What is meant by a "terminal degree"

Discussion in 'General Distance Learning Discussions' started by nosborne48, Mar 21, 2005.

  1. nosborne48

    nosborne48 Well-Known Member

    and what specific degrees are considered "terminal"?
  2. intro2life

    intro2life New Member

    I’ve always understood the term “terminal degree” to mean that:

    A degree in a particular field of study is considered terminal if it; (a) does not normally lead a higher degree program, and; (b) is accepted as the highest form of academic credential commonly sought or offered in a field.

    Read this article from EducationUSA. If you scroll down to the section entitled “Professional Master’s”, you will note they address your very question.

  3. Bill Huffman

    Bill Huffman Well-Known Member

    I think Intro describes the common usage. I seem to have seen it in the context of a specific individual to mean the highest degree that they have earned or the highest degree they could imagine ever wishing to pursue.
  4. Anthony Pina

    Anthony Pina Active Member

    In academia, intro2life's defintition of "terminal degree" as "accepted as the highest form of academic credential commonly sought or offered in a field", is a good one.

    Normally, the terminal degree for most fields is the doctorate (PhD, EdD, etc.) However, in many fields, the degree considered "terminal" by most colleges and universitiies for employment purposes is not necessarily the highest degree than one can earn in that field. A few examples:

    Fine Arts - MFA
    Social Work - MSW
    Business - MBA
    Religion - MDiv
    Law - JD

    Each of these "terminal degrees" are often the highest degrees earned by professors in these disciplines. These degrees tend to have more requirements (some MUCH more) than MA or MS degrees. Each of these disciplines also have doctoral degrees that are considered "higher" than the terminal degrees listed above.

    Tony Pina
    Administrator, Northeastern Illinois University
  5. Andy Borchers

    Andy Borchers New Member

    I think Intro2life hit it on the head. The answer does vary by discipline. For example, in architecture and art there are few doctoral programs. So a Masters degree in architecture or art (MFA) is commonly conidered terminal. In business a DBA or PhD is the norm. In a profession like law or medicine, a JD or MD is usually considered "terminal". Most liberal studies and science fields consider the PhD to be terminal.

    Also, at times accreditors may lighten their expectations due to market conditions in a discipline. Folks like ACBSP (and I think AACSB?) will accept a person with an MBA and CPA as terminal in accounting, even though most folks wouldn't consider this to be the case.

    Regards - Andy
  6. Rich Douglas

    Rich Douglas Well-Known Member

    I'll chime in just to concur with what others have said.
  7. lifelonglearner

    lifelonglearner New Member

    At the graduate level (where, in part, I deal with hiring faculty) I have only ever heard it used in reference to holding a Ph.D. in a particular field, and thereby being qualified to teach in that field.

    I have not heard it used when referring to where a person is with their degree work, or used in the context of a professional or vocational degree. I cannot think of a single professional of vocational degree where a Ph.D cannot be earned in the same or closely related field.

    Last edited by a moderator: Mar 21, 2005
  8. nosborne48

    nosborne48 Well-Known Member


    I'm sorry; I'm not sure that I entirely understand your post. Do you mean to disagree with the other opinions? In your opinion, is the Ph.D. alone a terminal degree?

  9. lifelonglearner

    lifelonglearner New Member

    Yes this is my opinion, based on the way the term "terminal degree" is used in academic settings. Terminal degree = Ph.D. I would include the equivalents; Th.D, D. Litt., ... , but would not include any professional or vocational doctorates.

    I do not mean to imply that anyone with an academic masters, professional or vocational degree is not qualified to teach - they are often as good or better in the classroom than a newly minted Ph.D., especially when they have extensive experience in the field they are teaching and some teacher training.

    It is generally accepted that a person with a Ph.D. is a) and expert in their subject area, b) fully capable of undertaking research, and c) has classroom teaching experience.

  10. marilynd

    marilynd New Member

    lifelonglearner's post does not jive with my experience with SACS visiting teams, who readily except Tony's list as specifically terminal degrees. They are pretty specific in what they will accept. If you claim to have x% of terminal degrees on faculty, they use their method of counting, not yours.

    I have always understood "terminal degree" to mean the specific degree or level of degree generally required for the highest level of employment in a particular field. There are some fields--computer animation, for instance--in which the bachelor's degree is usually considered terminal. Perhaps this is not the precise way of stating it, but it is how I have always conceived it.

  11. nosborne48

    nosborne48 Well-Known Member


    I am assuming that you are speaking of graduate school as opposed to professional post bachelors programs like law or medicine?

    I am curious to know, then, what you would consider the appropriate degree to be for a tenure track professor of business law?

