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What is a Terminal Degree?

The highest level of education you may obtain in a certain field is a terminal degree. Dr. Leslie Campbell, an associate professor of business administration and management at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), believes that holding the certification may help you establish your reputation in the sector and prove your subject-matter expertise. Additionally, it can enable you to advance your career into higher education, join a profession that needs a terminal certificate, or completely alter your direction.

Knowing which programs are terminal can be difficult as degrees continue to grow and change, especially since the names of particular degrees frequently differ by discipline.

But let’s break down the idea of a terminal degree since you shouldn’t need a graduate degree to grasp what it is.

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What Degrees are Considered Terminal?

An infographic in blue with text Ultimate Degree the highest degree you may obtain in a given field of study. It’s crucial to remember that the phrase “terminal degree” is predominantly utilized in the United States. The highest academic degree that may be granted in a certain discipline is most frequently referenced. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree, this is generally always a doctoral or graduate degree.

The highest academic degree that can be obtained in the United States is often a PhD, or doctor of philosophy. One can say that they possess a terminal degree if they have a PhD in a typical academic or technical field of study (such as the humanities, sciences, engineering, etc.).

Doctoral degrees are available in some fields under different names. To obtain the highest degree in education, a teacher could pursue an EdD, or Doctor of Education, degree.

The number of Americans with PhD degrees aged 25 and older has increased by more than a half since 2000, reaching 4.5 million, according to the 2019 United States Census Bureau. According to Campbell, obtaining a doctorate is no easy task.

There is no higher degree that can be earned, which is why it is considered a terminal degree. You have thereby reached the apex of academic learning, according to Campbell. “… To succeed, you must have a high level of commitment, persistence, and determination.”

What is a Terminal Master’s Degree?

A master’s degree may, in some circumstances, be considered the ultimate degree in a particular subject or specialty.

When there are no doctoral programs accessible, this is frequently the case. For instance, the American Library Association (ALA) states that a professional librarian should have a master’s degree in librarianship (such as a Master of Library and Information Science). Ben Nugent with the written word Robert Nugent

With a Master of Fine Arts, artists can demonstrate their advanced training in the performing or visual arts, writing, photography, or cinematography (MFA). Benjamin Nugent, an associate professor of English and the previous director of SNHU’s Mountainview Low-Residency MFA, remarked that although while a PhD is an option in some of these subjects, the MFA is still seen as the pinnacle degree in fields like creative writing.

The pursuit of a PhD in creative writing is not common, as it is in English, according to Nugent. “Every job posting I find for a creative writing professorship still lists an MFA as the needed terminal degree. I don’t have a PhD, and neither do any of the teachers of creative writing who publish fiction or creative nonfiction that I am aware of. The situation is different for poets, who frequently earn PhDs in English. A PhD in that discipline might also be a great option for creative writers who are interested in the methods of instructing composition and rhetoric.”

A terminal degree is much less frequently used to describe a master’s degree given to a graduate student who has finished a certain amount of coursework but ultimately decides against pursuing a doctoral degree for either personal or academic reasons or because a doctoral degree program isn’t offered at the institution.

Terminal Degrees by Discipline

Think about your job goals when choosing the degree you need. You may discover that you have choices in some circumstances.

For instance, if you want to complete your business education with a terminal degree, you can pursue either a doctor of business administration or a PhD program that is business-focused (DBA). Both degrees are regarded as terminal; nevertheless, the former is a professional doctorate, whilst the latter is an academic doctorate. Your decision will depend on the direction you choose to go in: academia and research, or continuing your corporate career.

Do you intend to instruct college students in order to help them become future professionals ready for the workforce? Or perhaps you want to seek a different field that needs a terminal degree or advance in your current one.

The degree you should pursue will depend on the goals you have for your career.

Traditional Academic Disciplines

Some full-time academic faculty positions in higher education sometimes call for candidates to have a terminal degree in their discipline. According to Campbell, this is especially true if you’re vying for a tenured post or a promotion.

