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The name arises from laureato, which literally means crowned with laurel; and, in this respect, Italian students usually wear a laurel wreath during their graduation ceremony.
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 (known as Laurea di Dottore in and formally named Diploma di laurea), is now equivalent by law to the new Italian Master's degree named Laurea Magistrale. However, in the other countries, the old Laurea is often considered as a Bachelor's degree plus one year research programme (BA (Hon), because of the work carried out for the thesis), whereas in some cases it is regarded as equivalent to a Bachelor's + Master's degree.
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, and their programmes have been reformed.
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 In Italy scuola secondaria superiore or Lyceum, high school, takes five years). To earn a laurea, the student must complete a thesis, but a less demanding one than required for the old laurea (50-80 pages rather than 150-200).
Second cycle: Laurea Magistrale
The new Laurea Magistrale (formerly known as Laurea Specialistica, 2002-2006) is a second cycle degree equivalent to a master's degree (120 ECTS credits) which can be earned in a two-year programme after the laurea and requires an experimental thesis (usually, 150-250 pages).
In some fields (particularly, Medicine, 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 (like an Integrated Master's degree in the UK).
The Laurea Magistrale should not be confused with the Italian Master, which is not a Master's degree, but a one-year diploma (60 ECTS) 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 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.
Other than the Ph.D., another third-cycle title is the Diploma di Specializzazione, gained after a two year (Law, Diploma di Specializzazione in Professioni legali) or a three-to-six year (Medicine, depending on the particular field) postgraduate school. To attend the school, a Laurea magistrale (in Law or Medicine, respectively) is required. The Diploma di Specializzazione in Professioni legali is required to apply as a judge, whereas the Specialisation in a specific medical field is required to be qualified as a Specialised Medical Doctor.