The term doctor derives from Latin, meaning "teacher" or "instructor". The doctorate (Latin: doctoratus) appeared in medieval Europe as a license to teach Latin (licentia docendi) at a university. Its roots can be traced to the early church in which the term doctor referred to the Apostles, church fathers, and other Christian authorities who taught and interpreted the Bible.
The right to grant a licentia docendi (i.e. the doctorate) was originally reserved to the Catholic church, which required the applicant to pass a test, to take an oath of allegiance and pay a fee. The Third Council of the Lateran of 1179 guaranteed the access—at that time largely free of charge—of all able applicants. Applicants were tested for aptitude. This right remained a bone of contention between the church authorities and universities that were slowly distancing themselves from the Church. The right was granted by the pope to the University of Paris in 1213 where it became a universal license to teach (licentia ubiquie docendi). However, while the licentia continued to hold a higher prestige than the bachelor's degree baccalaureus, the latter was ultimately reduced to an intermediate step to the magister and doctorate, both of which now became the exclusive teaching qualification. According to Keith Allan Noble (1994), the first doctoral degree was awarded in medieval Paris around 1150.
The so-called "professional, vocational, or technical curriculum" (in contrast to liberal arts) of the Middle Ages included only theology, law, and medicine.
The doctorate of philosophy developed in Germany in the 17th century (likely c. 1652). The term "philosophy" does not refer solely to the field or academic discipline of philosophy, but is used in a broader sense in accordance with its original Greek meaning, which is "love of wisdom". In most of Europe, all fields (history, philosophy, social sciences, mathematics, and natural philosophy/natural sciences) were traditionally known as philosophy, and in Germany and elsewhere in Europe the basic faculty of liberal arts was known as the "faculty of philosophy". The doctorate of philosophy adheres to this historic convention, even though the degrees are not always for the study of philosophy. Chris Park explains that it was not until formal education and degree programs were standardized in the early 19th century that the doctorate of philosophy was reintroduced in Germany as a research degree, abbreviated as Dr. phil. (similar to Ph.D. in Anglo-American countries). Germany, however, differentiated then in more detail between doctorates in philosophy and doctorates in the natural sciences, abbreviated as Dr. rer. nat., and also doctorates in the social/political sciences, abbreviated as Dr. rer. pol., similar to the other traditional doctorates in medicine (Dr. med.) and law (Dr. jur.).
University doctoral training was a form of apprenticeship to a guild. The traditional term of study before new teachers were admitted to the guild of "Masters of Arts" was seven years, matching the apprenticeship term for other occupations. Originally the terms "master" and "doctor" were synonymous, but over time the doctorate came to be regarded as a higher qualification than the master's degree. Makdisi's revised hypothesis that the doctorate originated in the Islamic ijazah, a reversal of his earlier view that saw both systems as of "the most fundamental difference", was rejected by Huff as unsubstantiated.
University degrees, including doctorates, were originally restricted to men. The first women to be granted doctorates were Juliana Morell in 1608 at Lyons, Elena Cornaro Piscopia in 1678 at the University of Padua, Laura Bassi in 1732 at Bologna University, Dorothea Erxleben in 1754 at Halle University and María Isidra de Guzmán y de la Cerda in 1785 at Complutense University, Madrid.
The use and meaning of the doctorate has changed over time, and is subject to regional variations. For instance, until the early 20th century few academic staff or professors in English-speaking universities held doctorates, except for very senior scholars and those in holy orders. After that time the German practice of requiring lecturers to have completed a research doctorate spread. Universities' shift to research-oriented (based upon the scientific method, inquiry, and observation) education increased the doctorates importance. Today, a research doctorate (PhD) or its equivalent (as defined in the US by the NSF) is generally a prerequisite for an academic career, although many recipients do not work in academia.
Professional doctorates developed in the United States from the 19th century onward. The first professional doctorate to be offered in the United States was the M.D. at Kings College (now Columbia University) after the medical school's founding in 1767, although this was not a professional doctorate in the modern American sense as it was awarded for further study after the qualifying Bachelor of Medicine (M.B.) rather than being a qualifying degree. The MD became the standard first degree in medicine during the 19th century, but as a three-year undergraduate degree; it did not become established as a graduate degree until 1930. The MD, as the standard qualifying degree in medicine, gave that profession the ability (through the American Medical Association, established in 1847 for this purpose) to set and raise standards for entry into professional practice.
The modern research degree, in the shape of the German-style Ph.D. was first awarded in the U.S. in 1861, at Yale University. This differed from the MD in that the latter was, a vocational "professional degree" that trained students to apply or practice knowledge, rather than generate it, similar to other students in vocational schools or institutes. In the UK, research doctorates initially took the form of higher doctorates, first introduced at Durham University in 1882. The PhD spread to the UK from the US via Canada, and was instituted at all British universities from 1917, with the first (titled a DPhil) being awarded at the University of Oxford.
Following the MD, the next professional doctorate, the Juris Doctor (J.D.), was established by the University of Chicago in 1902. However it took a long time to be accepted, not replacing the Bachelor of Laws (LLB) until the 1960s, by which time the LLB was generally taken as a graduate degree. Notably, the curriculum for the JD and LLB were identical, with the degree being renamed as a doctorate, and it (like the MD) was not equivalent to the PhD, raising criticism that it was "not a 'true Doctorate'". When professional doctorates were established in the UK in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they did not follow the US model but were instead set up as research degrees at the same level as PhDs but with some taught components and a professional concentration for the research work.
The older-style doctorates, now usually called higher doctorates in the United Kingdom, take much longer to complete, since candidates must show themselves to be leading experts in their subjects. These doctorates are now less common in some countries and are often awarded honoris causa. The habilitation is still used for academic recruitment purposes in many countries within the EU, and involves either a new long thesis (a second book) or a portfolio of research publications. The habilitation (highest available degree) demonstrates independent and thorough research, experience in teaching and lecturing, and, more recently, the ability to generate supportive funding. The habilitation follows the research doctorate, and in Germany it can be a requirement for appointment as a Privatdozent or professor.