Some organizations can also be looking for applicants with specialized experiences outside of a terminal degree. For a creative writing professorship, Nugent advised, “an MFA plus a well-received book published by a recognized publisher is what you really need to get hired.”

On the other hand, the most advanced degree may not always be necessary when working as adjunct faculty at the undergraduate level. This is why you may occasionally notice colleges and universities bragging about the proportion of their faculty who hold terminal degrees; it’s a way to highlight the qualifications and topic expertise of individual faculty members.


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Professional Disciplines

In terms of professional degrees, terminal credentials are a little more tricky. According to “The Greenwood Dictionary of Education: Second Edition,” receiving a professional degree signifies that a person has finished their academic work in order to enter a professional sector.

Doctor of Medicine (MD) degrees for physicians and Juris Doctor (JD) degrees for lawyers are typical examples of such professional degrees. Despite the fact that there are other post-doctoral degrees available in these subjects, the MD and JD are currently and largely regarded as terminal degrees in the US.

A research doctorate in law is the Doctor of Juridical Science (JSD), for instance. The JSD is regarded as the most specialized legal degree by the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), as well as by various institutions and universities. However, for the time being, the JD continues to be considered the final legal degree by most non-academics. The argument between the JD and JSD emphasizes the sometimes hazy division between doctoral degree programs stressing professional practice and those promoting research and scholarship.

When it comes to terminal degrees in the nursing industry, there is a comparable divide. A PhD or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) can be pursued as a terminal degree by nurses who have a Master’s in Nursing (MSN). Both doctoral programs, according to Shaké Ketefian and Richard W. Redman in their academic study of the programs, serve to advance nursing practice as a whole. The former trains scientists and researchers while the latter focuses on practitioners.

For nurses seeking a doctorate in nursing practice, the DNP is a more recent option. In fact, the American Association of Colleges and Nursing (AACN) did not support raising the standard of education required for advanced nursing practice from a master’s to a doctoral degree until 2004.

In other words, depending on changing professional standards and laws, the authorized terminal degrees for a certain discipline may change.


The answer to the question of whether you require a terminal degree depends on your chosen topic of study as well as your career objectives.

The degree signifies breadth and depth of discipline competence. This feat merits all due attention, according to Campbell, who stated it is one to be quite proud of.

However, it is feasible to progress professionally by combining advanced degrees with professional experience. This is particularly true for disciplines or emerging fields that may not yet grant PhD degrees or other certifications that are recognized by certified bodies.

Finally, keep in mind that the linked terminal degree may vary as degree programs and professional requirements change. Typically, graduate programs, professional associations, and certifying authorities will have the most recent data on degrees by discipline.

FAQS on Terminal Degree

Why is it called a terminal degree?

A terminal degree is the term used to describe the highest degree available in any given academic discipline. When a student graduates from their chosen academic program with a terminal degree, it means that they have reached the highest level of education available in their chosen field.

What is the difference between a terminal and non terminal degree?

A non-terminal degree is a degree that is not final within a field. Non-terminal degrees can happen in the undergraduate or graduate level of studying. Many students who fulfill non-terminal degree requirements go on to earn their graduate or terminal degrees

Is MSc a terminal degree?

The MA is a terminal degree while an MSc isn't. A terminal degree is usually the highest type of degree that an individual can receive in his or her field.

What are examples of a terminal degree?

Although there are many degrees considered terminal around the world, the following are typically considered the major terminal degrees in the United States:
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Doctor of Education (EdD)
Doctor of Medicine (MD)
Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS)
Doctor of Dental Medicine (DDM)

What is first terminal degree?

An earned academic (or research) doctorate such as a Ph. D., Ed. D. or D.B.A. is considered the terminal degree in most academic fields, as well as the most advanced degree possible, advancing the boundaries of human knowledge through research and dissertation defense, in the United States.

Is LLM a terminal degree?

A Juris Doctor is a terminal degree. Not because it kills you, though it might, but because it's the highest level of degree awarded in legal studies

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