huge decision about which type of doctorate degree they will pursue. There is the traditional Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree to consider, but there is also the Doctor of Engineering degree, also called the EngD or DEng degree.

As you may expect, there are several similarities between the EngD and PhD paths. Both of these degrees are considered terminal degrees, which means that they are the highest level of academic study available. Either the Ph.D. or the D.Eng. can help you advance your engineering career, but the differences between these two doctoral degree programs are significant. If you choose the Doctor of Engineering degree over the Ph.D. program, some of the benefits you will receive include a stronger focus on practical application in professional engineering practice, more extensive preparation for industry job opportunities and differences in when in their careers students undertake doctoral study and how long it takes to earn their degrees.

What Is a Doctor of Engineering Degree?

Just about everyone has heard of the PhD, the type of doctoral degree that is, to most people, more recognizable than any other doctorate besides the ones granted to physicians by medical schools. The PhD is a type of doctorate that is awarded in all kinds of fields, from science and math to history, English and education. A PhD is traditionally a research-focused degree, although not all PhD holders go on to work in academic research.

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The Doctor of Engineering degree is less well-known than the PhD, but it’s still a good option to consider for many engineers. EngD degrees are professional-focused, rather than research-focused, areas of doctoral-level study. As such, they emphasize applied engineering knowledge and research over basic research meant primarily to advance knowledge of the field. Generally, Doctor of Engineering degree programs are intended for engineering practitioners who want to advance their skills in industry work rather than preparing for opportunities in academia.

All in all, 10,476 students earned some sort of doctorate in an engineering discipline in 2020, according to the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics

Doctor of Engineering vs. PhD Degree Programs

When pursuing either a Doctor of Engineering or a PhD in engineering degree, you will undertake challenging coursework that delves deep into an engineering discipline and develop your skills in conducting engineering research. However, there’s no question that these degrees have major differences, particularly in their areas of focus, the job opportunities for which they prepare graduates and the time it takes to earn the doctorate degree.

Professional vs. Research Focus

The most critical difference between the Doctor of Engineering and Doctor of Philosophy degrees is that the EngD is a professional degree, while the PhD is a research degree. A traditional Doctor of Philosophy focuses on engineering theory and scholarship, heavily emphasizing original research work that can take years. A professional doctorate, sometimes called an applied doctorate, focuses on developing specialized skills for practical application in the engineering workforce.

EngD degree programs are sometimes offered in different areas of specialization. For example, if you want to move up into a leadership position, you might choose to earn a Doctor of Engineering degree in engineering management. A Doctor of Engineering in manufacturing can be beneficial if you are one of the more than 578,000 engineers working in the manufacturing industry, which is the top employer of engineers, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported. You could also seek a Doctor of Engineering degree in an engineering discipline such as biomedical, civil, electrical, chemical or mechanical engineering, just as you would typically pursue a PhD in a particular branch of engineering.

Any professional doctorate in engineering degree will focus on analyzing and applying research and theory to solve real-world industry problems. That isn’t to say that students in a Doctor of Engineering program get out of doing research. In fact, depending on your engineering school, you might need to submit a dissertation that presents original research for your EngD degree just as you would for a traditional PhD degree. However, the outcome of earning an EngD degree isn’t preparation for a career in theoretical research and academia but rather the cultivation of technical leadership skills.

Some Doctor of Engineering programs culminate in a portfolio that consists of the students’ plans, prototypes, user manuals, computer simulations and patent applications. This engineering portfolio can be used to demonstrate your skills and vision to potential employers or, if you aspire to launch your own startup, to investors. 

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IMAGE SOURCE: Pixabay, public domain

Job Opportunities Outside of Academia

Historically, Ph.D. degrees in engineering were meant for engineers who were seeking tenure-track academic or industrial research careers. Engineers working in private industry and the corporate sector were the ones who would pursue a Doctor of Engineering degree. This terminal degree could potentially allow engineers to teach at the college level, but more typically, it prepared them for advancement to highly technical engineering practice roles or leadership opportunities.

Now, though, the differences between a professional doctorate and a Ph.D. in terms of career outcomes are not as clear-cut. Some PhD graduates work in the private sector, and some colleges and universities hire candidates with an EngD degree for academic research and teaching roles. This overlap in career opportunities shows that both doctoral degree paths in engineering are decently versatile. It also makes it easier for prospective doctoral students to decide whether they want to pursue a PhD or an EngD without having to worry that choosing the “wrong” educational path could limit their career options too much.

Generally, though, if conducting new research is what most appeals to you, the Ph.D. is the more appropriate career path, while students eager to move up in industry roles find the Doctor of Engineering degree to be more beneficial. The EngD degree is a good choice when you want to develop advanced technical skills and knowledge in a specialized area that would put you in a senior-level role. You can also use this education to cultivate the leadership skills necessary for high-ranking managerial positions in engineering, such as engineering director or engineering program manager.

