What Is a Terminal Degree and Do You Need One? 

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Learn what a terminal degree is, which degrees are terminal, and whether pursuing one could be right for your career goals.

[Featured Image] A master's graduate student is in her black gown smiling and pointing to the sky.

As you’ve been scouring job postings or sifting through educational programs, you may have come across the term “terminal degree” and wondered what it means.

A terminal degree is the highest achievable degree in an academic field or professional discipline. For example, the terminal degree in the field of history is a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). In addition to increasing the average income of people that hold them, terminal degrees can also open doors to careers that typically require the most advanced degrees, such as university professor.

Obtaining a terminal degree might not be necessary for everyone’s professional goals (and the terminal degree for each field varies widely). In the first half of this article, you will learn about some of the most common terminal degrees, what the terminal degrees are for each discipline, and about terminal master's degrees. In the second half, you will learn the financial benefits of obtaining a terminal degree, the time it takes to complete various terminal degrees, and some alternatives to terminal degrees. 

By the end of the article, you will have a better understanding not only of terminal degrees in general but whether obtaining one might be worth the personal investment to achieve your professional goals. 

What degrees are terminal?

Terminal degrees vary from field to field and profession to profession. Although a PhD is the terminal degree in many fields, such as computer science, it is not the 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 PhD. 

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 (PhD)

  • 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)

Occasionally, the terminal degree in a particular field can change over time. For instance, the Master of Architecture (MArch) and Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degrees were once considered the terminal degrees in their respective fields. But today some institutions also offer a Doctor of Architecture (DArch) or a PhD in Fine Arts. Nonetheless, many universities and professional employers still consider the MArch and MFA to be the terminal degrees in those respective disciplines and generally only ask that applicants possess them. 

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.   

Terminal degrees by discipline

Terminal degrees vary extensively by discipline, profession, and country. The following list contains some popular terminal degrees by academic discipline in the United States: 

DegreeDiscipline
PhDPhysical science and earth sciences, engineering, life sciences, mathematics and computer sciences, psychology and social sciences, humanities, education
Doctor of Education (EdD)Education
Doctor of Engineering (DEng)Engineering
Doctor of Psychology (PsyD)Psychology

In the professional realm, meanwhile, some of the most common terminal degrees include the following:

DegreeDiscipline
Master/Doctor of Business Administration (MBA/DBA)Business
Doctor of Medicine (MD)Medicine
Juris Doctor (JD)Law

Terminal master’s degrees

In some fields, a master’s degree is considered the terminal degree. For example, the MBA is typically considered the terminal degree in business, despite the fact that some institutions also award a Doctor of Business Administration (DBA). 

The reason for this difference is that a DBA is most applicable to individuals conducting original academic research into business, while the MBA is usually most applicable to professionals actually working in the business world. The situation is similar in the world of architecture, where most practitioners and teachers are more likely to have an MArch than a DArch. In the future, the DBA or DArch may become the generally accepted terminal degree, but today they are much less common than their master’s degree counterparts. 

Here are a list of common terminal master’s degrees: 

  • Master of Business Administration (MBA)

  • Master of Architecture (MArch)

  • Master of Fine Arts (MFA) 

  • Master of Library Science (MLS)

  • Master of Social Work (MSW)

In these fields, most professionals consider a master’s degree the terminal degree. Unlike a research-oriented terminal doctorate degree, terminal master's degrees typically prioritize real-world work. 

Read more: Learn about the difference between an MA and MS.

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Is a terminal degree right for me?

Now that you know about the various terminal degrees, you may be wondering if you should pursue one. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. Whether a terminal degree is right for you or not will ultimately depend on your own unique life circumstances, professional goals, and personal aspirations. 

Income and educational level 

There are a wide range of potential benefits to obtaining a terminal degree. In addition to demonstrating the holder’s expertise, knowledge, and dedication to their field, terminal degree holders often command a higher earning power than others.  According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median earnings of full-time wage and salary workers in 2020 increased with their education level [1]

Educational levelMedian weekly incomeMedian annual income
Doctoral degree$1,885$97,760
Professional degree$1,893$98,436
Master’s degree$1,545$80,340
Bachelor’s degree$1,305$67,860
Associate degree$938$48,776
Highschool diploma$781$40,612
No HS diploma$619$32,188

As the above table illustrates, individuals with higher educational levels tend to command a higher income than those with lower educational levels. If you are motivated by increasing your earning power, then obtaining a terminal degree could be worth considering. 

Time to completion: Doctorates

The time to complete a terminal degree varies between different fields of study. This is particularly true with doctoral degrees. For instance, according to the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics [2], the median time it took 2019 recipients of doctorate degrees to obtain their degrees by subject was as follows: 

  • Physical science and earth sciences: 6.3 years

  • Engineering: 6.8 years

  • Life sciences: 6.9 years

  • Mathematics and computer sciences: 6.9 years

  • Psychology and social sciences: 8.0 years

  • Other non-science & engineering fields: 9.3 years

  • Humanities and arts: 9.5 years

  • Education: 11.9 years

If you’re thinking about pursuing a terminal degree, then it’s a good idea to factor in the time it takes to obtain your doctorate before committing. 

Time to completion: Other terminal degrees

Much as the time between different doctorate programs varies, so too does the time it takes to complete other professional terminal degrees. For example, although medical school tends to take only about four years to complete, graduates are typically required to complete residency programs that can add as much as seven additional years of training. In total, it can take a decade or more to become a practicing doctor. 

By contrast, law school takes about three years on average and does not require additional training other than passing the state bar exam. Similarly, the average time to complete an MFA is between two and three years, an MArch is three years, and an MLS typically takes two years. 

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 [3].

  • 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 in on a particular skill with a flexible online course. Learning online often means learning at your own pace.

Next Steps

Although the financial and professional rewards of achieving a terminal degree are enticing, only you can decide if pursuing one is right for your life. If you are considering getting a terminal degree, then it can be helpful to ask yourself some important questions: 

  • What are your professional and personal goals, and what kind of education can help you achieve them?

  • Are you able and willing to commit the resources necessary to complete a terminal degree? 

  • Are the potential future outcomes of achieving a terminal degree worth the investment to you?

In some cases, a flexible online program may help you achieve your professional and personal goals. Learn more about earning your degree online, hear what program graduates have to say, or try an open course to explore a field before deciding on your next step. Whatever your decision, remember that an educational program, no matter the level or provider, should be about personal  empowerment.

Related articles

Article sources

1. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Education pays, 2020, https://www.bls.gov/careeroutlook/2021/data-on-display/education-pays.htm." Accessed November 22, 2021.

2. National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. "Survey of Earned Doctorates, https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf21308/report/path-to-the-doctorate." Accessed November 22, 2021.

3. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Projected openings in occupations that require a college degree, https://www.bls.gov/careeroutlook/2021/article/projected-openings-college-degree.htm." Accessed November 22, 2021.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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