Academic Degree

An academic degree is a position and title within a college or university that is usually awarded in recognition of the recipient having either satisfactorily completed a prescribed course of study or having conducted a scholarly endeavour deemed worthy of his or her admission to the degree. The most common degrees awarded today are Bachelor's, Master's, and doctoral degrees.

The modern academic system of academic degrees evolved and expanded in the medieval university, spreading everywhere across the globe as the institution did:

    No other European institution has spread over the entire world in the way in which the traditional form of the European university has done. The degrees awarded by European universities – the bachelor's degree, the licentiate, the master degree, and the doctorate – have been adopted in the most diverse societies throughout the world.

The doctorate appeared in medieval Europe as a license to teach (Latin: licentia docendi) at a medieval university. Its roots can be traced to the early church when the term "doctor" referred to the Apostles, church fathers and other Christian authorities who taught and interpreted the Bible. The right to grant a licentia docendi was originally reserved to the church which required the applicant to pass a test, to take oath of allegiance and pay a fee. The Third Council of the Lateran of 1179 guaranteed the access – now largely free of charge – of all able applicants, who were, however, still tested for aptitude by the ecclesiastic scholastic. This right remained a bone of contention between the church authorities and the slowly emancipating universities, but was granted by the pope to the University of Paris in 1231 where it became a universal license to teach (licentia ubique docendi). However, while the licentia continued to hold a higher prestige than the bachelor's degree (Baccalaureus), it was ultimately reduced to an intermediate step to the Magister and doctorate, both of which now became the exclusive qualification for teaching.

At the university, doctoral training was a form of apprenticeship to a guild. The traditional term of study before new teachers were admitted to the guild of "Master of Arts", seven years, was the same as the term of apprenticeship for other occupations. Originally the terms "master" and "doctor" were synonymous, but over time the doctorate came to be regarded as a higher qualification than the master degree.

In the medieval European universities, candidates who had completed three or four years of study in the prescribed texts of the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic), and the quadrivium (mathematics, geometry, astronomy and music), together known as the Liberal Arts, and who had successfully passed examinations held by their master, would be admitted to the degree of bachelor of arts, from the Latin baccalaureus, a term previously usually used of a squire (i.e., apprentice) to a knight. Further study, and in particular successful participation in and then moderating of disputations would earn one the Master of Arts degree, from the Latin magister, teacher, entitling one to teach these subjects. Master of Arts were eligible to enter study under the "higher faculties" of Law, Medicine or Theology, and earn first a bachelor's and then master or doctor's degrees in these subjects. Thus a degree was only a step on the way to becoming a fully qualified master – hence the English word "graduate", which is based on the Latin gradus ("step").

Today the terms "master", "doctor" (from the Latin - meaning literally: "teacher") and "professor" signify different levels of academic achievement, but in the Medieval university they were equivalent terms, the use of them in the degree name being a matter of custom at a university. (Most universities conferred the Master of Arts but, for instance, the highest degree was variously termed Master of Theology/ Divinity or Doctor of Theology/ Divinity depending on the place).

The earliest doctoral degrees (theology - Divinitatis Doctor (D.D.), philosophy - Doctor of philosophy (D.Phil., Ph.D.) and medicine - Medicinæ Doctor (M.D., D.M.)) reflected the historical separation of all University study into these three fields. Over time the D.D. has gradually become less common and studies outside theology and medicine have become more common (such studies were then called "philosophy", but are now classified as sciences and humanities - however this usage survives in the degree of Doctor of Philosophy).

The University of Bologna in Italy, regarded as the oldest university in Europe, was the first institution to confer the degree of Doctor in Civil Law in the late 12th century; it also conferred similar degrees in other subjects, including medicine. The University of Paris used the term master for its graduates, a practice adopted by the English universities of Oxford and Cambridge, as well as the ancient Scottish universities of St Andrews, Glasgow, Aberdeen, and Edinburgh.

The naming of degrees eventually became linked with the subjects studied. Scholars in the faculties of arts or grammar became known as "master", but those in theology, medicine, and law were known as "doctor". As study in the arts or in grammar was a necessary prerequisite to study in subjects such as theology, medicine and law, the degree of doctor assumed a higher status than the master degree. This led to the modern hierarchy in which the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), which in its present form as a degree based on research and dissertation is a development from 18th and 19th Century German universities, is a more advanced degree than the Master of Arts (M.A.). The practice of using the term doctor for Ph.Ds developed within German universities and spread across the academic world.

The French terminology is tied closely to the original meanings of the terms. The baccalauréat (cf. "bachelor") is conferred upon French students who have successfully completed their secondary education and admits the student to university. When students graduate from university, they are awarded licence, much as the medieval teaching guilds would have done, and they are qualified to teach in secondary schools or proceed to higher-level studies. Spain had a similar structure: the term "Bachiller" was used for those who finished the secondary or high-school level education, known as "Bachillerato". The standard Spanish university 5-years degree was "Licenciado", (although there were a few 3-years associate degrees called "diplomaturas", from where the "diplomados" could move to study a related licenciatura). The highest level was "Doctor".

In the past, degrees have also been directly issued by authority of the monarch or by a bishop, rather than any educational institution. This practice has mostly died out. In Britain, Lambeth Degrees are still awarded by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

In most countries, gaining an academic degree entitles the holder to assume distinctive academic dress particular to the awarding institution. Academic dress is like a uniform or insignia identifying the status of the individual wearing them.

