Choosing the right educational program is a complex, often months-long process involving the measurement of multiple goals and priorities. While most weigh factors such as program prestige, cost, course requirements, and professor credentials, program educational approach is rarely considered.

Despite its rarity, exploring educational approach is crucial to deciding which program to pursue. Many students succeed in the traditional model, while others would thrive in an alternative environment that emphasizes different educational elements. Here I explore two major approaches to education and share benefits as well as setbacks of both.

Theory-based degrees

Theory-based degrees are what most people think of when the topic of higher education arises. This model employs lectures, papers, group projects, exams, and similar methods to teach theory and philosophy in the selected discipline. The subjects addressed in this way are vast, covering everything from English Literature to Microbiology and everything in between.

A woman sits at a table near a window writing in a notebook.
Photo by Hannah Olinger

Theory-based degrees are offered at every level, from Associate’s degrees to Doctoral degrees. Traditional degrees are based on philosophy and theory, with students reading textbooks and others’ research in order to understand concepts. While labs are included in some of these courses, the majority of learning comes from traditional forms such as reading and lectures.

Philosophical degrees have centuries of history increasing cultural knowledge and modernizing technology. Over thousands of years, education has evolved to engage in crucial research. Through higher education institutions, research has resulted in key technology and public health modernization, along with countless other improvements.

Today, research still holds an important role in academia and theory-based degrees are the source for most research. PhDs focus on reading existing research and conducting their own studies in order to further our knowledge of the arts, sciences, and the human condition. Those earning PhDs will continue to carry us forward through their research and teaching.


Unfortunately, there are not enough research positions available for the large number of people graduating with PhDs. According to the NSF, over thirty percent of doctoral graduates reported no postgraduation commitment in 2018. With the number of doctoral recipients on the rise, this trend is expected to continue and will leave many highly qualified research professionals without career prospects.

Applied degrees

In contrast to theory-based degrees, applied degrees tend to have more broad career prospects due to their focus on applying theory to practical problem solving and career-specific skills. They offer a narrower selection of subjects that includes technical fields such as Information Technology, Psychology, Engineering, Business, Physics, and other sciences.

While these degrees are offered at every level, they are most often found at the Associate’s and Bachelor’s levels. At the Master’s and Doctoral or Professional level, fewer institutions offer applied degree options. Despite fewer educational options, the opportunities for career advancement through graduate applied degrees are not lacking.

Learning hard skills is just as important as learning soft skills, and employers seek those who master both. Click To Tweet

Despite fewer educational options, the opportunities for career advancement through graduate applied degrees are not lacking. For example, graduate programs in Applied Sciences include Statistics, Linguistics, Engineering, Nursing, and Psychology. Applied business degrees are also popular, with MBA and DBA programs offering diverse concentrations that cater to professionals’ career goals in subjects such as Finance, Human Resources, and Nonprofit Management.

In applied business programs, theories of leadership, ethics, and management are taught much like theory-based degrees. However, Applied Business programs emphasize math and science principles, which expands on the theoretical approach of the Bachelor of Arts in Business.


With an applied perspective, practical experience is emphasized and as a result, degrees of this nature often take longer to complete. Some degrees require professional experience and certificates to accompany traditional coursework. Some require internships, practicums, lab work, or other measurable forms of applied learning.

Though this reinforces skills taught in the classroom (or online platform) and allows learners to expand their knowledge, taking additional time to graduate could be a deterrent for many. In some fields, applied degrees are known to be more challenging due to the performative nature of the material. In addition to learning and understanding theories and discipline concepts, students must also master some form of practice such as cognitive therapy or resolving machine malfunctions.

The case for applied degrees

As a student, I was never considered traditionally successful. Academia didn’t quite suit me, as I am considered a kinesthetic learner. I can easily take apart a small machine and put it back together again even if I have never seen it before. But sitting through lectures was always a challenge. As I earned my doctorate over ten years taking one class at a time, I struggled to stay engaged in lectures, especially after a long day of working as an instructor myself.

A stack of books on a wood table with a pair of glasses on top of the books
Photo by Kari Shea

Unlike theory-based degrees, curriculum in applied programs is directly focused on preparing students for a specific career outside of academia. While graduates at the doctoral level may teach in a university setting, applied degrees offer additional professional opportunities as well. With applied degrees, students have more flexibility to customize their experience. Students who feel excluded from traditional academic settings have an opportunity to use their knowledge quickly and solve problems efficiently.

Differences between theory-based and applied degrees are summarized in the idea that theory will take you down one path while application has the ability to take you down many different paths. You may cross over in some instances, but the fastest path to academia is through theory-based degrees and the fastest path to becoming a practitioner in your field is through applied degrees.

In today’s flexible job market educational achievements must outlast multiple job changes and, in some cases, even industry changes. Applied degrees offer the flexibility not only in learning, but in career options as well. Learning hard skills is just as important as learning soft skills, and employers seek those who master both. With many industry leaders reporting knowledge gaps in recent graduates, applied degrees are one method to directly learn what is necessary to succeed in your chosen field. Theory-based degrees will always hold a crucial role in advancing society, but they are not for everyone. Make sure to choose the program that will best support your learning style as well as your career goals.

About Dr. Donald “Doc” Hecht — Doc is an Educator, University Founder, and President Emeritus writing and discussing the trends and challenges facing higher, online, and distance education, among other topics. Please feel free to comment, make suggestions, or ask any questions! You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

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