What is a Terminal Degree? – And Alternatives to consider (2023)

Terminal degrees often refer to academic programs that typically do not lead to further advanced studies. Terminal degrees may take on a different form from program to program. One field may consider one type of degree to be terminal, while another field may consider a different type of degree to be terminal.

In some fields, lower degrees are considered terminal because achieving expertise in the field doesn’t require such a high level of education. There might be options in the field to earn a higher degree but they are rare and uncommon to pursue.

It can be quite a herculean task knowing what degrees are terminal since the name of degrees frequently differs by discipline.

In this article, we will explain what a terminal degree is, its types, and alternatives to consider.

What Degrees are Considered Terminal?

Terminal degrees vary from field to field and profession to profession. Although a Ph.D. is a terminal degree in many fields, such as computer science, it is not a terminal degree in every field. For example, the terminal degree to become a practicing medical doctor is an MD; though, occasionally a doctor—especially one that meets with patients and conducts original research—will have both an MD and a Ph.D.

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 (Ph.D.)
  • Doctor of Education (EdD)
  • Doctor of Medicine (MD)
  • Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS)
  • Doctor of Dental Medicine (DDM)
  • Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM)
  • Juris Doctor (JD)
  • Master of Fine Arts (MFA)
  • Master of Architecture (MArch)


If you want to clarify whether the terminal degree in your field has recently changed or not, then you might consider either reaching out to a practicing colleague or a professional organization, such as the American Institute of Architects, to gain the most up-to-date information.

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.

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 Ph.D. 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 Ph.D. 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 Ph.D., 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 Ph.D. in that discipline might also be a great option for creative writers who are interested in the methods of instructing composition and rhetoric.”

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 offered at the institution.


5 Types Of Terminal Degrees

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

1. PhD

A Ph.D., 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 Ph.D. 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 a Ph.D. 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 Ph.D. However, in Germany, a habilitation degree exists which is a step higher than a Ph.D. This degree requires a postdoctoral thesis.

Terminal Degrees by Discipline

When choosing a degree, it’s pertinent you consider your career goals. In some situations, you’ll find you have options.

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.

Differences Between EdD and PhD

Though the EdD and Ph.D. are both terminal degrees, they differ when it comes to the details of each type of program. Before they’re eligible to complete a traditional Ph.D. program, students will need to contribute to their field. This usually takes place in the form of a dissertation or thesis, which presents new research or a groundbreaking perspective on a topic that’s relevant to their program and career. To achieve this, Ph.D. candidates will also need to obtain a thorough mastery of their chosen subject through years of intensive research.

EdD students are more likely to use existing research and information and apply it to real-life situations being faced by schools in today’s society. They may contribute to their field in the form of improving current practices instead of introducing new information but are still required to complete a thesis and dissertation, although there is a wider variety of topics to choose from.

A Ph.D. requires more schooling than an EdD. In the U.S., a Ph.D. candidate must complete a minimum of 90 credits to be eligible for the terminal degree. By contrast, an EdD candidate usually needs to earn just 60 credits. A Ph.D. prepares students for a research-filled and study-focused career, often in a laboratory or university setting. An EdD, however, is more of a management and leadership degree. It prepares students for a career overseeing other employees in a business setting, while at the same time making sure their facility or organization continues to run smoothly and effectively.

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.

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.”

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.


Alternatives to terminal degrees

A terminal degree isn’t necessary for every individual or career. As you consider whether a terminal degree might be a worthwhile investment, consider some alternative ways to build job-ready skills:

  • Bachelor’s degree: A bachelor’s degree is the most common entry-level educational requirement for many roles, according to the BLS
  • Certifications or certificates: By earning an industry credential, such as a certification or Professional Certificate, you can expand your skill set while enhancing your resume.
  • Online courses: Focus on a particular skill with a flexible online course. Learning online often means learning at your own pace.


Although you don’t always need a terminal degree to join the professional world, having one can be very beneficial. This is especially the case if you are hoping to work in an executive position or advance in your career.

Many professionals get to a place in their careers where they feel stuck. Obtaining a terminal degree can help you achieve a higher salary and that dream job. It can be a great opportunity for your career.

The degree signifies breadth and depth of discipline competence. This feat merits all due attention.

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 Ph.D. 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 a 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 “terminal degree for discipline” meaning?

As discussed in detail above, the terminal degree is the highest degree available in an academic discipline. An academic discipline is an area in which you have decided to earn your terminal degree.

How long does it take to earn a terminal degree?

Depending on the discipline pursued, your terminal degree, such as a doctoral degree, can take between four to six years.

Can I earn a terminal degree online?

Yes, there are many doctoral and Ph.D. degrees that are available through the online distance learning degree format. This is great news, for most advanced degree students are holding down full-time careers, as well as raising a family. An online option will provide you with the convenience and flexibility you need!

Is an MBA degree considered a terminal degree?

In some instances, such as in Business Administration or Social Work and others, a master’s degree is considered a terminal degree. Further education is simply not necessary!

Is a PhD better than an EdD degree?

Each degree has its own requirements; therefore, deciding which one is best for you depends primarily on your end goal.

The PhD will require more credits and also will require you to master your discipline through original research. The EdD will allow you to expand upon existing research. 


About the author: femiwealth

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *