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What is a Degree?

Updated on November 18, 2009

A degree is the title conferred by a college or university, signifying that a certain step or grade has been attained in an area of learning. The award of a diploma conferring the bachelor's degree marks completion of undergraduate study. The master's and doctor's degrees reward graduate study. Other degrees constitute evidence of preparation for professional work. The M.D. (doctor of medicine) for example.

Development of Titles

Degrees date back to the medieval universities, where the faculties were organized as guilds and set their own requirements for membership. After a period of study the candidate was examined orally as to his fitness for the degree of master—that is, on his mental and moral qualifications as a teacher. The successful candidate was then presented to the chancellor and asked permission from the ecclesiastical authorities to teach. Thus he became a master, holding the only degree then granted.

The bachelor's, or baccalaureate, degree developed out of the steps to the mastership. At first it was merely a permission for the young man to try his hand at teaching, the term "bachelor" meaning a novice, a candidate for the mastership, or a pupil teacher. The young man had to read for three or four years in the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic). He could be granted permission to teach beginners, continuing his studies meanwhile. After more study (and usually at about 20 years of age) he was examined by the chancellor's board and then by the faculty. Finally he received his "right to teach anywhere," as it was called, and became a. member of the guild of masters.

The subsequent history of the baccalaureate is varied. In most of the countries of continental Europe it has disappeared, except in France, where it now signifies that one has finished the work of the secondary school, or lycee. When the English scholars were called back from Paris by King Henry II in 1167-1168 and took up residence in Oxford, they kept the practice of granting the bachelor's certificate as a preliminary to the M. A. When a group of Oxford scholars migrated some years later to Cambridge and established themselves there, they continued the custom. In these two universities the bachelor of arts became and still is the significant first degree. With this status it spread throughout the English-speaking world.

Since in Oxford and Cambridge the B. A. is the important degree, the gaining of the M. A. has become almost automatic. Thus on graduating from an Oxford college one merely pays a fee to the secretary and asks that his name be "kept on the books" for five years. At the end of this period he becomes an M. A. with a vote in convocation. A similar practice developed in some American universities in the 19th century.

In the 20th century, however, the M. A. is granted in American universities and in those of England and the Commonwealth of Nations (apart from Oxford and Cambridge) on the basis of study beyond the B. A. and the presentation (usually) of a thesis. An exception is Scotland, where the M. A. has been the first degree conferred in all six universities ever since their founding. The bachelor of philosophy and bachelor of letters degrees are given for work beyond the M. A.

In what were known in earlier universities as "the higher faculties" - theology, common law, medicine - further study came early to be required after admission to the mastership. In some institutions as much as 16 years of additional study was required in the faculty of theology. At the same time the title "doctor", "professor" or "dominus" began to be applied to graduates in these faculties.

By the end of the 15th century the title "master" had come to be generally used for graduates in the lower faculties (grammar, arts) and "doctor" for those in the higher. Present-day use of degree titles stems largely from this early practice.

The Ph. D. in America and the other doctorates of similar rank represent a separate development. From the founding of Harvard in 1636 until well into the 19th century the B. A. was the principal degree awarded by American colleges. Beginning in 1814, young American bachelors of arts began traveling to Germany for further study, attracted by the enormous prestige of German universities. Earning a German Ph. D. became a custom, and by 1875 many professors in American colleges and universities held the A. B. from an American college and the Ph. D. from a German university. The first Ph. D. was awarded in the United States in 1861, but there was no systematic effort to establish an institution that would rank with the German universities until the founding of Johns Hopkins in Baltimore in 1876. This institution was planned to give three years of training comparable in every way to what young men received in Germany. Many members of its faculty were brought from Europe. Other institutions followed the lead of Hopkins in establishing graduate schools.

Photography by Harrison Keely
Photography by Harrison Keely

Varieties of Degrees

In continental Europe and in most countries of Latin America there is very little variety in the names of degrees awarded in the five traditional faculties: law, medicine, theology, arts, and philosophy. In Germany the doctor of philosophy (Ph. D.) is the one degree given in all faculties except theology, where the licentiate (from the medieval licencia docendi) is given before the doctorate. In France the student arrives at the university with his bacca-laureat from the lycee (secondary school). After one or two years, followed by an examination, he is awarded the intermediate licencie (licentiate). This degree is granted in Spain also. Further study and the preparation, presentation, and defense of a thesis are required for the doctorate.

All degrees in France are conferred by the state with the exception of the docteur de l'universite, which is conferred by the institution the student has attended. This degree is most popular with Americans who pursue their doctoral study in France. In the USSR a diploma is awarded when the student finishes his university course. Two postgraduate degrees may also be gained by extended further study, that of candidate and ultimately that of doctor.

In the United States and in Britain and the other Commonwealth countries there has been a great proliferation of academic degrees in the past 100 years. In 1860 the first bachelor of science (B. S., B. Sc.) was awarded by the University of London. By the 1960's, U. S. colleges were awarding more than 400 varieties of the B. S. British universities also developed new degrees in science and technology. The bachelor of commerce (B. Comm.) and the bachelor of science in technology (B. Sc. Techn.) are examples. These originated mainly in the "red brick" universities - that is, in universities other than Oxford and Cambridge. The graduate in medicine in Britain usually receives first the two degrees of bachelor of medicine and bachelor of surgery (M. B., Ch. B.). If he writes and defends a thesis in addition to passing the examinations, he receives an M. D. The same distinction is made in the faculty of theology between the B. D. and the D. D. A new degree, of lower rank than the bachelor's, is the associate in arts or science. This title is awarded by U. S. junior colleges after the completion of 2-year courses.

The first doctor of education degree was awarded at Harvard in 1920. This was designed as a practitioner's degree, whereas the Ph. D. was a researcher's degree. A number of similarly derived doctorates have since appeared, for example, the doctor of clinical psychology (D. C. P.) and the doctor of fine arts (D. F. A.).

Honorary Degrees

All the titles so far discussed are earned degrees, awarded for a specified program of study. The first honorary degree in the United States was the doctorate in sacred theology conferred on President Increase Mather of Harvard in 1692. Since then the practice has grown until it is now estimated that about 5,000 degrees are conferred each year in the United States honoris causa- that is, for distinctions frequently other than academic.

Politicians, financiers, actors, writers, athletes, and numerous others are so honored and thus entitled to the right to be called "doctor," since practically all such degrees are now at the doctoral level. The commonest are the doctor of humane letters (L. H. D.), the doctor of sacred theology (S. T. D.), the doctor of divinity (D. D.), the doctor of laws (LL. D.), the doctor of civil law (D. C. L.), and the doctor of music (Mus. D.), though new and extraordinary titles are devised every year. The Ph. D. is no longer conferred honoris causa, and the M. A. is seldom conferred this way.

Doubtful and Fake Degrees

The real worth of earned degrees varies greatly. The United States, for example, has some of the finest universities in the world and also some very weak ones, with all levels in between. Colleges unable to gain accreditation from the regional accrediting associations nevertheless grant degrees, particularly the A. B. and the B. S.

In addition there are "degree mills", as they are called, which sell certificates stating that the holder has been awarded the bachelor's, the master's, or even the doctor's degree. Some diploma mills work entirely by mail, and their only requirement for a degree is that the applicant pay a stated fee.


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