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What is a Terminal Degree?

By G. Wiesen
Updated: Feb 04, 2024

A terminal degree typically refers to the highest level of degree that can be attained while attending school for a particular subject. This is a term often used in American post-secondary education to distinguish the final level of education most people will attain in a subject, though it may not always be the highest form of degree that students in other subjects may pursue. The term can also be applied to professional degrees that some people will achieve in order to gain a certain type of employment, though advanced degrees beyond that level exist. A terminal degree can therefore refer to the highest level of degree that can be attained or to the highest level of degree most professionals will acquire to then work in their field.

For most fields of study, a terminal degree is the highest level of degree that can be attained through study at a university or college. In many fields, this is a Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD) and is gained only after extensive years of learning and research work. For example, work on a PhD will typically require that a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree have been earned in a field related to the subject in which a person receives a PhD.

This means that as a terminal degree, a PhD usually requires at least four years of work for a bachelor’s degree, then another two or three years for a master’s degree, and a further two to six years of work to finally receive the PhD. In other fields, however, the terminal degree may be one of the “lesser” degrees that is usually obtained while working on a PhD. For example, in performing and fine arts, a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) is usually considered the highest level degree that can be earned in subjects such as writing.

A terminal degree can also be a professional degree that someone is likely to stop at while trying to receive an education necessary to work in a certain profession. For example, though a master’s degree can be earned in a subject like education, most teachers only require a bachelor’s degree to be able to teach. This means that many students interested in becoming a teacher see the bachelor’s degree as a terminal degree for that particular field. Such a degree is often referred to as a first professional degree, with higher level degrees available but not always necessary for employment in a relevant field.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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