If a particular school subject fascinates you, you might stay in school to study it until you reach the end of the line, or the so-called terminal degree. Depending on the field, a terminal degree can be at any level from an associate degree to a Ph.D. The opportunity to pursue a research degree, whereby you explore original ideas and develop new knowledge, is determined by the field of study and level of degree offered therein.
Associate through Doctorate
Degree options depend on the field and job. An associate degree usually takes two years and is common in areas such as forestry, nursing and business. In some technological and occupational fields this is a terminal degree. However, credits are often transferred to another institution as partial fulfillment of a four-year bachelor's program. Typical fields for bachelor’s degrees include education, computer science, journalism and languages. These are not terminal degrees, because you can usually continue your education and earn a master's or doctorate. Master’s programs last about two years. They're often used in business, education, medicine, engineering and social services. They may be terminal degrees in some fields, such as the fine arts. A master's degree can lead to a doctoral program, which takes several years to complete. Doctorates are always terminal and are often required for research or university positions in disciplines such as mathematics, the sciences and archeology.
While earning a research degree, students are required to do independent work in a field, investigating new ideas. These are often Ph.D. programs focusing on a specific discipline--for example, history, psychology, biology or anthropology--but not a specific job. Many students with a doctorate plan on working in research or teaching at a college or university. Some master’s programs focus on research as well, especially in science and medicine. Bachelor's and associate programs do not generally have research degrees because if students are involved in research, they are learning the process and not working on their own.
Students can earn a professional degree in an associate, bachelor's, master's or doctoral program depending on the subject area. A professional degree prepares a student for employment in a specific field, such as architecture, medicine, engineering, law, education, pharmacy, social work or business administration. Very often students gain real-world experience during the program through fieldwork or internships. At the end of their program, students will have the knowledge and skills required for jobs such as teachers, nurses, veterinarians, physical therapists and lawyers.
A terminal degree is the highest degree you can earn in a particular field. An associate degree is top in some vocational and technical areas and is often called Associate of Applied Science. Students are prepared for specific jobs in fields such as automotive technology and building trades. Bachelor’s degrees in academic areas, such as a Bachelor of Arts in literature, are not usually terminal, However, a Bachelor’s of Professional Studies is considered the end of the line in some artistic and technological fields. A B.P.S. is a professional degree, and students learn skills and knowledge for a specific job. Master’s degrees are terminal in a few fields, such as the visual arts. A Master of Fine Arts degree requires students to have both knowledge and practical skill in the specific discipline. However, in any field where a doctorate is available, such as education, sciences, business and the liberal arts, that is the terminal degree.
Though not a degree program, a postdoc –-postdoctoral scholar or fellowship— position is common after earning a Ph.D. Postdocs continue to research under the guidance of a adviser in the field. After this experience, postdocs are better prepared for their next career step. Postdoc positions are available in many disciplines, especially life, physical and behavioral sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics.
- U.S. Department of Education; Structure of the U.S. Education System; Associate Degrees
- U.S. Department of Education; Structure of the U.S. Education System; Bachelor’s Degrees
- U.S. Department of Education; Structure of the U.S. Education System; Master’s Degrees
- Princeton Review; College Speak; Matriculate, Associate's, Bachelor's, Master's, Doctoral, Terminal, Certificate
- FPCC: Academic Degrees
- Empire State College: Understanding Degree Parameters
- Empire State College: Associate and Bachelor's Degree Requirements
- Drew University: The Graduate Degrees
- Cornell University: Graduate Research and Professional Degrees
- Commission on Colleges Southern Association of Colleges and Schools: Principles of Accreditation
- Jack Hollingsworth/Photodisc/Getty Images