Terminal degree


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A terminal degree is a university degree that can signify one of two outcomes. In some cases, it is the highest degree that can be awarded in a specific academic or professional track. In other cases, it is a degree that is awarded when a candidate completes a certain amount of coursework but does not go on to doctoral work.[1][2] Some students enroll in a terminal Master's program with the goal of preparing to enter a PhD program.[3] For certain professions and research grants it means the lowest degree to be considered qualified.

An earned academic (or research) doctorate[4] such as a Ph.D. is considered the terminal degree in most academic fields, as well as the most advanced degree possible, advancing the boundaries of human knowledge through research and dissertation defense, in the United States. However, professional doctorates may be considered terminal degrees within the professional degree track, even though they are prerequisites for research degrees, for example, "Doctor" of Medicine (MD) or Jurisprudence (JD or Juris Doctor).[5] The phrase "terminal degree" is used heavily in the United States, but is used less in other countries. The term is not generally used in the United Kingdom or Canada, for example, and its exact meaning varies somewhat between those areas and disciplines in which the term is used. In some countries there are degrees which are more advanced than the PhD, such as the higher doctorates in the United Kingdom and Russia, and the habilitation degree awarded in Germany and Austria.

Not all terminal degrees are doctorates. For example, in professional practice fields there are often terminal master-level degrees, some which are called doctorates e.g. MEng (Master of Engineering), MLArch standing for Master Landscape Architect or BEng for Engineers, MB (Bachelor of Medicine - UK). Architecture was a discipline where the M.Arch was considered terminal as a professionally oriented degree, but a Doctor of Architecture (D.Arch) that is recognized by the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB) establishes the Doctoral level as the highest level of "professional degree" in Architecture in the United States.[6][7] For the same discipline of Architecture, the "Laurea di Dottore" is the terminal degree in Italy. Interior design and Interior Architecture have terminal master-level degrees such as MID, MA, MS Interior design education. Most non-doctoral degrees are not terminal in academic terms, with the exception of the Master of Fine Arts (MFA). The MFA is an academically recognized terminal degree and is given to practitioners in the fine arts and performing arts. The MBA, and the MAT are also considered terminal professional degrees.

Research degrees

In academic fields, the typical terminal degree is that of Doctor of Philosophy, although others also exist. The first phase of the Ph.D. consists of coursework in the student's field of study and requires one to three years to complete. This is often followed by a preliminary or comprehensive examination and/or a series of cumulative examinations, in which the emphasis is on breadth rather than depth of knowledge. Finally, another two to four years is usually required for the composition of a substantial and original contribution to human knowledge embodied in a written dissertation that in the social sciences and humanities is typically 250 to 450 pages in length. Dissertations generally consist of (i) a comprehensive literature review, (ii) an outline of methodology, and (iii) several chapters of scientific, social, historical, philosophical, or literary analysis. Typically, upon completion, the candidate undergoes an oral examination, sometimes public, by his or her supervisory committee with expertise in the given discipline.

Typical professional degrees, professional/clinical doctorates, and research doctorates

  • Social Science:
    • Doctor of Criminal Justice (DCJ) is a professional doctorate (terminal degree) that is awarded on the basis of advanced study and research in the field of criminal justice. Structurally, the Doctor of Criminal Justice differs from the Ph.D. in that the DCJ has, as noted above, at least a three year duration, with only one year equivalent on the dissertation, while an American Ph.D. in criminal justice would normally require a minimum of four years, with at least two years spent on the dissertation. The Doctor of Criminal Justice (DCJ) prepares the holder for research and academic positions. It also prepares the holder for professional positions in the American criminal justice system.

Professional degrees

A professional degree is a degree that is required, often by law as in the case of medical and other clinical professions, that must be earned first before the holder of the degree can practice in the profession. A speech-language pathologist, for example, must hold a master's degree in communicative disorders: speech-language pathology in order to practice. However, an actor does not need a degree to act, even though there are degrees for acting available. In some fields, especially those linked to a profession (such as medicine, law or teaching), a distinction is to be drawn between a professional degree, an advanced degree and terminal degree. A first professional degree is generally required by law or custom to practice the profession without limitation. An advanced professional degree provides further training in a specialized area of the profession. A first professional degree is an academic degree designed to prepare the holder for a particular career or profession, fields in which scholarly research and academic activity are not the profession, but rather the practice of the profession. In many cases such as law, medicine and teaching, the first professional degree is also terminal, usually because no further advanced degree is required for practice in that field, even though more advanced academic degrees may exist.

Typical professional degree

Advanced professional degrees

  • Education (MEd, MAT, MT, EdS)[16]
  • Engineering (MEng, MASc, MMSc, PD[17])
  • Healthcare:
    • Acupuncture (DAcOM)
    • Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN: CRNA, NP, CNM, CNS) (DNP, DNAP, DNS, DNSc)
    • Biotechnology (ALM)
    • Dental Science (DDSc, Dr.Odont) (advanced degree in countries that award a bachelor's degree in dental surgery as first professional degree, usually awarded for outstanding research to a particular field of Dentistry)
    • Dentistry (MDS, MSD, MDSc, or DClinDent) (these are usually granted at the culmination of a specialty training program in dentistry in those programs that also require research and a thesis to be completed)
    • Medicine (MD/DO) (advanced degree in countries that award a bachelor's degree in medicine or surgery as first professional degree, usually awarded for outstanding research to a particular field of Medicine)
    • Midwifery (MMid, MScMid)
    • Nursing Practice (DNP)
    • Surgery (MS, MSurg, MCh, ChM, or MChir) (Usually granted after completion of surgery training program in conjunction with a research thesis)
    • Psychology (PsyD)
    • Social Science (PhD, DPhil)
    • Social Work (MSW, DSW, ProfD or PhD)
  • Lawyer (LLM, JSD, PhD)
  • Ministry (DMin)
  • Public Policy (MPP)
  • Public Administration (MPA)

See also


  1. ^ "Graduate Degrees - American Graduate Education". www.americangraduateeducation.com.
  2. ^ "What Is the Difference Between a Terminal Degree & a Research Degree?". Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
  3. ^ "Terminal Master's Degree Programs in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences" (PDF). Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
  4. ^ "Earned" in the sense that the degree is obtained through the completion of a program of study and is not an honorary doctorate.
  5. ^ American Bar Association. "Law School Accreditation Council Statements" (PDF). American Bar Association. Retrieved 15 December 2020.
  6. ^ "What Is the Difference Between a Terminal Degree & a Research Degree?". Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
  7. ^ "NAAB". National Architectural Accrediting Board.
  8. ^ "Standards and Guidelines". College Arts Association. The College Art Association. Retrieved 2 March 2015.
  9. ^ "Standards and Guidelines". College Arts Association. The College Art Association. Retrieved 2 March 2015.
  10. ^ "Standards and Guidelines". College Arts Association. The College Art Association. Retrieved 2 March 2015.
  11. ^ https://www.nata.org/about/athletic-training/education-overview
  12. ^ https://integratedcarefoundation.org/events/doctor-of-behavioral-health-dbh
  13. ^ http://business.nmsu.edu/academics/graduate-programs/ded/
  14. ^ MBA represents a professional designation in the field of Management
  15. ^ http://ncees.org/about-ncees/news/ncees-approves-revised-approach-education-initiative/
  16. ^ "MT :: Master of Teaching, CTL, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto". Oise.utoronto.ca. Retrieved 2010-07-08.
  17. ^ "CVN - Columbia Video Network". Cvn.columbia.edu. Retrieved 2010-07-08.