The Quick Answer: In any given field, a terminal degree is the highest degree one can achieve IN that field of study and in most cases, is either a master’s or doctorate degree level of education.
A Terminal Degree May Not Be What You Think
“What do you mean by ‘terminal degree'”? For many, this expression might conjure up thoughts of airports or train stations and the like. Or, worse, “terminal” might evoke associations linked to matters of serious health consequences. In reality, the roots of the word are much more benign and are related to cultural and mythological influences upon language. Or, is it the other way around?
Terminal simply comes from the Latin word, terminus. The word meant boundary or boundary-mark, and came to commonly indicate the limit or end of something. Culturally, Terminus, as no surprise, became the name of the Roman god of boundaries.
The expression “terminal degree” is very common in the United States, but not as common in other countries. The different ways in which the term is used in the U.S. can also cause some confusion. We’ll seek to clarify the different applications of terminal degree in the context of American higher education and provide suggestions on how to begin looking for an online terminal degree.
Just what is a Terminal Degree?
With this information, we can see that when one hears of a “terminal degree” what is being referred to is a degree that sets the (often highest) boundary or limit in that particular field. This means that when a person earns a terminal degree in a given field, that person either cannot earn any higher degrees in that same field, or they have completed a sufficient amount of academic work to qualify them for employment in a certain type of work. In both cases, those who’ve earned a terminal degree have reached the boundary-mark or limit of degree possibilities in that field.
So now that we have a better idea of the meaning and history of the term, let’s drill down a bit deeper into the different fields and degree levels colleges, universities, and employers consider to be terminal degrees.
Why Are Different Degrees Called “Terminal Degrees”?
As mentioned above, terminal in the field of formal academic training means that more university or college education in the form of earning a degree is out of the question. Often, a doctoral degree happens to be the last stage of the academic journey. However, this is not always the case. In many fields, a master’s degree, or even a bachelor’s degree is considered a terminal degree.
The differences in the use of the expression “terminal degree” are guided by the purposes of the degree. If the field is in research or education, the terminal degree will often be the doctorate. If obtaining professional qualifications stands behind the degree the terminal degree in question can be at the bachelor’s level, or master’s level, or at the doctoral level. In the Arts, also, it is often the case that a master’s degree is terminal.
Research, Professions, Fine Arts
Now let’s look at some of the most common terminal degrees. Although the types of terminal degrees vary and can be organized in different ways, we have chosen to arrange them into three broad categories. This list is certainly not exhaustive. We provide it to give some examples of the different sorts of terminal degrees that are currently offered.
The first group is about terminal degrees that seem to be oriented towards the academic world. By this, we mean simply that the work that occupies those holding a terminal degree in this field tends to post-secondary teaching and/or research. This trait seems to be common to those in the sciences, law, humanities, arts, and other fields.
The second group focuses on those terminal degrees that are oriented towards a profession or employment outside of academic research and teaching. These will be terminal degrees in the fields of, for example, medicine, law, business, and others.
The third and final kind of terminal degree is in the field of fine arts. An art is oriented towards the creation of aesthetic realities, such as sculpture, music, painting and similar purposes that do not refer to academic or professional pursuits.
Research-Academic Terminal Degrees
- Doctor of Philosophy-PhD (various fields)
- Doctor of Education-EdD
- Educational Specialist-EdS
- Doctor of Information Technology-DIT
- Master of Library and Information Science-MLIS
- Doctor of Theology-ThD
- Doctor of Juridical Science-JSD
Professional Terminal Degrees
- Doctor of Medicine-MD or OD
- Doctor of Jurisprudence-JD
- Doctor of Canon Law-JCD
- Doctor of Ministry-DMin
- Master of Art and Design-MAD
- Master of Architecture-MArch
- Doctor of Architecture-DArch
- Master of Graphic Design-MGraph
- Business Management-MBA
- Doctor of Business Management-DMgt
- Radiation Therapist-BRAd
- Speech and Language Therapist-MA or MS
- Engineering-BEng, MEng
- Doctor of Chiropractic-DC
Fine Arts Terminal Degrees
- Doctor of Arts-DA
- Doctor of Music-DM
- Doctor of Music Arts-DMA
- Master of Fine Arts-MFA
Why Would a Person Earn a Terminal Degree?
