What Is A Terminal Degree And How Can It Benefit Your Future

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When earning your higher education degrees, you’ll come across the term “terminal degree.” Like most students, you’ll probably take a moment to think to yourself, “What is a terminal degree?”


While the answer is pretty straightforward — a terminal degree is the final degree in a given field — there are nuances as to what constitutes a terminal degree. That’s because some fields end with a master’s, but others can go as far as PhDs.


To make it easier to understand, we will break down everything you need to know about a terminal degree. That way, you can decide what degree you want or need to pursue based on your career goals.



Group of graduates throwing their hats in the air
Photo by Poodar Chu on Unsplash



What Is A Terminal Degree?

As briefly mentioned, a terminal degree is the highest degree in a field. In many subjects, this results in a PhD, or a doctor of philosophy. However, some fields require professional degrees like in law or medicine. These fields legally require that a person earns their professional degree before they are able to practice.


A terminal degree may also be a master’s degree, in some cases. For example, a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) and Master Architect (MArch) are the highest degree level in these given fields.


The last case of a terminal degree is when a student is not granted entry into a PhD program by a university. This means that their master’s degree is their final degree earned. This may happen when too many students are already earning their PhD in a subject and there isn’t enough demand in the workplace. So, the degree may not be worthwhile and the master’s degree would suffice.



Terminal Vs. Non-Terminal Degrees

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.



5 Types Of Terminal Degrees

Terminal degrees are highly dependent on your field of study. Here’s a look at some of the different terminal degrees awarded by field.



1. PhD


A PhD, or Doctor of Philosophy, is the most common type of terminal degree. Some fields that award PhDs include:

  • Chemistry
  • Biology
  • Psychology
  • English
  • Education
  • Physics


2. Ed.D


A Doctor of Education is another terminal degree that is comparable in level to a PhD in Education. An Ed.D is a better fit for those with career goals to go into:

  • Academic Administration
  • Technology
  • Leadership
  • Policy Making


3. DA


A Doctor of Arts degree offers students the opportunity to delve into the advanced aspects in their field. This sets them up to be able to teach the subject to others at a high level, including:

  • Mathematics
  • History
  • English


4. DEng, Dr. Eng, EngD


A Doctor of Engineering would be like the PhD of Engineering, if that existed. It’s a Doctor of Engineering because the field is practical by nature, so the education is focused on the application rather than solely research.



5. Habilitation Degree


In the United States, the most common terminal degree is a PhD. However, in Germany, the habilitation degree exists which is a step higher than a PhD. This degree requires a postdoctoral thesis.



Professional Degrees

There are several professions in which a person must first qualify before they can practice. For the most part, these are jobs that are highly specialized, so the training and education is highly practical in nature.


Here’s a look at some common professional degrees (which happen to be the terminal degree, too):

  • Law
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Theology and Ministry
  • Dental Care
  • Clinical Healthcare
  • Chiropractic Therapy
  • Veterinary Medicine
  • Optometry
  • Engineering


Female doctor
Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash



Terminal Degrees: Research Vs. Non-Research

Terminal degrees can be further broken down by their amount of research.





Some terminal degrees, like PhD, are research-based. These degrees result in a dissertation. For a dissertation, a student must complete independent research and then share their findings in a well-written paper. This is also often accompanied by an oral presentation.



Non-Research Based


Other terminal degrees may not require as much research as a PhD. For example, most professional degrees are not considered to be research terminal degrees. Some of these degrees include a Master of Business Administration (MBA) and Doctor of Medicine (M.D.).



Benefits Of Terminal Degrees

If you’re considering whether or not to earn a terminal degree, there are various considerations that come into play.


For starters, the cost and location of the program is of importance.


However, it’s also useful to think about the various benefits of earning your degree. Sometimes, a terminal degree is absolutely necessary for a specific career (like becoming a doctor or lawyer), and in other cases, it opens the door for so much potential.


Here are some of the main benefits of terminal degrees:



1. Earning Potential


In any career, having the highest form of education will promote earning the highest potential salaries. This is because you’ll be qualified for the highest positions.



2. Leadership Opportunities


The education provided at these levels prepares you for leadership positions within your field of study. From the opportunity to be a contributing writer to global journals or running seminars, you’re able to share your skills and expertise with others to move the field forward.



3. Career Flexibility


When you are qualified for any position within a field, then you have maximized career flexibility.



4. Knowledge


Quantifying the knowledge and skills you gain when earning your terminal degree is impossible. Having the ability to change or shape the world at the hands of knowledge is a gift that keeps giving to the future generations!



Earning Terminal Degrees Online

Where can you earn your terminal degree? Depending on your program of choice, you can find universities and colleges that support your needs. One way to earn your terminal degree without spending too much money is to consider studying at an online college.


The University of the People offers tuition-free programs for those seeking their master’s degree. Whether you want to stop formal education with a master’s degree as your terminal degree or continue on to earn a PhD, the University of the People can help you along your journey.


The two master’s degrees offered (along with Associate’s and Bachelor’s degrees) are in the field of Education and Business Administration.



The Wrap Up

Terminal degrees are the highest form of education one can receive in their given field. With a terminal degree of a PhD, Master’s degree or professional degree, you can open the door to your dream career!