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Degree Research

What Are Professional and Terminal Degrees in Education?

By The Editorial Team
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Aspiring teachers applying for jobs may have noticed certain education-related requirements in job listings. Most of the time, a bachelor’s or master’s degree is required or preferred, depending on the school district or position.

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Terminal and professional degrees may also be mentioned. You may see phrases such as “terminal degree required” or “professional teaching degree required.” Find out the differences between professional degrees and terminal degrees in education.

What is a professional degree?

A professional degree prepares you for a job or career in a specific field, such as medicine, law, optometry, business administration, or education. The length of these programs varies depending on the field and institution but can be as long as five years.

Professional degree programs, such as those found within the education field, place a lot of emphasis on real-world experience. Teaching degrees, for example, often include student teaching practicum hours built into the program. This usually involves working in a classroom under the guidance of a supervising teacher so you can gain real-world experience before graduation.

People who are doctors and lawyers are required by law to earn professional degrees to practice medicine or law.

What is a terminal degree?

A terminal degree is the highest degree that can be awarded in a particular academic field. Almost always, this means a terminal degree is either an advanced or graduate degree that’s earned after a bachelor’s degree.

In the United States, the highest terminal degree is typically called a Ph.D., which is a Doctor of Philosophy degree. If you hold a Ph.D. in the arts, sciences, humanities, engineering, or other academic or technical field, it’s typically considered to be a terminal degree.

Sometimes, though, a master’s degree qualifies as a terminal degree in a particular field. For example, the Master of Fine Arts degree is considered to be the terminal degree for Fine Arts. Even though it’s possible to earn a Ph.D. in some creative fields within fine arts, the MFA is the terminal degree for fine arts professors.

Full-time faculty positions at many universities often require candidates to hold a terminal degree in their field, especially for tenured positions. However, for adjunct faculty positions, usually, only a master’s degree in the specific field is needed.

What degrees in education are considered professional degrees?

Most, if not all, teaching degrees are considered to be professional degrees because the coursework helps prepare you for success in the real world. Someone who is studying to be a high school history teacher, for example, is going to have a different professional degree in education compared to someone who is studying early childhood education and wants to be a kindergarten teacher.

Generally, any education degree can be considered a professional degree, regardless of whether it’s held at the bachelor’s, master’s, or doctorate level.

How education degrees are classified

Many professional degrees in education are classified according to specific subjects or grade levels. For instance, early childhood education professional degrees are typically awarded to candidates who want to teach at the PreK – Grade 2 level, and elementary education degrees may include grades K-6.

Teaching degrees for those who want to teach at the high school level might be specific to one subject, or they might be overarching degrees in secondary education.

If your goal is to teach at the college level, then a terminal degree in your field of study may be required. Or if you wish to obtain an adjunct faculty position, then a master’s degree may be all that’s needed, although it does depend on the individual school and subject area.

What degrees in education are considered terminal degrees?

As mentioned before, the highest academic degree that can be awarded in a particular field is called a terminal degree. Most of the time, this is a PhD, or Doctor of Philosophy. But it may not always be since a doctorate may not exist in a particular field of study.

For example, according to the American Library Association, a master’s degree in a specific library-related field is the terminal degree for a professional librarian.

Terminal degrees in education: PhD and EdD

For education fields, a doctorate in education is the highest and most specialized degree. Most of the time, it takes about four years to complete.

Two terminal degrees in education exist: Doctor of Education (EdD) and Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Education.

Doctor of Education (EdD) degree

A doctor of education degree (EdD) is for individuals pursuing educational leadership roles, such as school administrators at the elementary, secondary, or postsecondary level or instructional coordinators.

This terminal degree is typically best suited for experienced educators who want to implement change within their organization. Superintendents of school districts, for instance, often hold a doctor of education degree.

People with EdD degrees can work for K-12 school districts, within higher education, or for nonprofits, the government, military, or health care.

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in education

A PhD in education, on the other hand, is a terminal degree for people who want to pursue a career in academia or research at the university level.

The general goal for earning a PhD in education is to master a specific subject or add research findings to existing literature on specific topics.

For someone who aspires to be a professor, especially in a tenured position, a PhD is a popular terminal degree option. Within PhD programs, students focus on publishing findings, presenting research, and learning how to teach within their subject area.

What are the advantages of professional degrees vs. terminal degrees in the education field?

Whether you choose to pursue a professional degree in education or a terminal degree depends on your personal career goals.

If you aspire to be a teacher at the elementary, middle school, or high school level, for example, a professional degree at the master’s or bachelor’s level may be all you need. But if you want to be a professor in a specific field or wish to become a school administrator, then a terminal degree might be a better option.

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