Another distinction between the two degree paths is the source of research funding. Ph.D. projects are often funded by grants, while an industry or public sector organization might provide the funding for research done by Doctor of Engineering students.

Differences in Timing and Duration of Degree

The time it takes a student to earn a degree, and the time when an engineer begins his or her doctoral studies, also differentiate the EngD from the PhD degree. Generally, a professional doctorate degree in engineering takes at least three years of study—but still significantly less time than a PhD program takes.

While PhD programs are often structured to take three to five years to complete, they can also take longer. In fact, CBS News reported that the average doctoral student takes more than eight years to complete their PhD degree, and just 57 percent of PhD students will complete their doctoral studies within 10 years. Those who don’t manage to finish their PhD degree during this timeframe frequently drop out of school without receiving their degree, often with nothing to show for their many years of study and effort.

A shorter timeline to earning a degree does more than improve your odds of actually finishing the program as planned. Getting your degree in fewer semesters can save you the costs of additional tuition and fees, which can quickly add up to thousands—and potentially, tens of thousands—of dollars. It also allows you to start putting your doctoral education to work sooner, which means you start recouping on your investment in an advanced education earlier. Aside from the costs of actually going to school, there is an opportunity cost from being out of the workforce, especially if you plan to work in industry rather than academia. Shortening the time you’re in school can decrease this opportunity cost.

The time it takes to get your degree isn’t the only difference pertaining to the timing involved in earning a doctorate in engineering. There are also distinctions in the age and career level at which students typically begin working toward their EngD vs. their PhD. Generally, students pursuing a traditional Ph.D. degree often start their graduate coursework early in their careers. This typically means pushing back their entry into the workforce by several years. Students in a Doctor of Engineering program are often mid-career industry practitioners. As such, these doctoral students have a good deal of work experience under their belts already. Often, students pursuing a professional Doctor of Engineering degree are using graduate school to help them advance to senior-level roles.

On average, PhD students who start their degrees by age 25 are 33 by the time they graduate, and they typically have comparably little work experience outside of school. On the other hand, EngD students are often significantly older when they start working toward their doctorate, but as mid-career professionals, they bring plenty of work experience with them. Thus, a newly enrolled EngD student might be older than PhD graduates in their field, but they are still likely to spend less time in school overall and have more work experience.

The length of time it takes to earn your doctoral degree matters in part because so many students who begin pursuing a doctorate degree in engineering never complete their studies, according to U.S. News & World Report.

What to Expect From Doctorate of Engineering Curricula

As a doctoral student in engineering, you will take some of the most challenging upper-level classes available at a university. The exact curriculum you complete will vary depending on the school you enroll in and the discipline of engineering you choose to study at the doctoral level. Since doctoral program curricula often allow for considerable specialization and customization, the exact blend of classes you take may be unique to you.

A student pursuing a Doctor of Engineering Management degree, for example, might take classes in entrepreneurship and technology, logistics planning, research formulation for engineering management, technology commercialization, data analysis in engineering, applied optimization modeling and uncertainty analysis in engineering and cost engineering. Students pursuing a Doctor of Engineering in Systems Engineering might study the foundations of systems engineering, systems engineering processes, leadership and innovation in systems engineering, engineering project and program management and engineering risk analysis. Beyond their mandatory core coursework, though, these students may choose technical electives and depth or concentration courses that match their interests in areas ranging from cybersecurity to the grid integration of wind power systems.

Lessons that take place in a classroom or laboratory only make up part of the work that constitutes a Doctor of Engineering curriculum. Generally, students in these programs will have some opportunity to practice applying what they have learned in areas of praxis research or in the form of a professional internship experience. The student typically chooses the research area of their praxis, working in conjunction with an advisor, and then devotes considerable time and effort—though usually not on the same level as you might encounter in a PhD program—to conducting this research. Among Doctor of Engineering degree programs that require an internship instead of praxis research, the internship may be lengthy, often taking up to a year to complete. Naturally, the coursework you complete in the classroom and the lab and the work you do in research or a professional internship should fit together neatly for you to gain the full benefit of the Doctor of Engineering education and experience.

Whether you need a master’s degree or can jump straight to doctoral studies from your bachelor’s degree depends on different institutions, not only EngD vs. PhD programs. Some schools offer programs that follow both structures. Generally, a Doctor of Engineering degree program that accepts master’s degree students expects these applicants to have already completed graduate-level technical elective coursework, while programs that pick up where bachelor’s degrees leave off include this coursework. Keep this difference in mind when comparing the credit requirements and target graduation time between different Doctor of Engineering programs. A shorter EngD degree program is likely to require students to already hold a master’s degree, which means that you may be looking at another one to two years of study—and potentially even more, if you pursue a master’s degree part-time—than what the Doctor of Engineering program itself entails.

Where a PhD student must write and defend a dissertation, a student pursuing the EngD degree might instead work on a project or praxis research. 

Related Resources: 

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What Is the Fastest School for a Doctoral Degree in Engineering?

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