Article - Terminal Degree Description:

A terminal degree is the highest level of college degree available in a particular field. In most fields, the highest possible academic credential that can be earned is a doctoral degree. Doctoral degrees are available in almost any field of study offered at a four-year college or university. To earn a doctoral degree, most students must complete many years of schooling starting with four years of undergraduate study followed by two to three years of study in a master’s or professional degree program. Doctoral programs typically require additional years of schooling, for a total of 7 to 9 years spent in graduate degree programs. Doctoral degrees generally require the completion of a doctoral thesis; a lengthy research paper that represents the doctoral student’s original work.

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What About Professional Degrees?

A professional degree is a degree in any field of study that provides specific training in a line of work that requires specific credentials in order to become employed in that field. Some examples of professional degrees are medical, nursing, legal, accounting, education, and social work degrees. Some of these fields – like medicine, for example – require a terminal degree for clinical practice. In some fields, a professional degree can also be a terminal degree. For example, for the practice of law in the United States, the Juris Doctor is both a professional degree and a terminal degree.

Is a Ph.D. the Only Kind of Terminal Degree?

Ph.D. stands for “Doctor of Philosophy”, and is the most common type of terminal degree. The Ph.D. is granted in a variety of professional, scientific, and liberal arts fields. Medical doctors by definition earn a doctoral degree. The title of M.D. stands for “Doctor of Medicine.” Attorneys earn a Juris Doctor degree (J.D.). While these professional degrees are also terminal degrees required for clinical and professional practice, people in these fields may earn a research-based Ph.D. as well. For example, in the case of a medical doctor who earns both an M.D. and a Ph.D., both of these degrees are considered terminal degrees in the field of medicine. However, the M.D. is a terminal degree in the clinical practice of medicine, whereas the Ph.D. is a terminal degree for research and teaching.

Why Earn a Terminal Degree?

There are a variety of reasons why people choose to earn a terminal degree in a particular field. The Ph.D. is often the standard for a college or university professorship, so one who is considering a career as a college professor may choose to earn a Ph.D. Indeed, the word “doctorate” is a shortened version of the Latin term “licentia docendi,” or “license to teach.” Pursuing a career in teaching at the college level is one of the primary reasons for pursing a terminal degree. Sometimes career professionals earn a Ph.D. in order to pursue a career change. For example, a lawyer who does not want to continue to practice of law may wish to teach law school or perform policy research at a university or other organization. A Ph.D. might increase a lawyer’s chances of making this type of a career change. In other cases, a love of learning is the primary motivation for those to wish to earn a terminal degree.

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