What is a Terminal Degree?

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Students considering graduate school may hear the term terminal degree and want to know what type of degree it is. When a degree is considered terminal, it means that it is the highest degree awarded in a given field. In most fields, the terminal-level degree is the doctor of philosophy, or PhD, but in some fields, it's a professional degree, such as a doctor of medicine or law degree. Professional degrees are legally required for a person to have before practicing the profession, but not all degrees that are terminal are considered professional degrees.

Terminal Master's Degrees

While most degrees that are considered terminal are PhDs or doctorates, some master's degrees are considered terminal if the field does not offer a degree beyond a master's degree. For example, the Master of Fine Arts, or MFA, is considered terminal and is awarded to professionals in the art, film and music industries. A Master Landscape Architect, or MLArch, and a Master Architect, or MArch, are terminal master's degrees, as these fields don't offer PhD or doctorate degrees above the master's level.

The word terminal is also sometimes used to describe master's degrees when a student is denied a PhD by a university. Occasionally, a PhD student will fall behind in a PhD program and be given a terminal master's degree by the university and then dropped from the program. Colleges also call a master's degree terminal when a student has already completed the master's program prior to applying for a PhD program. This situation typically occurs in majors that have too many PhD students or those in which the cost of the education outweighs the career opportunities, thus making the degree not worthwhile. When a university is paying for a student to get a PhD in exchange for graduate research and other duties, it doesn't make sense to allow more students to earn PhD degrees than there will be a demand for in academia. In all of these cases, the master's degree is terminal, as it is seen as the end of the student's education in that field.

Types of Doctorate and Professional Degrees

Professional and doctorate degrees are only called terminal in the United States; in other English-speaking countries this term isn't used as often. In other countries, there are a few degree that go higher than a PhD, such as the habilitation degree in Germany and the higher doctorate in the U.K. and Russia. In the United States, some of the top-level research and professional degrees are Doctor of Education, EdD; Master of Art and Design, MAD; Doctor of Nursing Practice, DNP; and Master of Library and Information Science, MLIS.

There are many more terminal master's and doctorate degrees, and in many fields, these degrees are needed to conduct research or teach at a university. These top-level degrees are called research degrees, and they typically come with the title of Doctor. To earn a doctorate, students complete several phases of coursework and study, including an oral examination and a lengthy written dissertation, which usually includes at least 450 pages of material.

Getting a professional or research-level degree requires a great deal of dedication and intellectual interest in a particular field, and the people who earn these degrees usually naturally love what they study. If you have a deep passion for a particular subject, consider earning a terminal degree.

Related Resource: Can I Get a Master's Degree and a PhD at the Same Time?