What’s in a Name? Plenty When it Comes to Your Degree

Even if you’ve decided upon an area of study and what level of degree you’d like to earn, don’t stop there when considering degree programs. Did you know that the nuances among degree names can indicate big differences in what programs entail? Not many people realize that choosing a degree of a certain type can impact future career goals.

In an effort to clarify the differences between degrees, we’ve developed a quick glossary of degree titles and terminology.These basic, yet often confusing, terms describe degree categories and course of study options.

Bachelor of Arts (B.A.): Bachelor of Arts degrees are awarded in undergraduate programs that feature curricula based in liberal arts, humanities, languages and social sciences. While many institutions offer B.A.s in science and mathematics, the programs typically emphasize a broader scope of coursework in a variety of disciplines.

Bachelor of Science (B.S): An undergraduate degree option usually offered in fields related to science and mathematics, Bachelor of Science programs are often more specialized than their diverse B.A. counterparts. They require more within-major courses, and, depending on the field, have a heavy emphasis on lab work, research methods, and statistics.

Master of Arts (M.A.): A graduate degree commonly offered in humanities, arts, and social science-related fields, M.A. programs require a bachelor’s degree in a similar field (usually a B.A.). Programs can vary by university, but generally focus on in-depth theoretical studies and research methods. Traditional Master of Arts programs require students to conduct original research and write a thesis or professional paper, and prepare students to pursue a doctoral degree. Some “professional master’s degrees” (see below), however, feature coursework only.

Master of Science (M.S.):
A graduate degree for those in more technical fields, such as science and engineering, M.S. programs require a bachelor’s degree (usually a B.S.) that prepares students to conduct and analyze research. Many social science fields also offer M.S. degrees depending on how an institution categorizes a subject. M.S. programs emphasize theory and field and/or laboratory research. Traditional Master of Science programs require students to conduct original research and write a thesis or professional paper, and prepare students to pursue a doctoral degree.  Some “professional master’s degrees” (see below), however, feature coursework only.

Professional Master’s Degree: Professional master’s programs place an emphasis on coursework that is directly applicable to professional development. These programs focus more on industry practices and skill building rather than theory and research. Professional master’s degrees are designed for those who wish to advance professionally and master new skills within their fields. They are most suitable for people who already have career experience. Examples of professional master’s degrees include a Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.), and some Master of Engineering (M.E.) degrees.

Terminal Degree:  A terminal degree refers to the highest academic degree possible or necessary for a field. In the case of a terminal master’s degree, the term describes those that do not lead to doctoral programs, or the highest level of degree necessary to practice in a certain area. In traditional academia and medical fields, the term is applied to doctoral degrees, as they are the highest possible level of academic achievement. Examples of terminal degrees include Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A), Master of Library Science, applied degrees such as Industrial/Organizational Psychology, Applied Statistics, and almost all doctoral degrees.

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