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Former status of the Laurea degree 
Until very recently, lauree (plural for laurea) took much longer to earn than undergraduate degrees elsewhere in Europe and North America. To earn a laurea, the student had to complete 4 to 6 years of university courses (though it was customary to describe progress in terms of number of exams passed, rather than years), and also complete a thesis, which in most cases required experimental work. Laureati are customarily addressed as dottore (for a man) or dottoressa (for a woman), i.e. "doctor".
Until the introduction of the Dottorato di ricerca in the mid-1980s, the laurea constituted the highest academic degree obtainable in Italy and allowed the holder to access the highest academic careers. Famous scientists Nobel prize winners such as for example Enrico Fermi, Emilio Segrè, Giulio Natta and Carlo Rubbia held a laurea as their highest degree. The reason is that the Italian laurea included high-level courses and thesis work which normally were sufficient to prepare for a career in research and academia.
The pre-Bologna Laurea degree (knows as Laurea di Dottore in and formally named Diploma di laurea), is now equivalent by law (Decreto Interministeriale 9 luglio 2009) to the new Italian Master's degree named Laurea Magistrale.
Reforms due to the Bologna process 
Spurred by the Bologna process, a major reform was instituted in 1999 to introduce easier university degrees comparable to the bachelors. The ordinary laurea was split into undergraduate and postgraduate studies.
First cycle: Laurea 
The new Laurea (180 ECTS credits), a first cycle degree that is equivalent to a bachelor's degree, includes bachelor-level courses, simpler than those of the old laurea, and its normative time to completion is three years (note that Italians normally graduate from scuola secondaria superiore or Lyceum in Italian Liceo, high school, at nineteen or eighteen). To earn a laurea, the student must complete a thesis, but a less demanding one than required for the old laurea (50-80 pages instead of 150-200).
Second cycle: Laurea Magistrale 
The new Laurea Magistrale (formerly known as Laurea Specialistica, 2002-2006), a second cycle degree equivalent to a master's degree (120 ECTS credits in addition to the Laurea), can be earned in a two-year programme after the laurea, and requires an experimental thesis (usually, 150-250 pages).
In some fields (particularly, Law, Engineering and Architecture) the Laurea magistrale a ciclo unico is awarded. This is a five or six year second cycle (master's) degree (300 or 360 ECTS), which does not require a previous first cycle degree for the admission.
The Laurea Magistrale should not be confused with the Italian Master, which is not a Master's degree, but a one-year specialistic course which guarantees a more practical education but does not give access to further levels of studies (it can be considered similar to a Postgraduate diploma). A I level Master (Master di I livello) is a diploma which can be obtained after a Laurea; a II level Master (Master di II livello) can be gained after a Laurea Magistrale and it is useful for pursuing further studies (like a Ph.D.) or for professional achievements.
Third cycle: Dottorato di Ricerca 
The Dottorato di ricerca (equivalent to a Doctor of Philosophy) is a third cycle degree which can be undertaken only after achieving a Laurea Magistrale. It was introduced in the mid-1980s and consists of three/four years of Ph.D.-level courses and experimental work, including the final defense of an innovative thesis.
The Dottorato gained popularity very slowly, since only very few positions were made available because of the lacking of funding. Indeed, the Italian Republic has never made the dottorato di ricerca a requirement to become professors in the Italian academy. At the beginning of the 2000s, unfunded positions for dottorato di ricerca have been made available, thus allowing a wider access to such a degree.