A terminal degree is the highest academic degree in a given field of study. This phrase is in academic use in the United States, but is little used outside North America. The term is not generally used in the United Kingdom, for example, and its exact meaning varies somewhat between those areas and disciplines in which the term is used.
An earned academic (or research) doctorate such as a Doctorate of Philosophy (Ph.D. or D. Phil.) is considered the terminal degree in most academic fields of study in the U.S. However, professional doctorates may be considered terminal degrees within the professional degree track, even though they are prerequisites for research degrees. In addition, in some countries there are degrees which are more advanced than the Ph.D., such as the higher doctorates in the United Kingdom and Russia, and the habilitation degree awarded in Germany. Also, not all terminal degrees are doctorates. For example, in professional practice fields there are often terminal master-level degrees such as MLArch and MArch standing for Master Landscape Architect and Master Architect or even bachelor-level degrees such as BArch which stands for Bachelor of Architecture or BS for Engineers. Naturally the non-doctoral degrees are not terminal in academic terms.
In academic fields, the typical terminal degree is that of Doctor of Philosophy, although others also exist. The first phase of the Ph.D. consists of coursework in the student's field of study and requires one to three years to complete. This is often followed by a preliminary or comprehensive examination and/or a series of cumulative examinations, in which the emphasis is on breadth rather than depth of knowledge. Finally, another two to four years is usually required for the composition of a substantial and original contribution to human knowledge embodied in a written dissertation that in the social sciences and humanities is typically 250 to 450 pages in length. Dissertations generally consist of (i) a comprehensive literature review, (ii) an outline of methodology, and (iii) several chapters of scientific, social, historical, philosophical, or literary analysis. Typically, upon completion, the candidate undergoes an oral examination, sometimes public, by his or her supervisory committee with expertise in the given discipline.
Typical terminal professional and research degrees
In some fields, especially those linked to a profession (such as medicine or law), a distinction is to be drawn between a first professional degree, an advanced professional degree, and a terminal academic degree. A first professional degree is generally required by law or custom to practice the profession without limitation. An advanced professional degree provides further training in a specialized area of the profession. A first professional degree is an academic degree designed to prepare the holder for a particular career or profession, fields in which scholarly research and academic activity are not the profession, but rather the practice of the profession. In many cases, the first professional degree is also the terminal degree, usually because no further advanced degree is required for practice in that field, even though more advanced academic degrees may exist.
Medicine (MD, DC, DM, DO) (advanced degree in countries that award a bachelor degree in medicine or surgery as first professional degree, usually awarded for outstanding research to a particular field of Medicine)
Dental Science (DDSc, Dr.Odont) (advanced degree in countries that award a bachelor degree in dental surgery as first professional degree, usually awarded for outstanding research to a particular field of Dentistry)
Surgery (MS, MSurg, MCh, ChM, or MChir) (Usually granted after completion of surgery training program in conjunction with a research thesis)
Dentistry (MDS, MSD, MDSc, or DClinDent) (these are usually granted at the culmination of a specialty training program in dentistry in those programs that also require research and a thesis to be completed)