What is a Terminal Degree?

When discussing graduate schools, terminal degree is a term that is thrown around often in the world of American post-secondary education. In the strictest sense of the word, terminal degrees are granted at the highest level in a particular academic discipline. In most cases, the term is used to distinguish the final degree available in graduate school for students wishing to study in the chosen subject for obtaining advanced employment. Terminal degrees are usually seen as the maximum level of education available in a given field, but it typically is not required for obtaining initial employment related to the subject. If you are contemplating your degree options in graduate school, read on to learn everything you should know about terminal degrees to reach your highest potential in your area of interest.

Resource: How Do I Know Which Degree Suits Me Best? 

Terminal vs. Non-Terminal Degrees

Terminal degrees often refer to academic programs that typically do not lead to further advanced studies. While this does not necessarily mean that there are no options available in the given field for earning a doctorate or professional degree, they are often more rare to find and are usually not chosen by individuals in the discipline. On the other hand, non-terminal degrees can be found at the undergraduate or graduate level when referring to programs that are just the beginning of an academic journey. Once qualifications are met for non-terminal degrees, the majority of students will continue on to the master’s or doctoral degree level to further their knowledge of the field.

Different Terminal Degrees by Field

At the master’s level, the Master of Business Administration (MBA), Master of Fine Arts (MFA), Master of Library Science (MLS), and Master of Social Work (MSW) are some great examples of terminal degrees because students receiving these degrees typically do not complete a doctorate. At a higher level, Doctor of Medicine (MD), Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), Juris Doctor (JD), Doctor of Education (EdD), Doctor of Public Health (DrPH), Doctor of Psychology (PsyD), and Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) programs are also all terminal degrees that reach the highest level of education available in academia. Earning terminal degrees will generally require extensive years of learning, research work, internship experience, and at least four years of schooling beyond the bachelor’s degree to perform at the top level of the field.

Benefits of Earning a Terminal Degree

Although often not required for successfully starting a career in most fields besides healthcare, terminal degrees are often recommended for students seeking to obtain leadership or executive-level positions in their chosen area of expertise. Choosing to receive the highest degree in your field will provide numerous benefits, including higher salary, enhanced responsibility, more professional prestige, the opportunity for promotion, and potential to fulfill faculty positions on university campuses. However, the glut of professionals with terminal degrees will make competition quite strong and may make the investment less desirable for some.

Despite its name, it is important to realize that choosing terminal degrees does not necessarily mean the end of your academic career and there will be the option of completing a doctoral degree or continuing education courses in the future. If you make the decision to receive a terminal degree, keep in mind that the credit from the curriculum may or may not transfer, so you may be required to complete additional coursework to eventually further your education.

Related: Juris Doctor – A Terminal Degree Explained