Indicating earned degrees
There are various conventions for indicating degrees and diplomas after one's name. In some cultures it is usual to give only the highest degree. In others, it is usual to give the full sequence, in some cases giving abbreviations also for the discipline, the institution, and (where it applies) the level of honours. In another variation, a 'rule of subsumption' often shortens the list and may obscure the chronology evident from a full listing. Thus 'MSc BA' means that the degrees conferred were - in chronological order - BSc, BA, MSc. The subsumption rule reflects the principle that a person of a given high status does not separately belong to the lower status.

For member institutions of the Association of Commonwealth Universities, there is a standard list of abbreviations, but in practice many variations are used. Most notable is the use of the Latin abbreviations 'Oxon.' and 'Cantab.' for the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, in spite of these having been superseded by (little used) English 'Oxf.' and 'Camb.' Other Latin abbreviations include St And. for the University of St Andrews, Exon. for the University of Exeter, Dunelm. for Durham University, Ebor. for the University of York and Cantuar. for the University of Kent (formerly the "University of Kent at Canterbury"). Confusion results from the widespread use of 'SA' for the University of South Australia (instead of S.Aust.) because 'SA' was officially assigned to the University of South Africa. For universities of different commonwealth countries sharing the same name, such as York University in Canada and the University of York in the UK, a convention has been adopted where a country abbreviation is included with the letters and university name. In this example, 'York (Can.)' and 'York (UK)' is commonly used to denote degrees conferred by their respective universities.

The doubling of letters in LL.B., LL.M., LL.D. is because these degrees are in laws, not law. The doubled letter indicates the Latin plural (genitive case) legum as opposed to the singular (genitive case) legis. Abbreviations for the degrees in surgery Ch. B. and Ch. M. are from Latin chiruguriae and often indicate a university system patterned after Scottish models. The combination of M.B. with Ch. B. arose from a need to graduate the students at the time of year allocated to graduation rituals, but the legal inability to confer the M.B. before they had been properly approved by professional regulatory bodies. Thus the Ch. B. was conferred first, and the M.B. was conferred later, after registration, and without ceremony. In recent times the two have come to be conferred together and are widely misunderstood to constitute a single degree.

Some degrees are awarded jure dignitatis. That is, a person who has demonstrated the appropriate qualities to be given a particular office may be awarded the degree by virtue of the office held. It is another kind of earned—but not strictly academic—degree.

Background
Academic degrees were first introduced during the Middle Ages and there was little differentiation between them. Scholarly training could be viewed as analogous to apprenticeship to a guild. The term of study before new teachers were admitted to the 'guild' of "Master of Arts", was the same as the term of apprenticeship for other occupations. Originally the terms "master" and "doctor" were synonymous, but eventually the doctorate came to be regarded as a higher qualification than the master degree.

The naming of degrees eventually became linked with the subjects read. Scholars in the faculties of arts or grammar became known as "master", but those in theology, medicine, and law were known as "doctor". As study in the arts or in grammar was a necessary prerequisite to study in subjects such as theology, medicine and law, the degree of doctor assumed a higher status than that of master. This led to the modern hierarchy in which the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), which in its present form as a degree based on research and dissertation is a development from 18th and 19th Century German universities, is a more advanced degree than the Master of Arts (M.A.). The practice of 'doctor' being the highest degree in virtually all faculties developed within German universities and spread across the academic world.

Traditionally more men than women attended and earned degrees at the world's universities. A milestone was reached in the United States according to results of the 2010 census, as women surpassed men in attaining master degrees, for the first time. The U.S. census reports that 10.5 million men have master's degrees or higher, compared with 10.6 million women. The first year that women surpassed men in earning bachelor’s degrees was in 1996.

In the United States and Canada, since the late 19th century, the threefold degree system of bachelor, master and doctor has been in place, but follows a slightly different pattern of study from the European equivalents.

In the United States and Canada, most standard academic programs are based on the four-year bachelor's degree (most often Bachelor of Arts, B.A., or Bachelor of Science, B.S., (B.Sc., in Canada), a one- or two-year master's degree (most often Master of Arts, M.A., or Master of Science, M.S./M.Sc.; either of these programs might be as much as three years in length) and a further one or two years of coursework and research, culminating in "comprehensive" examinations in one or more fields, plus perhaps some teaching experience, and then the writing of a dissertation for the doctorate (most often doctor of philosophy, Ph.D. or other types such as Ed.D., Psy.D., Th.D.) for a total of ten or more years from starting the bachelor's degree (which is usually begun around age 18) to the awarding of the doctorate. This timetable is only approximate, however, as students in accelerated programs can sometimes earn a bachelor's degree in three years or, on the other hand, a particular dissertation project might take four or more years to complete. In addition, a graduate may wait an indeterminate time between degrees before candidacy in the next level, or even an additional degree at a level already completed. Therefore, there is no time-limit on the accumulation of academic degrees.

Some schools—mostly junior colleges and community colleges, but some four-year schools as well—offer an associate's degree for two full years of study, often in pre-professional areas. This may stand alone, or sometimes be used as credit toward completion of the four-year bachelor's degree.

In Canada and the United States, there is also another class of degrees called "First Professional degree". These degree programs are designed for professional practice in various fields other than academic scholarship. Most professional degree programs require a prior bachelor's degree for admission, and so represent at least about five total years of study and as many as seven or eight. Some fields such as fine art, architecture, or divinity call their first professional degree a "master's degree" (e.g., M.F.A., M.B.A.) because most of these degrees require at least the completion of a bachelor's degree. There is currently some debate in the architectural community to rename the degree to a doctorate in the manner that was done for the law degree decades ago, however, this would also require increasing the length of their education.

In 21 US jurisdictions religious institutions can be authorized to grant religious-exempt (rel. exmpt., rel. expt. etc.) degrees without accreditation or government oversight. Such degrees are used primarily to attain church-related employment.

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