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Deciphering Degrees: An Introduction to Academic Titles

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At any institution of higher learning, there will be individuals with various types of degrees attached to their names. Professors and students alike all have different educational backgrounds, sometimes to the point where juggling all the different acronyms and titles can become confusing.


In this blog post, we’ll go over not only what goes into the various degrees you’ll encounter in higher education, but also provide advice on how to address people of various degrees, a skill you’ll need to have as you interact with individuals of all different education levels in high school, college, and beyond.


Why is it important to know about various degrees?

Degrees and titles are part of the language of higher education. Whether you are at a small liberal arts college or on campus at a larger university, you will hear them tossed around often. Understanding what exactly these degrees mean will not only help you feel more at home, but will also help you understand both your position as a student and others’.


What can degrees tell you?

The degree or title a person has, especially someone who is considered a professional or even an expert, can tell you a lot about their background and expertise. It says what kind of schooling and training they have had.


Furthermore, if the person is one of your professors, or someone teaching your class, it allows you to evaluate their background more carefully — you may be looking for a teacher who can speak to processes of going through higher education in their field. If you intend to get one or all of the degrees in that subject area eventually, it can help to know someone who can explain the process, as it may vary slightly in different fields (for example, some areas of study require extensive time in the lab, while others call for research abroad).


When Evaluating Professors: Terminal Degrees

When you are evaluating a professor on their degrees and titles, it is important to understand the concept of terminal degrees. In some fields, the highest university-given degree or professional degree available is not a doctoral degree. In other words, the “terminal” or end of the education track in that field may be a master’s degree. This phenomenon is emphasized more in the United States, however, and is not discussed as much overseas.


United States Degrees (Not Necessarily the Same in the Rest of the World)

Here, it should be noted that all of the degrees in this article refer to the standards in the United States only. Other countries may have different academic systems, degrees, and titles, that may or may not transfer to the United States’ system. If you plan on attending school abroad, you should look into the degrees of that country specifically, along with whether or not they are broadly recognized if you decide to pursue further studies in the United States.


What are the kinds of degrees one can have?

There are two broad categories that degrees can be broken into: graduate and undergraduate. Undergraduate degrees (associate and bachelor’s degrees) must be awarded before graduate study (master’s, doctoral, and professional degrees) begins, kind of like a prerequisite. Below, the specifics of each degree type are explained.


Associate Degree

An associate degree is awarded for about two years of academic study. These degrees are typically found in programs at community colleges. The abbreviations for this kind of degree depends greatly on the field of study. For example, AA stands for an Associate of Arts, AS stands for Associate of Science, and ABS stands for Associate of Business Science. You can usually identify an associate degree by the “A” at the beginning of the abbreviation.


Bachelor’s Degree

A bachelor’s degree is awarded for roughly four years of academic study, though it can range from three to seven years depending on the program and institution where it is completed. The bachelor’s degree is the standard degree level awarded by undergraduate colleges — it is not considered a graduate degree.


As with the associate degree, the full title of a bachelor’s degree and its abbreviation depend on the subject area in which the studies were conducted. Most common are the Bachelor of Arts (BA) and the Bachelor of Science (BS). Some schools with engineering programs also award the Bachelor of Science in Engineering (BSE). The BS can also be denoted another way: Sc.B. Additionally, at some schools you can get a BA in a science field — different schools have different options and requirements, so a BA does not rule out science as that person’s undergraduate field of study.


There are some other types of bachelor’s degrees as well, but they are rare in the United States and you will likely only encounter BA, BS, and occasionally BSE.


Master’s Degree

The master’s degree is a graduate degree for advanced, specialized study beyond the bachelor’s degree. Master’s degrees are usually awarded for one to three years of graduate study.


The two most common types of master’s degrees are the MA (Master of Arts) and the MS (Master of Science), but there are a wide range of specialized degrees in specific academic and profession fields. These include, but are not limited to MTS (Master of Theological Studies), MSW (Master of Social Work), MFA (Master of Fine Arts), MBA (Master of Business Administration), MPH (Master of Public Health), MPP (Master of Public Policy), and MDiv (Master of Divinity).


