What Is a Terminal Degree?

graduates in their caps and gowns

A terminal degree is the highest degree you can earn in a particular academic discipline. Depending on the subject, that’s going to be either a doctorate or master’s degree.

While you usually don’t need to earn a terminal degree to enter your field, you may need a terminal professional degree to be eligible for particular occupations, or before you can take the exams or complete advanced training required to earn your license. (Hospitals won’t hire you to be a doctor without a Doctor of Medicine degree.)

You don’t need a doctorate in engineering to start a lucrative career as an engineer, or work your way up the ranks in business. And in many professions, years of quality hands-on experience is more valuable than the level of degree you’ve earned.

If you aren’t seeking a professional degree in specialized fields like healthcare or law, terminal degrees are generally only necessary if you intend to work in academia, where you’ll spend your time teaching and conducting research at a university. Still, many people choose to pursue terminal degrees to master their craft, increase their expertise, or take advantage of new learning opportunities.

If you think you want to pursue a terminal degree, here’s a quick rundown of what’s out there.

Types of terminal degrees

While the exact title of a terminal degree varies by field, many disciplines lead to similar credentials. Here are the major types of terminal degrees and some of the popular academic fields that end with these degrees.

Terminal doctorate degrees

In the US, all doctorate degrees are terminal. 78,000 doctorates were awarded in 2015. There are many kinds of doctorate degrees, but most fields culminate in a research doctorate—usually one of these:

Doctor of philosophy (PhD)

A PhD is the most common terminal degree, and it encompasses the vast majority of academic disciplines. Philosophy is a specific field, but this credential comes from the Greek meaning of philosophy: “love of wisdom.”

Here are some common fields that culminate in a PhD:

  • Chemistry
  • Biology
  • Psychology
  • Physics
  • English
  • Physical therapy
  • Education
  • Engineering (civil, mechanical, electrical, etc.)

Doctor of education (EdD)

Some schools will award a PhD in education, but most specialized education programs end in a doctor of education. Here are some of the common education programs that lead to an EdD:

  • Counseling
  • Curriculum
  • Teaching
  • Educational administration
  • Education policy
  • Educational psychology
  • Educational technology
  • Higher education
  • Human resource development
  • Language/linguistics
  • Leadership

Doctor of arts (DA)

While a PhD lets students apply their expertise and conduct research, a doctor of arts program allows students to concentrate on studying advanced aspects of their field and acquire the knowledge necessary to teach the subject. As such, a doctor of arts also has a lot of overlap with a doctor of education (EdD).

Here are some of the fields that may end in a DA:

  • Mathematics
  • History
  • English

A doctor of fine arts (DFA) is only an honorary degree in the US, but it’s a professional degree in the UK.

Doctor of engineering (Dr. Ing, DEng, Dr. Eng, EngD)

A doctor of engineering may be equivalent to a PhD in engineering, but some programs may focus more on applying your research.

What do you have to do to earn a doctorate degree?

Most doctorate programs require a master’s degree in a related field, but some programs may accept students with only a bachelor’s. Doctorate programs involve a combination of intense coursework and advanced research, and can take anywhere from 5–10 years to complete. The exact requirements depend on the type of degree, the field, and the college.

Professional degrees

Professional degrees are credentials that are required to enter a particular profession. There are three stages of academic progression with professional degrees:

  1. First professional degree
  2. Advanced professional degree
  3. Terminal professional degree

Terminal professional degrees aren’t always doctorates, as some fields don’t offer programs beyond a master’s.

Doctor of medicine (MD)

A doctor of medicine is a terminal professional degree awarded by a medical school. After earning an MD, graduates specialize through either a residency or fellowship. On average, these degrees take the longest to earn. The study and coursework alone can take 8 years, and a residency or fellowship can take another 3–8 years.

Doctor of dental surgery (DDS) or doctor of medicine in dentistry (DMD)

Dental schools choose to either award a DDS or DMD upon completion of graduate school. According to the American Dental Association, these credentials are the same, and the curriculum is the same. You may also see this referred to as a DDM.

Doctor of nursing practice (DNP)

A DNP is a practice doctorate, meaning your research directly applies to your professional practice. This credential provides the advanced understanding of nursing practices needed to transition into leadership roles.

There are several other doctorate level degrees in nursing:

  • Doctor of nursing practice (DNP)
  • Doctor of nursing philosophy (PhD)
  • Doctor of nursing science (DNSc)
  • Doctor of nursing (DN)

Juris doctor (JD)

A juris doctor or doctor of jurisprudence degree is awarded upon completion of a three-year program at a law school, and it is the main prerequisite to take the bar exam and become a lawyer. (Although in some states, you can study law under a judge or practicing attorney.) The American Bar Association has stated that for academic purposes, this degree should be considered the equivalent of a PhD.

