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DMin or PhD: How to Choose

by Clifford Berger, DMin, and Loren Kerns, PhD

DMin and PhD

What's the difference between a PhD and a DMin degree?

In short:

  • The Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) is a research doctorate designed to advance the knowledge base of a discipline through research and writing, typically within an academic setting.
  • The Doctor of Ministry (DMin) is a professional doctorate focusing on developing skills in application-oriented research for a ministry setting.

How do I decide which degree is right for me?

How does someone in ministry decide on a type of degree program? Graduate education is a significant investment of time and money that merits thought and planning. This is especially true at the doctoral level. Two vital things to consider are the differences in the purpose and nature of these two degrees.

Purpose

The PhD engages in intensive original research and is meant primarily to advance the knowledge base of a discipline. Most people with a PhD (especially in the humanities) are pursuing a full-time career in an academic setting focused on teaching, research and writing. A PhD student is expected to accumulate and master knowledge in the discipline. Increasingly, opportunities for tenure-track academic positions are few in number and intensely competitive. Possessing the right degree is not enough; it also matters where you got the degree, along with demonstrating further publishing and research.

The Doctor of Ministry is part of a class of degrees known as professional doctorates, comparable in kind to a Doctor of Education (EdD), Doctor of Psychology (PsyD), or Doctor of Business Administration (DBA). This degree is oriented toward the practice of ministry. A DMin is concerned with identifying the problems and challenges in ministry settings and applying existing research to create fresh solutions. A DMin graduate is expected to have gained a skill set in application-oriented research and problem-solving. No additional languages for research are usually required.

Both degrees are intended to create experts in their own respects – the PhD for the academy (and hence for the church more indirectly), the DMin more directly for churches and other ministry settings (although some with a DMin may be involved in higher education). Those holding the PhD are generally expected to continue in academic research and publication. Those who have earned the DMin are expected to apply their scholarship in ministry contexts.

Nature

Depending on the discipline, the PhD may or may not require prior graduate work. Most PhD programs in theology, biblical studies, church history, pastoral theology, etc., require a relevant foundational master's degree from a seminary or university. The PhD degree often requires 3-8 more years of coursework and/or research, full-time or nearly so. A reading knowledge of several languages is often required. The majority of PhD programs require most of the work to be done in residence, making it necessary for the student to live near campus. This is less true of British-style PhDs, which focus more on individual research and less on taught coursework. The PhD is time-consuming and expensive and can be a solitary pursuit. Some of the most elite PhD programs offer funding and a stipend, but these are very competitive.

The DMin is built on the foundation of the Master of Divinity (MDiv) or its equivalent, generally requiring 30-40 graduate semester hours beyond the MDiv. When seen in combination with the MDiv, it requires a substantial amount of graduate credits (totaling 100+), so it is time-consuming and costly in its own way. Most DMin programs require 3-5 years of part-time study beyond the master's degree.

The Doctor of Ministry tends to be oriented to learning in community. DMin students remain in their ministry context, studying part-time, frequently using their ministry as a sort of lab or workshop for their research. DMin students often develop close, collegial relationships with their fellow students, especially when with a cohort.


Is the DMin a "fluff" degree?

In 2007, Adam Walker Cleaveland posed this question in a blog post: "Is the DMin a 'fluff' degree in comparison with the PhD?" With almost 150 comments on his post, this question evidently struck a nerve.

Since 2007, others including David Baer, PhD and David A. Currie, PhD have offered insightful analyses comparing the DMin and PhD. They argue persuasively that the PhD and DMin are different types of study that both have value and rigor in accordance with their differing purposes.

Though a popular option, DMin enrollment has declined slightly (3.1 percent) in the past 10 years. According to The Association for Theological Schools (ATS) data tables 2.10-A from 2007-08 and 2016-2017, enrollment dropped from 9,066 to 8,785 students during this time. This decline comes in spite of the fact that more ATS-accredited schools appear to be offering the DMin. During the same 10-year period, the number of schools offering degrees in the DMin's parent category, "Advanced Programs Oriented Toward Ministerial Leadership," increased from 136 to 157 according to ATS tables 1.6-A. DMin students made up more than 90 percent of students enrolled in programs in this category in 2016.

This increasing competition has forced schools to innovate by creating more specialized DMin programs, along with expectations to improve quality and completion rates. The emergence of the Association of Doctor of Ministry Educators (ADME) has enabled program leaders to share best practices and practice accountability. All of these factors mitigate against real or perceived "fluff."


So which degree is right for you?

If you're trying to decide between the two, it boils down to identity and calling:

  • If you have a passion for academic research and writing on a more theoretical level, consider the PhD. Although this degree will prepare you for a tenure-track teaching and research position, the prospects for such positions are low due to the limited number of openings and heavy competition.

  • If you see yourself drawn toward using research for problem-solving in ministry, consider the DMin. Teaching will still be an option if that's where your heart is, but more likely as an adjunct faculty member at a seminary or Bible college.

Bottom line

Although the PhD and DMin have important differences, neither one is inherently superior. Keep in mind the primary purpose of each degree and decide in light of what God is calling you to be and do as well as the opportunities that may be available.


Online DMin Programs at Portland Seminary

If the Doctor of Ministry sounds like it may be right for you, check out Portland Seminary's hybrid DMin programs that combine online study with face-to-face learning experiences:

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