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A first professional degree is a type of academic degree designed to prepare the holder for a particular profession by emphasizing practical skills over theory and analysis. These professions are typically licensed or otherwise regulated by a governmental or government-approved body. Areas such as psychologyarchitecture, law, medicine, engineering, dentistry, accounting, podiatry, audiology, physical therapy, optometry, pharmacy, social work, religious ministry, or education, among others, often require such degrees for licensing. Professional degrees, often taken as a candidate's second degree after an undergraduate degree in an academic subject, are especially important in the United States. In some other countries, such as the United Kingdom, the study of vocational subjects at undergraduate level, and post-graduate qualifications outside the academic degree structure, also play a large role in professional training.

In practice

First professional degrees can be awarded as undergraduate or graduate entry degrees (Bachelors, Masters, or Doctorate).

The first entry level professional degree to be granted as a clinical doctorate was the MD degree which was granted by the ancient universities of Scotland upon completion of medical school until the mid-19th century when the public bodies who regulated medical practice in the UK at that time required practitioners in Scotland as well as England to uniformly hold the two the dual Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery degrees (variously abbreviated MB BS, MBChB, MB BChir, and BM BCh etc).

The MB or Bachelor of Medicine was also the first type of medical degree to be granted in the United States and Canada. The first medical schools that granted the MB degree were Penn, Harvard, Toronto, Maryland, and Columbia. These first few North American medical schools that were established were (for the most part) founded by physicians and surgeons who had been trained in England and Scotland. North American Medical schools switched to the tradition of the Ancient universities of Scotland and began granting the MD title rather than the MB mostly throughout the 1800s. Columbia University in New York (which at the time was referred to as King's College of Medicine) was the first American University to grant the MD degree instead of the MB.[6] The MD was the first entry level professional degree to be awarded as a clinical doctorate in the United States. This was nearly sixty years before the first Ph.D. was awarded in the U.S. in 1861.[1]

The Juris Doctor was subsequently established by Harvard University for the same reasons that the M.D. was established.[2]

Recently there has been a world wide movement to structure professional programs as "graduate-entry" (meaning requiring a previous degree).[How to reference and link to summary or text] In countries where professional degrees are undergraduate degrees, graduate-entry undergraduate programs have been established to allow students with a previous bachelors to enter the profession.[3] This movement towards the graduate-entry model reflects an emphasis that has been placed on teaching professional skills at an advanced, intensive level.[4] The switch to graduate entry also allows for a greater diversity of applicants who are more mature and motivated to study at the professional level. [5]

Currently, physical therapy programs in the US are transitioning their entry-level or "first professional degree" from the Bachelors or Masters to a "doctorate" (Doctor of Physical Therapy) as well. Most countries outside the U.S. continue to only award doctorates as higher academic research degrees. Not all faculties in the U.S. have chosen to change their first professional degrees to "doctorates". For example in the field of architecture, the professional first degree may be either the Bachelor of Architecture or the Master of Architecture while in the field of fine art, its professional first degree is the Master of Fine Arts. There is currently some debate in the architectural community to rename the degree to a "doctorate",[6] and DFA programs are growing also.[How to reference and link to summary or text]A growing number of universities in the U.S. have developed MPS degrees (Masters of Professional Studies) as a first professional degree before a professional doctorate.

Many of those who obtained their first professional degree outside of the United States (which may be a bachelors) are considered to have an "equivalent" qualification to their doctorate counterpart for professional reasons, but are never permitted to wear the same academic gowns as their U.S. counterparts. Even in Canada, the medical degree of Doctor of Medicine is considered an undergraduate degree. For example, a British medical degree, the MBBS, is equivalent to the US-MD). An MBBS graduate if licensed to practice medicine in the United States would be allowed to use the "MD" and is referred to as "doctor" because it accurately describes their professional role.[7]

Some first professional degrees such as the Juris Doctor, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, Doctor of Pharmacy, Doctor of Dental Surgery, Doctor of Medicine, Doctor of Optometry, Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine, Doctor of Audiology, and Doctor of Chiropractic Medicine have the term "Doctor" in the title, and holders of such degrees are entitled to use the title of "doctor," but they are not equivalent to a PhD.[8]

