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What Is a Professional Degree & What Can I Do With It?

So many degrees...so little time

Stephanie Olsen
Contributor

Woman graduating with her professional degree

Professional degrees require a lot of hard work. First, you have to complete a four-year undergraduate degree with a GPA good enough for grad school. Once you’ve gone through the rigors of applying for postgraduate programs and are accepted, you’ve got at least two more years of academic work ahead of you to obtain your professional degree—and in some cases, another four plus further specialized training.

What is a professional degree? 

A professional degree is a degree that prepares you for a specific profession. It requires at least two years of college (but more often a four-year undergraduate degree), which includes several required courses, plus completion of the professional degree program. 

If you want to be a doctor, lawyer, social worker, or librarian, for example, in the U.S., then you’ll need a professional degree. 

If you want a career as a doctor, for instance, you need to get an M.D., or Doctor of Medicine, after obtaining an undergraduate degree in a related science. Similarly, before attending law school to complete a Juris Doctor (J.D.), you must complete a bachelor’s degree.

What kind of job can I get with a professional degree?

A professional degree can set you up to be a doctor, a lawyer, a social worker, an occupational therapist, a librarian, veterinarian, pharmacist, chiropractor, or osteopath—and plenty more lines of work require this type of education. 

Some jobs will require further certification or training beyond a professional degree. For example, a social worker with a master social work will need to be licensed in their state and even further certified to handle some types of cases, like substance abuse, and a lawyer will need to pass the bar exam in the state or states where they intend to practice.

Does that mean I’m limited in what I can do for work?

And in case you’re worried about being stuck in one career for the rest of your life, career coach Lisa Lewis tells us that isn’t necessarily so. 

“While professional degrees get their name because they typically have you enter a specific profession, people with graduate degrees in law or medicine will often go on to have rich, interesting career paths. Just because you became a doctor with your M.D. or D.O. degree doesn't mean that's the only thing you can do! Many medical doctors go on to become managers, entrepreneurs, public health experts, advocates, policymakers, consultants, and more. The same goes for lawyers: Many will become scholars, federal employees, thought leaders, professors, and more.”

Read more: The Great MBA Debate: There's No Alternative (Or Is There?)

How does a professional degree differ from an academic degree?

The terms are not interchangeable. Professional degrees and academic degrees are different. In fact, the only real similarity is that they’re graduate degrees obtained from colleges and universities. However, for certain career paths, the answer is simple: If you want to be a doctor, lawyer, dentist or librarian, for example, you need a professional degree.

Advanced academic degrees, on the other hand, have a different purpose. “Because their goal is to increase knowledge in a specific academic discipline, these degrees tend to focus more on theory and research,” writes the team at Clarkson University. They give the example of a thesis being required for a master of science in chemical engineering; whereas a master of engineering requires a project instead of a thesis.

Still, the differences aren’t always distinct. A Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) is both an academic and professional degree.

Many schools offer both. For example, Melissa Tinklepaugh, assistant director of graduate digital marketing and recruiting at Clarkson University Graduate School, tells us that “Clarkson has graduate engineering programs for both degree types, enabling us to meet the needs of those looking for a research program and of those looking for a professional program.” It’s interesting to note a nearly 60/40 split between programs, with 57.9 percent of the students in a research degree program and 42.1 percent in a professional degree program, Tinklepaugh notes.

Read more: The Complete Guide to Getting a Job (Whether You're on Your First or Fifth)

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