Your Guide to Professional Degrees

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Learn more about how a professional degree provides a career-oriented education for pursuing work in medicine, law, and other fields.

[Featured image] A woman in a blue cap and gown stands outside a university building after graduating with a business degree.

A professional degree is an advanced education designed to prepare you to work in a specific field, such as medicine or law. Similar to advanced academic degrees, like doctorates and certain master’s, professional degrees are considered terminal degrees—or the highest degree you can achieve in an area. You can typically begin pursuing one after graduating with your bachelor’s degree

In this article, we’ll go over jobs that require professional degrees, the difference between professional degrees and academic degrees, and alternative educational paths you can explore.

What is a professional degree?

A professional degree is the highest type of advanced degree you can earn if you’re interested in studying medicine, law, architecture, or certain other professions that require specific knowledge or training. The education you gain tends to emphasize practicality so that you’re prepared to begin working in that profession after graduation. However, with both medicine and law, you will need to take additional steps to earn your license in order to practice in either of those fields.

Jobs that require professional degrees

Here are the most common types of jobs that require a professional degree:

  • Architect: Master of Architecture (MArch) 

  • Lawyer: Doctor of Jurisprudence or Juris Doctor (JD)

  • Medical doctor: Doctor of Medicine (MD)

  • Dentist: Doctor of Dental Science (DDS) or Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD)

  • Optometrist: Doctor of Optometry (OD)

  • Pharmacist: Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD)

  • Physical therapist: Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) or Doctor of Physiotherapy (DPhysio) 

  • Veterinarian: Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM)

How long does it take to earn a professional degree?

The amount of additional schooling you’ll need depends on what you’re interested in studying. Law school takes, on average, three years to complete, though if you attend part-time, it can take closer to four or five years.

Dental and veterinary school, on the other hand, take four years. To become a physician, you’ll need to complete four years of medical school and then an additional three to seven years in a residency program.

What does a professional degree cost?

The cost of a professional degree will also vary by program. The average total cost of law school is $220,335 [1]. The average total cost of med school is $235,827. [2].

Learn more: A Guide to Postbaccalaureate Programs

What are the benefits of a professional degree?

Completing your professional degree means you have achieved the highest degree in your field—a major accomplishment—and it can lead to work in what are often considered to be prestigious fields. 

While salaries and job growth will depend on the type of profession you’d like to pursue, professional degrees tend to lead to careers with higher salaries and at least average job growth. Certain sectors, such as physical therapy and veterinary medicine, are estimated to experience faster than average job growth, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics [3, 4].

Job titleMedian salary*Estimated job growth rate
Physical therapist$97,72015%

*All data from BLS.

Applying to a professional degree program

Many professional degree programs require that you have completed your bachelor’s degree before applying. In many cases, you’ll also need to pass an entrance exam, though many programs have started waiving entrance exams in an effort to promote greater equity across applicants. 

The most common entrance exams are:

  • Law school: LSAT (Law School Admissions Test) 

  • Medical school: MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test)

  • Pharmacy school: PCAT (Pharmacy College Admissions Test)

  • Veterinary school and physical therapy: GRE (Graduate Records Exam)

You will also likely need to submit the following materials: 

  1. An official application

  2. Your college transcripts

  3. Letters of recommendation

  4. A personal statement

  5. A resume or CV

Professional degrees vs. academic degrees

A professional degree tends to emphasize practicality and professional knowledge, while a terminal academic degree, such as a PhD, tends to emphasize research. In certain medical fields, such as biomedical physics, epidemiology, or health policy, you can earn a PhD if you’re interested in conducting and contributing advanced research to those particular fields. 

Earning a PhD takes, on average, between five and seven years, and requires multiple steps: completing coursework, passing a comprehensive exam, and writing and defending an original body of research, such as a dissertation. It may also be more cost-effective than a professional degree. The average total cost of a PhD is $150,835 [5].

Read more: What Is a Doctorate?

Career alternatives without a professional degree

If you’re interested in working in medicine or law, there are several career paths you can explore that don’t require a professional degree.

Job titleMedian salary*Job growthMinimum education
Veterinary tech$38,24021%Associate
Registered nurse$81,2206%Bachelor’s
Dental hygienist$81,4007%Associate
Physician assistant$126,01027%Master’s

*All data from BLS.

Learn more: Your Guide to Nursing Degrees

Alternatives to a professional degree

If you’re interested in advancing your education but aren’t sure about committing to a lengthy professional degree program—or taking on the cost associated with it—there are two areas you can explore.

Advanced academic degrees

Earning a master’s degree can help you qualify for more advanced roles. A master’s generally takes between two and three years to complete and costs an average total of $66,340 [6].

There are a number of advanced academic degrees that focus on subjects in medicine and law, such as:

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With a certification, you'll typically gain concentrated subject knowledge at a much faster pace. Earning a certification through a company or professional organization shows that you have acquired the skills and knowledge necessary to do a particular job. 

Benefits of earning a certification:

  1. You can complete many of them online.

  2. They tend to be much less expensive than college.

  3. Many take a year or less to complete.

Take the next step in your career

You can find a number of legal and medical courses on Coursera, like Yale University’s A Law Student’s Toolkit or How to Prepare for Medical School, which unites courses and specializations from leading universities, such as Duke University, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Pennsylvania. Take a free course to see if you enjoy the subject matter and might be interested in eventually pursuing a professional degree in that area. 

Or you can start building job-ready skills for a variety of in-demand careers with a Professional Certificate. Learn from industry leaders at IBM, Google, Salesforce, or Meta while earning a credential for your resume.

Article sources


Education Data Initiative. "Average Cost of Law School," Accessed January 23, 2024.

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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.