What is an Academic Degree?

Alan Rankin

An academic degree is the official certification that a person has completed a rigorous course of study at an academic institution such as a university. Ownership of an academic degree qualifies that person for various professional fields. Some titles can only be claimed by a person with an academic degree; for example, a “doctor” must have completed an advanced graduate degree known as a doctorate. Modern academic degrees originated with the university system established in Europe in the Middle Ages. The term “degree” refers to the grade or level of an item compared to others along a scale, which is why the same word is used for measurements of temperatures and angles.

A person receiving an academic degree.
A person receiving an academic degree.

Many professions require at least a basic academic degree, and employers often will request that prospective employees provide proof of such certification. Highly specialized fields such as medicine, architecture, law, science and physical therapy require advanced degrees. General fields that require a basic degree or better include business, marketing, elementary education and some arts. Advanced academic degrees are also required for some positions in higher education, although some graduate students can instruct lower-level students while in the process of achieving their advanced degree.

King's College Chapel at the University of Cambridge. Cambridge offers undergraduate and graduate degrees.
King's College Chapel at the University of Cambridge. Cambridge offers undergraduate and graduate degrees.

In European educational systems and similar systems, basic degrees are called bachelor’s or associate’s degrees. Advanced degrees are called master’s or doctoral degrees. Possession of these often is noted by initials after a person’s name, such as John Doe, BBA, for a bachelor's degree in business administration, or Dr. John Doe, Ed.D., for a doctor of education. These degrees, their requirements and signifiers can vary from nation to nation. Many systems require that a doctoral candidate complete a work of original research called a dissertation before qualifying for his or her academic degree, and an academic committee must approve the finished dissertation.

The academic degree was an outgrowth of apprentice programs used by merchant classes in medieval Europe. When the modern university system came into being with the establishment of such institutions as Oxford and the Sorbonne, it adopted this system, in which a successful apprentice became a “master.” Originally, a “master” was the same as a “doctor,” but over the centuries a doctorate was established as a higher level of academic achievement. The Ph.D., or Doctor of Philosophy, is considered the highest academic degree in many countries. This term also stems from the Middle Ages, when any field of science was referred to as “natural philosophy.”

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Discussion Comments


How do you feel about the quality of academic degrees that are now being offered online?

While diploma mills have a bad reputation, there are many notable schools, including Oxford and Harvard, that are making classes available online. Other publicly funded schools allow you to complete an entire bachelor's, masters, and even some doctorates through the Internet.

I believe that a lot of academic degrees are very elitist and not accessible to the average person because of cost barriers, but with online universities, I feel that a greater breadth of people can now receive quality education at a lower cost and with greater ease.


Having an academic degree is vital to finding a job in today's economy. Although it doesn't guarantee you a job, as you still need applicable skills and good communication abilities, but it puts you ahead of others when people are glancing at resumes.

For a lot of employers, an academic degree just isn't about the knowledge gained, but about showing that you can start a big project and finish it.

Acquiring a degree takes a lot of work and persistence, things that employer’s value. Once you have yours you should be proud of it and use it to its fullest potential.

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