What is a Terminal Degree?

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According to Inside Higher Ed, at least one terminal degree may be on life support after a decision by Harvard. The institution has announced plans to eliminate its Ed.D. program and replace it with a Ph.D. instead. Harvard was the first in the nation to offer an Ed.D. degree, and the recent decision signals the end of 90 years of tradition at the school. It has also spurred discussion about which terminal degrees are appropriate for specific fields of study.

What Is A Terminal Degree?

A terminal degree is one that marks the end of the course of study for a particular field. Most commonly, professional or doctoral programs represent the last level of academia. However, in some cases, graduate or even associate degrees can be considered terminal.

While both the Ed.D. and Ph.D. are terminal degrees, Harvard's decision reflects a debate within the higher education community as to the type of knowledge needed in a particular field. Ph.D. programs are generally considered research-based while other terminal degrees, such as the Ed.D., offer professional preparation. According to Harvard, their Ed.D. degree was already a research program and changing to a Ph.D. simply reinforces that fact.

Types of Terminal Degrees

The discussion at Harvard spotlights the difference in terminal degree programs and how they are utilized by students. While a Ph.D. may be the most common terminal degree, it is certainly not the only one to be found. A terminal degree can include any of the following programs:

Associate in Applied Science (AAS): It may surprise you to discover an associate degree can be considered terminal, but the Illinois Board of Higher Education says the AAS is not designed to transfer to a four year institution. Students earning an AAS commonly study fields such as health, business or information technology. Depending on their degree specialization, graduates with an AAS may go on to work in these occupational fields:

  • Nursing
  • Computer support services
  • Office administration
  • Medical assisting

Master of Business Administration (MBA): There is some debate regarding whether an MBA is a terminal degree. From an academic standpoint, business students can certainly continue their education to earn either a Doctor of Business Administration or a Ph.D. in a related business field. However, many career-minded business professionals consider an MBA a terminal degree when it comes to practical business knowledge. MBA graduates are generally qualified to work in executive positions and may specialize in one of the following areas:

  • Finance
  • Marketing
  • Management information systems
  • International business

Master of Fine Arts (MFA): For creative types, the MFA may be the terminal degree of choice. According to the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design, this is a professional degree appropriate for those intending to become practicing artists or designers. Some of the more common MFA concentrations include the following subject areas:

  • Theatre
  • Creative writing
  • Playwriting
  • Sculpture
  • Art design

Juris Doctorate (J.D.): As a professional degree, a J.D. from an approved institution is required to take a state's bar exam and begin the practice of law. While working as an attorney is the logical extension of earning a JD degree, there are many other career options for those attaining this level of education. According to the South Texas College of Law, there are more than 300 occupations available to those with a law degree including the following professions:

  • Mediator
  • Court administrator
  • Law school professor
  • Foreign service officer
  • Legislative analyst

Doctor of Medicine (M.D.): Within the medical field, an M.D. is the most common terminal degree. Students wishing to pursue this degree should be prepared to spend eight years or more completing educational requirements before beginning a residency program. In exchange for the knowledge gained through this rigorous education, individuals with an M.D. are often well-compensated. Graduates may go on to work in one of the following medical specialties:

  • Family practice
  • Surgery
  • Anesthesiology
  • Oncology
  • Pediatrics

Harvard may be questioning the merits of an Ed.D. compared to a Ph.D., but there is no debating that a terminal degree opens up new career opportunities. In addition, these degrees can offer you a certain level of satisfaction knowing you have reached the top of your educational field.