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What is the Difference Between a Terminal Degree and a Master's Degree?

Within academia, there are a variety of terms used to describe the various degrees an individual can earn. However, two types of degrees that are often confused with one another are "terminal degrees" and "master's degrees." Although the terms can sometimes be interchangeable, it's important to note that there are true differences. So, what is a master's degree? And, what is a terminal degree? How are they different? And, how are they the same?

What is a master's degree?

The term "master's degree" refers to the academic degree that can be obtained after earning your bachelor's degree. Students working toward a master's degree typically do so in order to increase their income potential or obtain advanced positions within their industry. To earn a master's degree, students traditionally must complete one to three additional years of study depending on the courses taken and how quickly they are completed. A master's degree may be beneficial for students who want to work in the highest ranking positions in their field.

What is a terminal degree?

When you hear "terminal degree," this typically refers to the highest level of education available for a specific academic subject. For instance, the terminal degree in academic fields is generally a Doctor of Philosophy. However, the term may also be used to distinguish the highest level of education that needs to be obtained to gain employment in a certain field. For instance, many would consider a bachelor's degree the terminal degree for teachers since it's the level of education that students are likely to stop at while trying to gain employment. Using that definition, earning a terminal degree may be the best move for students who want to transition out of college and into their chosen career as quickly as possible.

How do they compare?

Although a master's degree may sometimes be the terminal degree in a field of study, this is not always the case. It's important to note the differences between the two terms. In many cases, higher levels of education are available and neccesary to gain employment in certain fields. In academia, for instance, doctorates and Ph.D.s are generally considered to be terminal degrees. If a school has only an master's degree program for a field that requires a Ph.D., their master's degree is considered terminal. Many schools conduct master's and Ph.D. programs sequentially, as in a Master of Arts (M.A.)/Ph.D.

The fact that the terms are often used interchangeably is because master's degrees are often the terminal degree in certain fields of study. Due to rigorous standards and the length of time it takes to attain a master's degree, it is not unusual for a master's degree to be the highest level of education required to gain employment.

Why is it so confusing?

The fact that the term "terminal degree" can be used several different ways makes it easy to become confused. However, it's important to remember that the terms "terminal degree" and "master's degree" may or may not be interchangeable. When reading about terminal degrees or master's degrees, make sure to note how terminology is being used. Ask yourself, "is the author referring to the highest level of education available?" You may also want to consider whether the term "terminal degree" is being used as a way to convey the highest level of education needed for a particular career. If you are able to distinguish between the term's multiple meanings, you should be able to determine how it's being used.

Sources
wiseGEEK, "What is a Master's Degree?," http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-a-masters-degree.htm

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