What is a Terminal Degree?

A terminal degree program represents the end of your studies. It is the highest degree that you can earn in your field, and it qualifies you for working in the top professions of your field. Every subject matter in the world has a terminal degree, but the terminal level can vary based on the subject you study. You might find that your program ends at one level while your friends will spend an additional few years studying before earning their terminal degrees.

What is a Terminal Degree?

The word terminal refers to the end of something, and a terminal degree refers to the end of your education path. The highest level that you can reach depends on your major. Some people finish their studies after completing community college, while other people only end their studies with a PhD. A terminal degree may be different within the same subject as well. Historic preservation, which is the study, preservation and restoration of historic structures and objects, typically ends at the master’s level. As there are very few schools in the country that offer a doctoral level, most experts consider the master’s level the terminal degree.

Does a Terminal Program Include a Thesis?

Whether you need to complete a thesis depends on both the subject you study and the level you reach. A thesis is usually associated with a master’s degree. Those working at the PhD level must complete a longer and more involved doctoral project or paper. A thesis is a paper that you write that combines your own personal thoughts with research on a subject. A doctoral paper contains less research and more of your own thoughts. Some colleges also give students a choice between writing a thesis or taking a non-thesis path.

Terminal Degrees vs. Certificate Programs

Some students have a hard time identifying the differences between a terminal degree program and a certificate program. According to The Princeton Review, a certificate program culminates with a diploma or certificate rather than a degree. Some certificate programs let you take a series of classes over six weeks or a single semester, while other programs ask you to spend at least one year in the program. Many community colleges offer certificate programs for students who lack the time or money needed to finish a full degree program.

Determining the Top Level

Determining the top level of your program may not be as easy as you think. Just because the top degree you can earn at your current school is a master’s degree, this doesn’t mean that it’s the terminal degree in your field. It’s important that you spend some time talking with your adviser about the degrees available in your subject matter and which level you need to complete. Some college degree programs, including social work, education and nursing, may require that you complete a licensing examination or that you finish a certificate program after leaving school but before working in the field.

Every subject that you study in school has some type of terminal degree. For some students, the highest degree they can earn is an associate’s, but other students find that they need to obtain a professional degree or a PhD to end their studies. Talk with your adviser about whether your current program is a terminal degree program or if you need to keep going after graduation.

Related Resource: What Career Paths are Opened with a Master’s in Psychology?