In medicine, the first professional degree is a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery (B.M., Ch.B.), (M.B.B.S.) or Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) and (U.S. D.O.), (Canada M.D.C.M. or MD) or (Germany) degree depending on the country, while an advanced professional degree can be a Master of Science (e.g. Surgery), and the terminal academic research degree can be a Doctor of Medicine (non-U.S. M.D.) or a Ph.D. in a medical science (e.g. Anatomy). Because they are considered equivalent medical degrees, in the United States each state board of medicine allows those who have been granted a "bachelor of medicine" overseas the right to use the title "MD" while practicing in the United States.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

In engineering, Bachelor of Engineering and Bachelor of Applied Science degrees are commonly awarded in the UK and Canada respectively, and the Bachelor of Science in an engineering field is awarded in the United States. In South America, the professional title: Ingeniero is the first level to qualify as a Professional Engineer. The advanced professional degree usually awarded is the Master of Engineering, although some schools have the option of an Engineer's degree. The terminal academic research degree is the Ph.D., Sc.D. or DEng.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

In addition, in the Netherlands, engineering students can earn Bachelor's (usually BSc.) and Master's degrees (usually MSc.). Those wishing to continue their education within the engineering field can continue with academic research in their field (Doctor of Philosophy or Ph.D.) or a professionally applied approach (Professional Doctorate in Engineering or PDEng).[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Some schools outside the U.S. offer professional doctorates (Pr.D) for part-time students in a broad range of full-time careers. These programs typically require 3-6 years of structured study towards advanced professional practice. Coursework is followed by a professional project that contributes to the students organization, industry or profession.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Professional degrees

In some fields, especially those linked to a profession (e.g. medicine, dentistry, law, architecture, pharmacy, social work, religious ministry, engineering, accounting, education, etc.), 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.

The American DDS (Doctor of Dental Surgery) is a requisite for the MS (Master of Science) in Dentistry which is a requisite for the Ph.D. in this field. Similarly, the American MD (Doctor of Medicine) is a notch below the MS and Ph.D. in Medical Science (such as anatomy, pathology, opthamology, genetics, neurology, etc.).

A first professional degree is an academic degree designed to prepare the holder for a particular career or profession, fields where scholarly research and academic activity are not the work, but rather the practice of a profession. In many cases, the first professional degree is also the terminal degree because no further advanced degree is required for practice in that field even though more advanced academic research degrees may exist.

First professional degrees

A first professional degree is generally required by law or regulation to practice the profession without limitation, but is not necessarily sufficient to enter that profession. An advanced professional degree provides further training in a specialized area of the profession. Below are some examples of advanced professional degrees.

Advanced professional degrees

  • Computer Science (PD) ( see Columbia University [7] )
  • 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)
  • Dentistry (MS, MSc, MDS, MDSc, MSD, MDent, MMSc, DMSc, 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)
  • Education (MPS, EdD or DEd)
  • MMSc)
  • Medicine (MD, DO, DM) (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)
  • Ministry (MTh, ThM, STM, STD, DThP, DPT, PrD, or DMin)
  • Nursing (CNS, CRNA, DNP, MSN)
  • Psychology (PsyD, MSc, MPs, DPs)
  • Science (MS, MSc) (also offered in medicine, dentistry, and pharmacy)
  • Social Science (DSocSci)
  • Surgery (MS, MSurg, MCh, ChM, or MChir) (Usually granted after completion of surgery training program in conjunction with a research thesis)

See also


  1. Landmarks in Yale’s history
  2. Harno, A. (2004) Legal Education in the United States, New Jersey: Lawbook Exchange, page 50.
  3. Graduate Entrant's Programme, School of Medicine and Dentistry, Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry[1]; "Bachelor of Laws (3 Year) Graduate Entry," The University of Notre Dame, Australia.[2]
  4. Albert James Harno.Legal Education in the United States. Lawbook Exchange, NJ 2004.
  5. "Graduate entry medicine: high aspirations at birth," Clinical Medicine, Vol. 7, No. 2, April 2007.[3]
  6. Joanna Lombard. LL.B. to J.D. and the Professional Degree in Architecture. Proceedings of the 85th ACSA Annual Meeting, Architecture: Material and Imagined and Technology Conference, 1997. pp. 585-591.
  7. Practice, Organization and Interprofessional Issues," Wisconsin Medical Society Policy Compendium 2007. [4]
  8. "First Professional Studies," U.S. Department of Education.[5]
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