Like the bachelor’s degree, some master’s degrees are denoted in various ways. For example, the MS can also be written as Sc.M. Also, some professors may have a master’s degree as their highest degree. Regardless of their degrees and titles, you should always formally address them as “professor” if they have a post-secondary teaching role.


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Doctoral Degree (Academic)

The academic doctoral degree is a graduate degree awarded for extensive, highly specialized study and research. It usually takes five to ten years to complete, and often culminates in the completion of a major piece of research. This is called the doctoral dissertation, and is sometimes published as a book following graduation. The most common kind of doctoral degree is a PhD, but others exist, such as the DBA (Doctor of Business Administration).


Those who have received a doctoral degree are formally addressed as “doctor” or “professor.” The title used depends on their personal preference, but, in general, people with PhDs and similar doctoral degrees are less frequently referred to a “doctor” publicly. The title of doctor is more common for people with medical degrees (explained below). Your college-level classes may be taught by doctoral-degree candidates (another way to describe students in the doctoral program), and TAs are almost always graduate students as well.


Medical Degrees

Medical degrees are graduate-level degrees awarded for extensive, specific training in the medical profession. Doctors receive MDs (Doctor of Medicine), nurses receive MSN (Master of Science in Nursing) and other degrees (like the BSN, or Bachelor of Science in Nursing), dentists receive DDS (Doctor of Dental Surgery) or DMD (Doctor of Dental Medicine), and veterinarians receives DVM (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine). Furthermore, there are other degrees within more specialized fields.


You may also see these degrees among professors in science and health fields. There are practicing doctors (those who see patients), teaching doctors (those who teach students the art of medicine and how to see patients), and researching doctors (those who conduct research) — and some who are two or all three! When speaking to and about people with medical degrees, you should formally address doctors, dentists, and veterinarians as “doctor.”


Law Degrees

Most law students in the United States receive a JD (Juris Doctorate) for three years of legal study. Though this is technically a doctorate degree, it is more often regarded as a professional degree. Also, there is a higher research doctorate in law called the SJD (Doctor of Juridical Science).


People with a JD may write “JD” after their names. Those who actively work as attorneys may add “Esquire” or “Esq.” to their signatures, whether or not they have a JD. When talking to someone who teaches and has a law degree, you should always default to calling them “professor.”


Honorary Degrees

Honorary degrees, known as “Degree Honoris Causa,” are awarded by a college or university to a person that the college would like to specially honor. They are usually named as a doctoral degree, but are sometimes labeled a master’s degree — the exact titles vary because they do not reflect any actual level of study at that school.


Note that honorary degrees do not designate academic or professional study or qualification: You should not assume that a person with an honorary degree has studied what would actually be required to complete the degree. That said, the honorary degree is a sign of great respect and indicates that the person is highly respected by the college. In general, the recipient will not be referred to by the degree title by others — think of it more like an award that will connect them to that school but not change their status or actual qualifications.



There are many degrees, but if you understand them broadly — undergraduate and graduate, and the general types within each category (such as bachelor’s vs. associate’s, and academic doctoral versus medical) — you can get a general understanding of what kind of academic training a person has had.


When in doubt about how to address someone who teaches at your college or university, it is always best to default to “professor.” Those with medical degrees (often people found in the medical professions, like doctors, dentists, and vets) should usually be called “doctor.”


Don’t worry if it is confusing at first — this is all you need to know to start off, and as you make your way through college and academia, the divisions of degrees will become more clear. For now, read our CollegeVine guide Majors, Minors, and More: Which Degree Should You Pursue? to help you tackle your own college degree.


If you are looking to apply for your bachelor’s degree in science or a medical degree, check out our CollegeVine guides A Beginner’s Guide to 7-Year Med Programs and BS/MD Programs vs. Premed: Which One is Right for You?


Alternatively, if your interests are more in the arts, or you want a better understanding of dual-degree programs, read Dual Degree Music Programs: The Best of Both Worlds?, Liberal Arts vs. Professional Education: Which is Better?, and Are Combined Undergraduate/Graduate Programs Right for You?


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Julia Mearsheimer
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Julia Mearsheimer attends the University of Chicago. She is considering majoring in Philosophy, South Asian Languages and Civilizations, or Political Science, but remains undecided. In addition to writing, she enjoys listening to Nina Simone and baking bread.