Top 15 Most Popular PhD Degrees in America in 2024

Top 15 Most Popular PhD Degrees in America in 2024

Key Takeaways

  • PhDs and doctoral degrees are usually terminal degrees, which is the highest academic degree you can earn in your field.

  • More than 50,000 doctoral candidates earn this advanced degree every year, though this number may be declining.

  • The most popular doctorate degrees are in high-demand fields with lucrative opportunities like engineering, biology, and computer science.

Doctorate degrees can lead to career advancement, research positions, and a higher average salary. But which are the most popular subjects at the doctorate level?

Many popular advanced degrees can be found in the life sciences, as well as in select social science fields, healthcare industries, and in a wide range of engineering subdisciplines.

In many cases, popular PhDs are also among both the top PhD programs and the highest paying PhDs.

It’s also possible to earn many excellent doctorate degrees entirely online.

Otherwise, read on to find where the most PhD and doctorate degrees are being earned today.

Smiling female student with notebooks

An Overview of PhD Programs Offered

It may be possible to earn a PhD in just about any field.

However, the value of this PhD will depend a great deal on your selected area of study. The PhD is a research intensive degree. And because of this, one of the primary reasons that individuals will pursue their doctoral studies is to contribute to research in their field.

This makes the PhD particularly popular in fields with robust research opportunities and needs. For instance, a doctorate in psychology degree may qualify you to conduct meaningful mental health research.

A computer engineering degree may qualify you to contribute to research teams making strides in artificial intelligence. A PhD in cell biology could put you on the front lines in the battle against a deadly disease.

In some fields, such as clinical psychology, it may be more appropriate to earn an applied doctorate, as opposed to a research based PhD program. And in some fields, such as fine arts or library sciences, a master’s degree may already qualify you for a top salary in your field. Whether or not a PhD is right for you will depend on your intended career path.

That said, PhDs and doctorate degrees are available in the full spectrum of academic disciplines. Many of these doctorate degrees are also available online or in blended formats.

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What’s the difference between doctoral degrees and PhDs?

Technically, a PhD is a type of doctorate degree. This means that all PhD candidates are doctoral students. By contrast, not all doctoral students are PhD candidates.

The major distinction is that doctoral students are primarily focused on putting existing theories into practice. Depending on your chosen field, doctorate degrees may require participation in an educational leadership program, engagement in clinical practice, work as a resident in a nursing program, and much more.

By contrast, PhD students are focused on creating new knowledge in their area of study. This usually means that PhD candidates are focused on introducing new theories, creating research projects around these theories, and presenting new findings that demonstrate a mastery of existing knowledge and the insight to introduce new ideas into the field.

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How We Ranked Popular Doctorate Degrees

The National Science Foundation (NSF) provided a comprehensive survey of completed doctorate degrees from 2005 to 2015. While the exact year over year figures may fluctuate slightly, the proportion of graduates in each field has remained relatively constant during the period surveyed, as well as to the present day.

The National Science Foundation notes that, in 2020, 55,283 doctoral degrees were awarded throughout the United States. This represents a small decline in doctorate degrees awarded in the previous year–55,614 in 2019.

To find the most popular doctorate degrees in America, we compared NSF survey data with the information provided by governing bodies in particular fields. For example, to find the most current number of psychology doctorates awarded, we compared the NSF survey data to the American Psychological Association data.

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The figures provided by the National Science Foundation include both applied doctorate degrees and research based PhDs. This is reflected in the ranking below:

    1. Engineering

    13,606 Doctoral Engineering Degrees Awarded in 2019

    When all subfields are counted together, engineering makes up the single most popular doctorate degree. Engineering is a field that uses science and technology to create and operate machines, structures, infrastructures, and manufacturing processes.

    There are many different types of engineering including biomedical engineering, aerospace engineering, chemical engineering, civil engineering, electrical engineering, industrial engineering, mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, communications engineering, and more.

    Doctoral level students will typically have some experience in the field. Earning a doctoral level degree in engineering can qualify you to work in a wide range of research and development positions for private firms, think tanks, government agencies, universities, and more.

    Students who are interested in earning an engineering doctorate can start with a look at Best Research Universities for Engineering Degrees.