    Thanks for your insight.
  12. nosborne48

    nosborne48 Well-Known Member

    Oh, BTW, I looked at SACS website to see what degree they consider approprite to teach graduate subjects. SACS says "an earned doctorate/terminal degree" in the subject.

    Doesn't help much.
  13. William H. Walters

    William H. Walters New Member

    I've always understood "terminal degree" to mean a research doctorate, except in (1) law, (2) medicine, and (3) those fields in which no research doctorate is offered.

    The PhD would be the terminal degree in art history, for example, whiile the MFA would be the terminal degree in studio art, a field in which virtually no schools offer the doctorate. I believe the same distinction holds in architecture, where architectural practice is sometimes regarded as a separate field from architectural theory, history, etc.

    Some other fields (librarianship, for example) have tried to draw the same distinction, usually unsuccessfully.
  14. lifelonglearner

    lifelonglearner New Member

    Your observation is correct. Although even in medicine you'll find faculty with a Ph.D, especially for hard science courses like chemistry and biology.

    There are Ph.D programs in specifically in Business Law, and while the vocational J.D. seems to be the basic requirement to practice and teach, you'll find law professors with terminal degrees in Business, Economics, Social Theory, Ethics, History Women's Studies, Philosophy, Public Policy, and many other fields.

    Take a look at the qualifications of some of the faculty at the University of California law school as an example:


    Many of the faculty members actually post their CV.

    David Ball did a Ph.D in Theology and Law. His dissertation was titled: "John Calvin's contribution to the emergence of judicial review; source of the judicial duty to disobey unconstitutional laws"



    There are differences between law schools whose primary mission is to churn out practicing lawyers and those who have a broader academic mission.

    Last edited by a moderator: Mar 21, 2005
  15. Rob Coates

    Rob Coates New Member

    "Terminal Degree" doesn't always refer to the highest attainable degree in a particular field. An example is the Ed.S or Psy.S. in School Psychology. Both are considered terminal degrees yet one can also earn a Ph.D., Ed.D., or Psy.D. in School Psyc. as well.
  16. Matt R

    Matt R New Member

    My two cents

    I have heard 'terminal degree' applied at a specific college or university in regard to the highest degree that school or program within the school offers, e.g., if they offer BS/BA and MS/MA degrees, but not doctorates, then they are a 'terminal masters' program. Many regional universities 'terminate' their offerings at the masters level, and one must then go on to a 'flagship' university to earn the doctorate. When discussing programs with my collegues, it is common to hear, "oh, XYZ University is terminal masters - you need to look at ABC U if you want a PhD".

    Disclaimer: XYZ U is on probation anyway :)
  17. lifelonglearner

    lifelonglearner New Member

    A couple of phone calls later ....

    Others tell me their common language is to talk about "terminal professional degrees" (meaning the M.Ed, Ed.D, M.Div., J.D. ...) and the "terminal degree" (meaning the Ph.D or equivalent).

    Most California public universities require that the appropriate degree be listed in all academic job announcements.

  18. nosborne48

    nosborne48 Well-Known Member

    So maybe I'm asking the wrong question. Maby I should ask, "What does it mean to hold a terminal degree in terms of academic employment?"

    Boalt Hall does indeed employ a variety of doctors but in this as in so many other things, Boalt Hall is a bit of an anomoly. ;)

    UC Berkeley's law school offers the usual spread of law degrees (J.D., LL.M., and J.S.D.) but it also (most unusually) offers the Ph.D. (M.A. for non finishers) in Jurisprudence an Social Policy.

    Judging from the web site, Berkeley wants to attract LOTS of J.S.P. Ph.D. students and makes no effort at all to attract J.S.D. students. Odd, because Boalt Hall considers the Ph.D. to be the higher ranked degree judging by their commencement order.

    In any event, I doubt that any law school would long remain ABA accredited if a majority of its law professors lacked the J.D.
  19. lifelonglearner

    lifelonglearner New Member

    So maybe I'm asking the wrong question. Maby I should ask, "What does it mean to hold a terminal degree in terms of academic employment?"

    I do not understand your question.

  20. Jack Tracey

    Jack Tracey New Member

    I would agree with Tony's post, at least in regards to the fact that even though a PhD in Social Work exists, and can be earned in most university Social Work departments, the MSW is considered to be the terminal degree. Why? Maybe it's got to do with licensure? Otherwise, I really don't know. Also, consider this hypothetical situation. A person enrolls in a PhD program and after several years of coursework, etc. withdraws from the program without completing their dissertation. Subsequently, they are awarded a Masters degree for their efforts. Is this Masters degree not referred to as a "terminal degree" or "terminal Masters degree?"

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