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What is a Terminal Degree?

A terminal degree is the highest level of education you can achieve within a particular field.
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The faculty job description lists “Terminal degree required.” The college website boasts, “95% of our faculty have a terminal degree in their field." But what does that mean – and when and why is a terminal degree necessary?

Terminal degrees are the highest level of education you can achieve in a particular field. According to Dr. Leslie Campbell, an associate professor in business administration and management at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), having the credential might help you gain industry credibility and demonstrate expertise in your field. It may also help you advance your career into higher education, enter a professional field that requires a terminal credential or help you change your course altogether.

As degrees continue to expand and evolve, it can be confusing to know which programs are terminal, especially when you consider how the names of the specific degrees often vary by discipline.

Still, you shouldn’t need an advanced degree to understand what a terminal degree is, so let's unpack the concept.

What Degrees are Considered Terminal?

A blue infographic piece with the text Terminal Degree The highest level of education you can achieve within a particular field.First, it's important to note that the designation 'terminal degree' is used primarily in the U.S. Most commonly, it refers to the highest academic degree that can be awarded in a particular field. This is almost always a doctoral or graduate degree earned after a bachelor’s degree.

In the U.S., the highest academic degree available is usually a Doctor of Philosophy degree, or PhD. Someone with a PhD in a traditional academic or technical field of study (such as the humanities, sciences, engineering, etc.) can be said to hold a terminal degree.

Some disciplines offer doctoral degrees that go by a different name. For example, an educator might earn their Doctor of Education, or EdD, to achieve the terminal degree in education.

According to the 2019 United States Census Bureau, people with doctoral degrees aged 25 and over have more than doubled from 2000 to 4.5 million degree holders. Campbell said earning that doctoral credential is no small feat. 

 "It is called a terminal degree for a reason; there is no higher degree that can be obtained. This means you have achieved the pinnacle of academic study," Campbell said. "... Doing so requires tenacity, dedication and a high level of commitment."

What is a Terminal Master's Degree?

In some cases, a master’s degree qualifies as a terminal degree in a particular field or discipline.

This is often true when there are no doctoral degrees available. For example, according to the American Library Association (ALA), a master's degree in librarianship (such as a Master of Library and Information Science) is the appropriate terminal degree for a professional librarian.

Benjamin Nugent with the text Benjamin Nugent

Artists who have completed graduate studies in creative fields such as visual or performing arts, writing, photography or filmmaking might have a Master of Fine Arts (MFA). While it's possible to earn a PhD in some of these fields, Benjamin Nugent, associate professor of English and the former director of SNHU's Mountainview Low-Residency MFA, said the MFA is still considered the terminal program in disciplines such as creative writing.

"Pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing is not the norm, the way it is in English," Nugent said. "Every job listing for a creative writing professorship that I see still accepts an MFA as the terminal degree required ... I don’t have a PhD, and neither do any of the creative writing professors I know who write fiction or creative nonfiction. Poets are a different story; they often attain PhDs in English. I also think that for creative writers interested in the methodology of teaching composition and rhetoric, a PhD in that field could be an excellent choice."

Much less commonly, a terminal degree might refer to a master’s degree awarded to a graduate student who completes a certain amount of coursework but ultimately does not pursue a doctoral degree, either for personal or academic reasons or because a doctoral degree program isn't available at the institution.

Terminal Degrees by Discipline

When deciding what degree you need, consider your career aspirations. In some situations, you'll find you have options.

For example, if you're looking to advance your business education with a terminal degree, you can either aspire to a business-focused PhD program or a Doctor of Business Administration (DBA). Both degrees are considered terminal, but the former is considered an academic doctorate while the latter is a professional doctorate. Your choice depends on the path you'd like to take, either into academics and research or maintaining your career in business.

So, do you hope to teach at the college level, preparing the next generation of professionals for the workforce? Or are you looking to advance your current career or pursue another profession that requires a terminal degree?

Setting professional goals will help you determine which degree to pursue.

Traditional Academic Disciplines

Dr. Leslie Campbell with the text Dr. Leslie CampbellWhen it comes to higher education professorships, some full-time academic faculty positions often require candidates to hold a terminal degree in their field. This is particularly true if you're pursuing a tenured position or vying for a promotion, according to Campbell.

Some institutions may also seek candidates with specific experiences beyond a terminal degree. "An MFA plus a well-received book published by a respected press is what you really need to get hired," Nugent said about landing a creative writing professorship.

In contrast, teaching as an adjunct faculty at the collegiate level doesn't necessarily require the most advanced degree. This is why you sometimes see colleges and universities touting the percentage of their faculty with terminal degrees; it’s a way to signal faculty members’ credentials and mastery of a subject.

Professional Disciplines

Terminal credentials are somewhat more complicated when it comes to professional degrees. Earning a professional degree means a person has completed their academic studies in preparation to enter a professional field, according to "The Greenwood Dictionary of Education: Second Edition."

Common examples of such professional degrees are Doctor of Medicine (MD) for physicians and the Juris Doctor (JD) for lawyers. The MD and JD are currently and widely considered terminal degrees in the U.S., even though other post-doctoral degrees in these fields exist.

For example, the Doctor of Juridical Science (JSD) is a research doctorate in law. The National Association for Law Placement (NALP), as well as some colleges and universities, consider the JSD to be the most advanced law degree. For now, though, most people outside of education still count the JD as the terminal degree in law. The JD-versus-JSD debate highlights the sometimes-ambiguous distinction between doctoral degree programs focusing on research and scholarship and those emphasizing professional practice.

There's a similar distinction when it comes to terminal degrees in the field of nursing. Nurses today with a Master's in Nursing degree (MSN) can choose to pursue either a PhD or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) as a terminal degree. The former trains scientists and researchers, while the latter targets practitioners, but both doctoral programs serve to advance nursing practice overall, wrote Shaké Ketefian and Richard W. Redman in their scholarly work examining the programs.

The DNP is a relatively new option for nurses who want a terminal degree in nursing practice. In fact, it was only in 2004 that the American Association of Colleges and Nursing (AACN) endorsed “moving the current level of preparation necessary for advanced nursing practice from the master’s degree to the doctorate-level by the year 2015.”

In other words, the designated terminal degrees for a given field are subject to change in accordance with evolving professional requirements and regulations.

Deciding Your Course of Action

If you're wondering whether you need a terminal degree, the answer depends on both your particular field of study and your professional goals.

The degree signals mastery of your discipline in terms of breadth and depth. "This accomplishment is one to be very proud of and deserves all the respect that comes with it," Campbell said.

However, it is possible to move ahead career-wise through a combination of advanced degrees and work experience. This is especially true in emerging fields or disciplines that might not yet offer accredited doctoral degrees or other credentials.

Finally, keep in mind that as degree programs and professional requirements change, so too might the associated terminal degree. Specific graduate schools, professional organizations and accrediting bodies will usually have the latest information about the degrees by discipline.

Online. On campus. Choose your program from 200+ SNHU degrees that can take you where you want to go.

Sofia Tokar is a freelance copywriter and editor in higher education. Follow her on Twitter @stokar or connect on LinkedIn.

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