    Students studying in a library

    2. Education

    8,605 Doctoral Education Degrees Awarded in 2019

    A doctorate in education could help you build toward a career as a special education policy expert, district administrator, university professor, and much more. The doctorate in education is highly popular because it provides a clear pathway to a wide range of careers in education research and leadership, and because it is extremely versatile.

    Education doctorate online programs produce post-secondary educators, private education firm leaders, policy consultants, literacy researchers, and more. Moreover, doctors of education will qualify for today’s most lucrative and important careers in higher education leadership. Upon completion, PhD graduates may pursue careers as college presidents, school superintendents, deans, and more.

    Start your search for a PhD in education with a look at the Best Online Doctorate in Education Degree Programs Ranked for Students.

    3. Biological and Biomedical Sciences

    Between 5,328 to 7,885 Doctoral Life Sciences Degrees Awarded in 2019

    Biology, biomedical engineering, and related subjects make up a rapidly growing area of innovation. Biology is the study of life and living organisms.

    This discipline covers a vast array of topics and specializations, biology students study life at the macroscopic and microscopic level. Those in biomedical specializations will study the intersection between biology, pathology, and healthcare.

    The high growth in this particular field makes the doctorate degree highly popular. Whether you want to become a doctor or nurse, a zoologist or ecologist, a botanist or biochemist, an immunologist or virologist, earning a biology or biomedical doctorate can provide a pathway for participation in groundbreaking research.

    Students interested in earning their doctorate degree in biology or biomedicine can start with a look at the Best Research Universities for Biology.

  1. 4. Psychology

    6,915 Doctoral Psychology Degrees Awarded in 2019

    Psychology is the study of the mind. Earning a doctorate in psychology will provide you the opportunity to conduct research in key areas like human development, cognition, and behavior. Those earning an applied psychology doctorate will practice clinical skills like counseling, behavioral therapy, and therapeutic treatment for mental health disorders.

    For many working professionals in the field of psychology, a doctorate degree is a required credential. For instance, students who plan to ultimately become practicing clinical psychologists will be required to earn their doctorate degree in psychology from a program that is accredited by The APA Commission on Accreditation, and subsequently qualify for and pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP).

    5. Health Sciences

    3,710 Health-Related Doctoral Degrees Awarded in 2019

    Medicine is a huge field without countless areas of specialization. If you’re interested in the human body, studying how it works, and using that understanding to relieve suffering, pain, and sickness, medicine is a great path of study.

    You don’t need to become a medical doctor in order to earn a doctorate degree in the health sciences. Health sciences can include doctoral level study in a wide range of areas including physical therapy, public health, occupational therapy, and much more.

    Doctorate degrees in health sciences are both popular and varied. Additional specializations can include important areas like immunology, virology, environmental health, and much more.

    Among the more popular health sciences degrees, consider our look at the Top 8 Best Online Public Health PhD Degree Programs (Doctorates)

    6. Social Sciences

    3,705 Doctoral Social Science Degrees Awarded in 2019

    The Social Sciences is a broad educational category that encompasses various disciplines and subdisciplines including psychology, sociology, economics, political science, anthropology, and more. For the purposes of this ranking, we excluded psychology doctorates in the figure above.

    Most consequently among the social sciences are fields like Criminology and Criminal Justice; Public Policy and Urban Studies; Gender and Women’s Studies; Health Policy Analysis; Linguistics; and more.

    This is a field in which a doctorate degree can be particularly valuable. There is a great deal of emphasis on field research, statistical analysis, and policy development in the social sciences. Students who earn their doctorate degrees have a chance to lead research and influence positive change in numerous settings.

    Students who are interested in applying this knowledge in the legal sector can start with a look at The Best Online Criminal Justice Doctorates (PhDs) Ranked in 2023.

    7. Humanities

    3,476 Doctoral Degrees Awarded in Humanities Fields in 2019

    Humanities is actually a category of disciplines, rather than a single discipline itself. Humanities includes a number of key branches English, Economics, and History. However, each of these humanities subjects is fairly popular on its own. This section refers to the sum of doctoral candidates pursuing humanities degrees in a wide range of other subjects.

