What Is a Professional Degree? Types and Career Benefits

By Indeed Editorial Team

September 3, 2021

Many people seek a professional degree to find a fulfilling job that pays well or to continue advancing in their current field. With so many choices, it can be difficult to determine which degree is right for you. Whether you are working toward your bachelor's degree or well into your career, it is worthwhile to consider the best degree for your professional goals and the investment it will take. In this article, we will explore professional degrees and their possible impact on your career.

What is a professional degree?

A professional degree is a program designed to prepare you to work in a specific industry or career. This degree can also you eligible for certain licenses, accreditations and certifications in your field. Some careers do not allow you to practice without a professional degree. Professional degrees can have a range of titles, but they all aim to equip you with specific skills to succeed in your occupation.

You may have heard of the term "first professional degree." Professional degrees and first professional degrees are the same thing. A first professional degree is an outdated term for a professional degree, although some people still use it.

While all industries have jobs that require a bachelor’s degree or less, some other jobs may require additional education and training. The following industries have a high number of jobs that require a professional degree:

  • Architecture

  • Business

  • Dentistry

  • Education

  • Engineering

  • Law

  • Medicine

  • Pharmacy

  • Social work

The U.S. Department of Education has a list of criteria that a program must follow in order to qualify as a professional degree, including the following:

  1. Completing the academic program to practice in the profession and possibly passing an exam at the end

  2. Having a minimum of two years of college work before starting the program

  3. Lasting at least six years, including previous college experience

Professional degrees must also teach you how to do your chosen job, which separates them from academic degrees that focus on research over learning a profession.

How to get a professional degree

If you decide that a professional degree is necessary to achieve your professional goals, consider researching avenues to obtaining one. The route to a degree will differ depending on the school and program, but they typically share a few common steps:

1. Get your undergraduate degree

Getting your bachelor's degree typically takes four years. Most schools require you to select a major by the end of your second year. If you know the career you want to pursue, you can choose a major that will teach you the appropriate information and skills and prepare you for the next steps in the professional degree path.

2. Take a professional degree admissions exam

The specific professional admissions exam you take depends on the degree you are pursuing. There are different entrance tests based on each degree type, including the following:

  • Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT)

  • Medical College Admission Test (MCAT)

  • Medical College Admission Test (MCAT)

  • Graduate Record Examination (GRE)

3. Get your master's degree

Many careers require or have higher earning potential with the completion of a master’s program. If you are pursuing a doctoral degree, you may either bypass or earn your master’s degree during your doctoral or Ph.D. program depending on the school. Master's programs usually take one to two years to complete.

4. Get your doctoral degree

While some professionals must obtain a doctoral degree to be able to practice their job, others may pursue this degree level to continue advancing or to be considered an expert in their field. Doctoral programs can take up to eight years to complete. Only degrees that focus on professional learning, not academic learning, are professional degrees.

List of professional degrees

There are many different professional degrees that apply to various fields and jobs. Here are the most common professional degrees:

Doctor of Medicine (M.D.)

You need a Doctor of Medicine if you are pursuing a career in the medical field. Holders of an M.D. have a high salary based on their specialization. General surgeons and anesthesiologists are the top earners in the medical profession. 

Juris Doctor (J.D.)

Students who intend to practice law must earn a Juris Doctor degree. The program trains lawyers to specialize in one or more forms of law such as criminal, constitutional, civil, administrative or corporate law. If you want to pursue a career in the legal field without practicing law, a Master of Legal Studies might be a better fit for you.

Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm.D.)

A Doctor of Pharmacy is ideal for professionals who are pursuing a pharmacy job. The degree comprises teaching, research, clinical practice and other core aspects of the field. 

Doctor of Education (Ed.D.)

A Doctor of Education program involves intensive coursework and exploratory research. Ed.D. holders can pursue a career as education administrators in the elementary, secondary and post-secondary sectors. They can also be instructional coordinators and hold other positions in the education sector. 

Doctor of Dental Medicine or Doctor of Dental Surgery (D.M.D. or D.D.S.)

If you want to be a dentist, you need your D.M.D. or D.D.S. The degrees are the same, and you will go through the identical training and courses for either. It is up to the school to decide whether they want to award a D.M.D. or D.D.S.

Doctor of Optometry (O.D.)

An optometrist diagnoses and treats visual problems as well ass prescribes corrective eyewear to patients. Optometrists also guide their patients on the best surgical and non-surgical options to improve their visual health depending on their career, hobbies and lifestyle.

Doctor of Podiatry (D.P.M., D.P., Pod.D.)

A podiatrist diagnoses and treats issues related to the ankle and foot. Podiatrists are responsible for addressing pain, prescribing medication, scheduling surgery if necessary and explaining all other options for the health of their patients.

Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (D.V.M, V.M.D.)

A professional degree in veterinary medicine trains you in the clinical, research and teaching aspects of animal care. Veterinarians are often in high demand and have high earning potential with experience.

Master of Health Administration (MHA)

If you want to work in the health industry, a Master's Degree in Health Administration can open opportunities to many high-paying positions in the public and private sector. This program lasts two to three years and combines practical administrative experience and rigorous coursework. 

Master of Business Administration (MBA)

The MBA degree is one of the most sought-after professional degrees. The program educates students from diverse business backgrounds including financial management, financial analysis, taxation, investments among others. This degree is widely applicable for individuals in various business positions from marketing to management.

Master of Public Administration (MPA)

People in the public sector can obtain a professional degree called Master of Public Administration. These programs provide skills in public affairs, governance, political science, management and more.

Many schools also have professional degree programs for those in architecture, engineering, accounting and more. You can choose from a variety of well-structured programs to increase your earning potential, skills and possibilities for advancement. 

Jobs that require a professional degree

Professional degrees can help you to pursue a satisfying career that pays well. Here are some of the top jobs you can get with a professional degree:

1. Health services administrator

National average salary: $70,000 per year
Job duties: Oversee day-to-day functions of a clinic or hospital. Monitor facility budget, and plan all services

2. Veterinarian

National average salary: $92,000 per year

Job duties: Examine and treat animals. Perform wellness checks, x-rays and routine surgeries for animals. Emergency medicine is sometimes required.

3. School district superintendent

National average salary: $95,000 per year

Job duties: Plan and direct all functions and activities of a school district. Make executive decisions on budget, staff and educational plans.

4. Intellectual property attorney

National average salary: $107,000 per year

Job duties: Protect patents for creative and intellectual property. Must be able to increase client's intellectual property earning potential and represent clients in federal and state court.

5. Pharmacist

National average salary: $52 per hour

Job duties: Complete drug review of all new prescriptions ordered. Supply patients with drug counseling before distributing prescriptions.

6. Oral surgeon

National average salary: $191,000 per year

Job duties: Perform surgery on mouth, jaw, head and neck. Extract teeth or prepare the mouth for dental implants. May need to sedate patients. 

7. Anesthesiologist

National average salary: $270,000 per year

Job duties: Sedate patients before surgery. Handle pain relief of patients during and after surgery. Monitor vital signs during surgery and provide emergency medical attention if needed.

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