What is a Terminal Degree?

A terminal degree is a final, or highest degree that can be earned in a specific field. For most fields that is a Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy), others such as professional degrees, it is an M.D. (or D.O.) for a medical doctor or J.D. for a lawyer.

Types of Terminal Degrees
But wait, there’s more! In the U.S.A, those in academia like their advanced degrees! Here is just a smattering of the possibilities:

There are many types of terminal degrees. Some terminal degrees are conferred after a long master’s degree (usually around 72 college credit hours). Generally, terminal master’s degrees take 3 years to complete going full-time. These include (in no particular order):

  • M.F.A – Master of Fine Art
  • M.Div. – Master of Divinity
  • M.Arch – Master of Architecture
  • M.Des – Master of Design
  • M.LS – Master of Library Science
  • M.P.M – Master of Project Management
  • M.A.D – Master of Art and Design
  • Ed.S. – Education Specialist (i.e. a Superintendent of Schools in the U.S.A).

If you have a terminal master’s degree, that is usually where you stop your education. Terminal master’s degrees will include a major research paper (thesis) or project as the culmination of the degree. While it varies between programs, you will have a major or thesis advisor. Frequently you will not have a choice in who your advisor will be, and it can be difficult to get into some programs if there are not available advisors.
People who earn a terminal master’s degree are NOT referred to as ‘Doctor’. They are however able to gain academic employment as a tenure track professor at Universities. If you do not have a terminal degree and want to teach at the university level, you can still be employed as a lecturer, instructor, or clinical professor. Note that in the last 20+ years, there has been a steady movement away from terminal masters degrees to doctorate degrees.

Professional Terminal Degrees
Someone who desires to become a medical doctor or a lawyer must first earn a degree in their field. This is also considered a terminal degree and can include:

  • M.D. – Doctor of Medicine
  • D.D.S – Doctor of Dental Surgery
  • D.M.D. – Doctor of Medicine in Dentistry
  • D.C. – Doctor of Chiropractic
  • D.N.P – Doctor of Nursing Practice
  • Psy.D. – Doctor of Psychology
  • J.D. or LL.B. – Lawyer

Professional terminal degrees usually began after completing a preparatory bachelor’s degree (i.e. – pre-med, or pre-law) and require admittance to the professional degree, usually including an exam. Once you complete the additional schooling (3 to 4 years full-time), there is an internship/residency required (i.e., you work for a hospital or law firm) while you prepare for your licensure exam. Only when you complete the licensure exam are you licensed to practice medicine or law.

A doctorate is always a terminal degree in a specific field. There are many types of doctorates, with the best known being the Ph.D. There is a difference between the Ph.D., which is a research-oriented doctorate and applied doctorates, which have an element of research but not to the same extent. Some of the better-known types of doctorates include:

  • Ph.D. – Doctor of Philosophy
  • Ed.D. – Doctor of Education
  • D.Eng. – Doctor of Engineering
  • D.Th. – Doctor of Theology
  • D.Min – Doctor of Ministry
  • D.Arch. – Doctor of Architecture
  • D.A. – Doctor of Arts
  • D.M. – Doctor of Music

Doctorate degrees always have associated with a major research paper(dissertation) or project that adds new knowledge to their field. Course work is generally around 30 college credit hours with additional classes for the dissertation. Going full-time, it takes 2 years to complete the course work. The student pursuing a doctorate then has up to 7 years to complete their research and dissertation.
You will have a dissertation advisor. You will form a close relationship with this person (so choose carefully!)
People who earn their doctorate have the right to be called ‘Doctor’ in non-medical situations (if someone is calling for a doctor, they are not looking for someone with a Ph.D.).

Difference Between a Ph.D. and Other Types of Doctorates
Yes, there are differences. Ph.D. recipients have usually completed more course work in research than other types of doctorate degrees. A Ph.D. is considered a research doctorate. Other types of doctorates are applied doctorates.
For instance, the difference in my Ed.D. (Doctor of Education) and the Ph.D. in Education at the university where I earned my doctorate was 1 additional course in research and statistics. While my training allows me to teach my area of expertise and beyond, those with a Ph.D. will sometimes poke or kid (or not kid) that the Ed.D. is not a ‘research’ degree. There is a pecking order at universities (which I will address later in this article).

What do I Call my Professor?
If you are starting college and are not sure what to call the person teaching your class (well, to their face), I recommend calling them, Professor. Some may ask you to call them Doctor. or something else, but Professor is always a safe place to start.

Most college instructors are understanding of possible confusion as to what to call them. They will usually inform you on the first day how you should address them. If the instructor for your course doesn’t inform you, then you can follow these guidelines:

  • If they have a doctorate (i.e. they have letters after their name that include a capital “D” in them, call them Doctor.
  • If their title is listed as Clinical Professor, Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, or Professor, but there is a “D” (i.e. a Doctor of something) in the letters after their name (or no letters are listed after their name), then refer to them as Professor.
    This handles the many situations that might arise due to a terminal master’s degree or clinical faculty
  • If there are not any letters after their name that shows a Doctorate degree, and their title is Instructor, Lecturer, or Adjunct Faculty, they should be referred to as Mr., Ms., or Mrs.
  • If they hold a special position such as Dean (the head of a college within a university), or Provost, you should refer to them by their title (Dean or Provost). The title of Dean or Provost supersedes all other titles.

Titles are important, especially in a University environment. The person teaching your class spent much of their adult life earning the degrees and gaining the expertise necessary to become an expert in their field. Showing proper respect costs you nothing and goes a long way to developing a healthy relationship with the faculty. Do NOT call a professor by their last name, or first name unless invited to do so. 
If you have a professor teaching your class that doesn’t seem qualified, there might be a very good reason. Frequently faculty are asked to step in and teach a course because of another faculty not being available. They are there because they care, even if that course isn’t their expertise.

Can you Get More Degrees after a Terminal Degree? 
Yes! Many with advanced degrees (anything beyond a Bachelor’s) choose to earn multiple masters or doctorate degrees in different fields. 
Why would someone choose to do so? Generally, people with a terminal degree love learning. They may have multiple areas of interest, or they are trying to do something that has never been done before and there are no degrees in the specific field of expertise. While it is not required, multiple degrees do show a deeper understanding across multiple fields.

Pecking Order
You might be surprised to learn that there is a pecking order in degrees. At the university level, it isn’t uncommon to hear those with a doctorate to explain some one’s lack of understanding on a topic by “they only have a master’s in the subject’ or something similar. 
Remember, people with advanced degrees are still people. They have the same insecurities, problems, and sometimes an inflated ego. Or they are just jerks. It happens. In an academic environment, the terminal degree is everything. Terminal degrees can be a disadvantage in the corporate world. While plenty of people who work for corporations (or start corporations) do have terminal degrees, the specialization can be seen as a disadvantage and make it difficult to be promoted.

What are your thoughts on terminal degrees? 
Do you have any questions related to this topic?

Dr. Burton is a teacher and professor with over twenty-five years of experience, teaching Information Technology, game design, CGI, Computer Science, and MIS.

© 2019 – Brian Burton, Ed.D.  Dr. Professor-Dad.com

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