    The figure here from the National Science Foundation refers to the number of doctoral students pursuing advanced degrees in subjects like Philosophy, Religious Studies, Music, Art History, Archeology, and more.

    8. Business Management and Business Administration

    More than 3,000 Doctoral Business Degrees Awarded in 2019

    While the MBA is the single most popular advanced degree available, the doctorate in business administration is reserved for those with a direct interest in the theories and research behind certain business practices. In most cases, the DBA program is perceived as an academic “capstone” that signifies their accomplishment of real-life, practical experience.

    In this regard, a DBA can carry a certain level of prestige that may qualify you for highly competitive leadership opportunities.

    To get started, check out our look at the Best Online DBA Doctorate in Business Administration Degree Programs.

  2. 9. Chemistry

    2,720 Doctoral Chemistry Degrees Awarded in 2019

    Chemistry is a life sciences subdiscipline and is the study of the fundamental materials and processes that make up the universe and everything within it. Those who earn doctorate degrees in chemistry will have the opportunity to apply their advanced knowledge and credentials in a wide range of laboratory and field settings.

    Doctors of chemistry will qualify to conduct research, provide post-secondary education, or serve in organizational leadership roles in an array of fields including engineering, medical science, pharmacology, environmental science, food science, and forensics, just to name a few.

    Two women discussing chemistry

    10. Computer and Information Sciences

    2,883 Doctoral Computer Science Degrees Awarded in 2019

    Computer and information sciences doctorate degrees are popular for good reason. This field is a frontier brimming with innovations. This means that doctoral graduates have an opportunity to participate in fast-paced research and development projects and serve in leadership roles at bleeding edge companies.

    Earning a PhD in computer science can lead to many high-paying opportunities for private research firms, government agencies, universities, and much more.

    Start your search with a look at the Best Online PhD of Computer Science Degree Programs (Doctorates) 2023.

    11. Physics

    1,859 Doctoral Physics Degrees Awarded in 2019

    Physics is a notoriously challenging field that incorporates branches like quantum physics, mathematical physics, biophysics, astrophysics, and much more. Therefore, those who pursue doctoral degrees in physics will work in a wide range of settings. Graduates with a doctorate degree in physics may work in laboratories, conducting field research, or leading research teams for government agencies.

    Because physics is the study of matter, energy and the properties comprising the physical world around us, physicists may work in a wide range of areas including geological survey, space exploration, environmental sustainability and more.

  3. Two female students studying together in a student center

    12. Economics

    1,381 Doctoral Economics Degrees Awarded in 2019

    Economics is the most popular humanities discipline among doctorate degree candidates. It is also among the highest paying PhDs that you can earn.

    Economics is the study of production, consumption, and the transfer of wealth. These are concepts that apply to virtually every area of labor and commerce, which means that your economics doctorate could qualify you for research and consultation opportunities in various settings. Your knowledge of financial systems, market behavior, and global economics could provide inroads into banking and finance, healthcare systems, government research, and a host of other high-paying career prospects.

    13. Mathematics and Statistics

    1,163 Doctoral Mathematics Degrees Awarded in 2019

    Mathematics is the study of numbers, shapes, quantities, and patterns. Math students explore the relationships, rules, and formulas that govern the behavior of numbers and which, consequently, shape the world around us. Earning a doctoral degree in mathematics or statistics will enable you to apply these studies in a research, development or postsecondary education.

    Your expertise could apply in a wide range of settings from sociological research and policy development to engineering innovations and technology implementation. Indeed, mathematics principles can be used to improve our comprehension of everything from the economy, public health, and resource distribution to weather, construction, and supply chain management. As a graduate with a doctorate in mathematics, you may be in a position to provide both leadership and education in virtually limitless private, public, and government-funded settings.

    14. English (Letters)

    1,023 Doctoral English Degrees Awarded in 2019

    The National Science Foundation uses the category of “Letters” to account for a wide range of disciplines centering around the use of both the written and spoken world. This includes disciplines and subdisciplines such as English, Literature, Creative Writing, Speech, and more.