Educational Specialist (EdS)

Some roles in education require advanced expertise in specialized fields. These programs may offer different concentrations than an EdD, making them better suited for particular professions.

EdS concentrations include topics like:

  • Adult education
  • Curriculum and instruction
  • Educational leadership
  • Training and development
  • Speech
  • School psychology
  • Special education

Terminal master’s degrees

Some fields don’t have doctorate-level programs. In these cases, a master’s degree is considered terminal, and it’s all that’s required to teach the subject at a university. (Just don’t expect anyone to call you Dr.)

This is a little confusing, but some master’s level programs are considered terminal degrees because they’re required to enter a profession, even though they technically aren’t the final degree you can earn in your field.

Here are some common types of terminal master’s degrees:

Master of architecture (MArch)

Master of architecture programs are professional degrees awarded by architecture schools. A MArch is required to progress through the exams and internships necessary to become a licensed architect. The master of landscape architecture (MLA or MLArch) is similar.

Master of library information systems (MLIS)

In order to become a librarian, you must have an MLIS or MLS (master of library science). There are several other designations, but the American Library Association is the organization that accredits these programs, and they say:

“The master’s degree in library and information studies is frequently referred to as the MLS; however, ALA-accredited degrees have various names such as Master of Information Studies, Master of Information, Master of Arts, Master of Librarianship, Master of Library and Information Studies, or Master of Science. The degree name is determined by the program. The [ALA] Committee for Accreditation evaluates programs based on their adherence to the Standards for Accreditation of Master’s Programs in Library and Information Studies, not based on the name of the degree.”

Master of fine arts (MFA)

While a doctorate in fine arts is an honorary degree in the US, an MFA is considered terminal. You certainly don’t need one to practice a craft or have a career in fine arts, but if you want to teach creative writing, art, design, or theater at a college level, you’re going to need an MFA.

Master of social work (MSW)

Social work is a field for people who care about people, but to move up in the field, you need credentials. Many social work professions are government positions, and all of them require strict adherence to regulations and best practices. The Council for Social Work Education accredits social work programs, and without their stamp of approval, you may not be eligible for some roles.

(Check out the top online MSW programs in the US.)

What do you have to do to earn a master’s degree?

To be admitted to a master’s degree program, you typically need a bachelor’s degree (ideally but not necessarily in a related field). Many colleges, however, offer combined bachelor’s and master’s degree programs for undergraduates who already know what they want to study and plan on pursuing graduate studies.

Master’s programs generally require rigorous coursework and culminate in a dissertation. They may incorporate a teaching or internship component as well.

A terminal degree isn’t always the highest degree in your field

A college may award a doctorate student with a terminal master’s degree if they completed the coursework for the doctorate program, but for whatever reason couldn’t continue to pursue doctorate studies.

This is essentially a consolation prize for the work you’ve already done. But despite the “terminal” label, it doesn’t mean you can’t pursue doctorate studies later. If your credits transfer (which depends on accreditation), you may be able to pick up where you left off.

Are there degrees higher than doctorates?

In the US, a doctorate is the highest degree you can earn. Outside the US, however, is another story. In the UK, Ireland, and a handful of other countries, graduate students can pursue a higher doctorate, such as the doctor of letters (DLitt) or doctor of science (DSc).

In the 19th century, Germany developed what is known as a habitation degree, with the intention of preparing graduates to sufficiently pass on knowledge to the next generation. Other countries, such as France, Austria, and Switzerland, now offer these degree programs, and in some cases, the degree comes with lifetime permission to lecture in the subject at universities.

While these more advanced degrees are technically what we might call “terminal degrees,” the term isn’t actually used much outside the US.

Can you get a terminal degree online?

You can earn many terminal degrees online (especially professional degrees), but online doctorates are harder to find. The more a particular program requires hands-on work, the less likely you are to find it online. (Or else if it says it’s online, that only applies to the coursework.)

Still, colleges and universities are finding inventive methods to bring the advantages of the classroom to your computer. And the best online schools are taking advantage of interactive design to provide an experience you can’t get on campus.

Take a look at how the best colleges are providing terminal degree programs like MSWs and MBAs online.

Ryan Nelson
Ryan has a B.A. in English Literature from Western Washington University. If he could rewind and go to college all over again, he'd do it a little differently. For now, he's living vicariously through people like you by helping you find the best online schools for your field.

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