Some occupations and careers require a terminal degree as a condition of work and employment in the field. Professional terminal degrees, like doctorates in medicine or jurisprudence (law), provide needed education in their fields. They also require, in order to complete and earn the degree, that the degree candidate passes standard tests of licensure in order to practice their profession. In many other fields earning a terminal degree is not absolutely necessary. However, in order to work in the field, a terminal degree provides an indispensable foundation in terms of methodology, exposure to the discipline, and personal connections and networking, that without a terminal degree, make the real chances of working in that field very slim.
Value of the Education
While it is true that earning a terminal degree is very often an absolute or practical necessity for succeeding or advancing in a career field, there are other motivations why people seek a terminal degree. In addition to potentially greater earning potential and the sense of personal satisfaction and accomplishment, the education itself has a high value. Earning a terminal degree entails that a person has demonstrated their knowledge and competency in a given field to qualified experts. It may be hard to put a number value on the personal, psychological, intellectual value earning a terminal degree provides, but it’s also undeniable that personal betterment is always worthwhile.
Societal Need for Experts with Terminal Degrees
In any healthy and well-ordered society there is harmony and balance. Advanced research and teaching, efficient and conscientious professionals, and the transcendent beauty that the arts unveil all help to contribute to the personal well-being of those holding a terminal degree. They also provide necessary gifts and services to the greater community. A harmonious society also requires safety and control measures be in place in order to assure that valid research and instruction is taking place by qualified experts, that medical and legal services are safe and legitimate, and that the deepest potential for the good of others and of nature be preserved and well-represented in our arts. Many are not able to judge certain fields outside of their experience and expertise. The holding of a terminal degree from an accredited institution, therefore, provides a social benefit because it provides an accessible confirmation of personal qualifications and experience to others who need the services of experts but are not able to give their own direct evaluations.
Career Advancement and Change
Earning a terminal degree will often be just what is needed to move up in a field, or even move into an entirely different area of employment.
Education Beyond the Terminal Degree
Completing a terminal degree does not mean that learning is at an end. In fact, this would run contrary to the spirit that often informs individuals who are seeking to enter a terminal degree program or who have already earned a terminal degree. There remain many avenues of further education. Not many avenues, however, will end in another degree unless you decide to earn a terminal degree in a different field. Additional opportunities for education beyond the terminal degree include:
- Post-doctoral studies (for those with a terminal doctoral degree)
- Specialized training
- Continuing Education
- Additional Certification
How to Earn a Terminal Degree Online
Nowadays there are abundant opportunities for committed and ambitious students to earn quality online terminal degrees quickly, efficiently, and at a lower cost than comparable on-site programs. Just be prepared and ready to put in the work it takes to get accepted into and complete that terminal degree.
While only a few fields offer terminal degrees at the bachelor’s level, most terminal degrees are at least master’s level degrees. This means that most applicants to terminal degree programs will have already earned a college or university degree, and likely also hold a master’s degree.
It makes good sense to earn the best grades possible at any level of college or university education. The time and cost investments for earning a degree demand one’s best efforts. Earning top grades is especially important if you’re hoping to advance to a terminal degree program. Programs with good reputations and faculties and that offer strong scholarship and financial assistance opportunities are both highly selective and competitive. So, think, plan, and prepare with due diligence if you hoping to someday try to get into a terminal degree program.
Online Schools Center and other sites offer helpful profiles of terminal degrees that can be earned online. Online Schools Center also has a large number of informational articles on different degree fields as well as rankings and profiles of many of the top online terminal degree programs.
Financing a Terminal Degree
The best preparation for making the most of scholarship and other financial assistance options is to literally do your homework in class and out of class. By doing homework out of class we mean that you need to explore your options and look for online terminal degree programs that offer scholarships, assistantships, and other forms of financing incentives. Here are some key tips for making the most of financial aid possibilities:
- Get good grades now!
- Explore financing and scholarship packages offered at different programs
- Reduce overall cost and lessen the workload of a terminal degree by exploring what credits can be counted for transfer into the terminal degree program
- Time is money, so look into accelerated programs
Online Schools Center provides many resources to help those looking to enter a terminal degree to learn more about financing such a degree.