    These are popular areas of doctoral study for those in the fields of language and literacy education, individuals pursuing leadership roles in the publishing sector, and for those interested in conducting research in areas like speech pathology. This is also a popular area of advanced study for post-secondary literature and composition professors.

    Those interested in the field can get started with a look at the Top 5 Best Online English PhD Degree Programs (Doctorates).

  4. Happy students in a classroom

    15. History

    977 Doctoral History Degrees Awarded in 2019

    History is an interdisciplinary field that brings together various areas of academic inquiry such as literature, archeology, political science, and philosophy to provide a better understanding of how the events in our past have shaped present-day realities.

    History serves as a pathway into understanding the evolution of scientific inquiry, the emergence of important philosophical movements, breakthroughs in civic governance and so much more. This means a doctorate in history can lead to a wide range of careers in education, law, civics, public service, and much more.

    In history, a PhD is considered a terminal degree and can lead to opportunities for professional historical research, consultation for government agencies, professorship in a university history department, and more.

    Get started today with a look at the Best Online History Doctorate Degree Programs (PhDs) 2023.

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More About Doctorate Degrees and PhD Programs

If you are a prospective doctoral students, you may have many questions.

Below you will find a summary of the most important aspects of doctorate degree programs. That is, admission requirements, typical curriculum, and other program requirements.

Admission Requirements

Every doctorate program has its own admission requirements. However, most doctorate programs will carry the same basic threshold for admission:

  • A completed online application
  • Official undergraduate college transcripts
  • A cumulative GPA of at least 3.0
  • GRE scores, MAT scores, or GMAT scores
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Personal interviews
  • Personal statement or essay
  • Plan of study

Key Point: In most cases, you’ll be eligible to enter a doctoral degree after earning a bachelor’s degree. However, some specialized doctoral degrees and PhD programs may require you to have earned a master’s degree as well.

Four students walking together in a park

Curriculum and Courses

Most PhD programs will require students to participate in extensive research and complete a dissertation. Regardless of whether you complete a traditional, hybrid or online doctoral program, the typical time to completion is three to six years.

The typical components of your PhD degree program may include:

Foundational Courses

While some foundational doctorate courses may be focused on your specific discipline or area of study, most courses will focus on research methods and experimental design. You may be able to complete many of these requirements through online classes.

Examinations for PhD Candidacy

Many doctoral students are required to complete certain examinations to enter into online PhD candidacy. This will typically occur after you’ve completed one to two years of foundational courses.


In most cases, the central component of your PhD program will be the completion of your dissertation. After gaining status as a PhD candidate, you will typically work closely with a professorial advisor or mentor to develop an original research question. This research question will form the basis of your dissertation—an ongoing project designed to address this research question through applied research. While you will work closely with your advisor or mentor, much of your dissertation will be rooted in independent research. This is especially true for students pursuing an online PhD.

Oral Defense

Upon completion of the written portion of your dissertation—which will typically present the findings from your original research project—you will be expected to defend your findings. This “oral defense” will typically be conducted by a commission of professors and experts in your field. PhD candidates in some online degree programs may be able to conduct this defense via teleconferencing.

Teaching Requirements

Some Ph.D programs will also include a teaching component, which will require you to work as an adjunct professor or teacher’s assistant in an undergraduate or graduate school. It may be possible for students in online doctorate degrees programs to also serve teaching requirements by instructing online students.

Key Point: The PhD is a research-focused degree. The dissertation is a central part of many doctoral programs.

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Careers for Doctoral and PhD Graduates

Students who complete doctoral programs are generally eligible for top positions and opportunities in their field. The Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that, in 2021, working professionals with a PhD earned more per week than Americans in every other educational demographic.

According to the BLS, the median weekly earning for graduate students with doctorate degrees was $1909. By contrast, those with master’s degrees earned a weekly median of $1574, while bachelor’s degree holders earned a median of $1334.

Career options for those with doctorate degrees include.

  • Theoretical Research
  • Scientific Research
  • Publishing
  • Sociology
  • Post-Secondary Education
  • Public Policy Consultation
  • Clinical Practice
  • Organizational Leadership

Key Point: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, students with a doctorate will earn more than graduates with bachelor’s or master’s degrees.

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