What is a Terminal Degree?

A terminal degree is the 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. Though this is typically earned in the form of a PhD (also known as a Doctor of Philosophy degree), an EdD (Doctor of Education) or a professional degree such as a JD (Juris Doctorate), a terminal degree can take shape in different ways depending on each program. A terminal degree is not usually necessary to enter the workforce in a student’s chosen field, but it may be a prerequisite before candidates are eligible for promotion to the highest-ranking position in their respective industries.

Types of Terminal Degrees

There are several main types of terminal degrees for most academic disciplines. All doctorate degrees are considered terminal degrees in the United States, but not all terminal degrees are doctorate level. In fact, the specifics of what constitutes a terminal degree can differ greatly based on what’s required by each the program and field. While there are various titles for the different doctorate degrees in different disciplines, there are some major types of terminal degrees and the academic tracks that lead to these degrees.

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

The most common type of terminal degree, a Doctor of Philosophy degree (PhD), indicates that the student has reached the highest level of education available in most of the disciplines offered by schools today. Some of these fields include:

  • Engineering (civil, electronic, mechanical, communications, etc.)
  • Physical therapy
  • Chemistry
  • Biology
  • Psychology
  • Physics
  • English
  • Education

For most professionals with an academic degree, a PhD will be the highest level of education available in their field.

Doctor of Education (EdD)

While some schools award a PhD in education, there are others that end in a Doctor of Education. Some schools even award both degrees, depending on if you are on a business leadership or academia track. Here are some of the common education programs that culminate in an EdD:

  • Curriculum
  • Counseling
  • Education administration
  • Policy making
  • Leadership
  • Human resources
  • Education supervision
  • Technology
  • Adult education

Doctor of Arts (DA)

A PhD allows students to conduct research and apply their expertise, while a Doctor of Arts program lets students concentrate on studying the more advanced aspect of their chosen field, in preparation to teach the subject. Here are some fields that may culminate in a Doctor of Arts:

  • Mathematics
  • English
  • History

A Doctor of Fine Arts (DFA) is a terminal degree in the UK but is only an honorary degree in the US..

Doctor of Engineering (DEng, Dr. Eng, EngD)

A Doctor of Engineering is often seen as equivalent to a PhD in Engineering, but some programs may focus more on the application of research rather than the research itself.

Professional Degrees

A professional degree is a certain level of credential that can be earned prior to entering a specific workforce (and may be required, in many cases). They are designed to provide students with the background needed to do a specialized job. Professional degrees can take shape in a wide range of programs and subjects, but their goal is the same: to give students the knowledge they’ll need to excel in their chosen field.

Professional degrees typically include three stages of learning, the highest level of which is considered a terminal degree. Some of the fields and careers that are likely to require a terminal professional degree include:

  • Law (JD)
  • Clinical healthcare
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Dental care (DDS)
  • Theology and ministry
  • Engineering
  • Chiropractic therapy (DC)
  • Veterinary medicine (DVM)
  • Optometry

Like a doctoral degree, a professional degree usually takes 5-7 years to complete.

Master’s Degrees

In some cases, a master’s degree may be considered a terminal degree. Usually, if this is the case, it’s because a higher level of education isn’t necessary to achieve expertise in the student’s particular field.

For example, a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) may be sufficient for graduates looking to enter a creative field like performing arts, film, photography, and the like. In addition, business students may not need to advance beyond the master’s level; because of this, the MBA is considered a terminal degree, and most business students do not go on to earn a doctoral degree.

Other terminal master’s degrees include:

  • Master of Social Work (MSW)
  • Master of Architecture (MArch)
  • Master of Library Science (MLS)

Differences Between EdD and PhD

Though the EdD and PhD 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 PhD 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, PhD 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 PhD requires more schooling than an EdD. In the U.S., a PhD 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 PhD 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.

At its heart, a PhD is an academic career designed to put candidates on the path to advance and contribute to their chosen field on a larger scale. An EdD is designed to give students the tools needed to reach the top of their field in a more hands-on way.

Terminal Degree FAQ

Are there degrees higher than doctorates?

In the United States, the doctorate is the highest degree a person can earn. However, this is not the case in other countries. In the UK, Ireland and some other countries, graduate level students can earn an even higher doctorate degree, called the Doctor of Letters (DLitt) or a Doctor of Science (DSc).

Can I get scholarships for a terminal degree?

Yes! As a doctoral student, you will be eligible for a number of grants, scholarships and fellowships that your undergraduate student counterparts cannot apply for. There are a lot of opportunities for students to gain access to funding to cover all or a portion of their doctoral education.

Can I have two doctoral degrees?

Yes, many lifelong learners hold more than one terminal degree. Some pair degrees together that complement each other, such as a JD and an EdD if they are interested in educational law and lobbying and policymaking. Earning multiple doctoral degrees is an incredible accomplishment.

Can you earn a terminal degree online?

Thanks to vast improvements in delivery options and course software, you can now earn a terminal degree online. With this level of education, you may find yourself able to take the majority of your coursework online and then travel to your chosen school for your dissertation meetings. In some cases, you can earn your doctorate 100% online, depending on the school and the capabilities of the program. If you attend an online program with “Live” sessions, you will experience live classroom time from the comfort of wherever you have your computer (or mobile device, in some programs), and the experience of taking classes with a diverse population who lives all around the country.

What do you need to earn a doctoral degree?

Most doctorate programs require at least a master’s degree in a related field, but some will accept just a bachelor’s degree. Doctorate programs do require advanced research and intense coursework and culminate with a thesis and dissertation that may take years to complete. You may need to take the GRE (Graduate Readiness Exam), although more and more programs are beginning to consider admitting students without these scores.