A degree is any of a wide range of awards made by institutions of higher education, such as universities, normally as the result of successfully completing a program of study.
The first universities were founded in Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries. As with other professions, teaching in universities was only carried out by people who were properly qualified. In the same way that a carpenter would attain the status of master carpenter when fully qualified by his guild, a teacher would become a master when he had been licensed by his profession, the teaching guild.
Candidates who had completed three or four years of study in the prescribed texts of the trivium (grammar, rhetoric and logic), and who had successfully passed examinations held by his masters, would be awarded a bachelor's degree. 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 and professor signify different levels of academic achievement, but initially they were equivalent terms. The University of Bologna in Italy, regarded as the oldest university in Europe, was the first institution to award the degree of Doctor in Civil Law in the late 12th century; it also awarded similar degrees in other subjects including medicine. Note that medicine is now the only field in which the term doctor is applied to students who have only obtained their first academic qualification.
The naming of degrees eventually became linked with the subjects studied. Scholars in the faculties of arts or grammar became known as masters, but those in philosophy, 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 philosophy, medicine and law, the degree of doctor assumed a higher status than the master's degree. This led to the modern hierarchy in which the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D) is a more advanced degree than the Master of Arts (M.A.). The practice of using the term doctor for all advanced degrees developed within German universities and spread across the academic world.
The French terminology is tied closely to the original meanings of the terms. The [[baccalaur�at]] (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.
In Germany, the doctorate is still the only higher degree granted; additions to the title specify the area of study, such as Dr.rer.nat. (Doktor rerum naturalium) in the natural sciences and Dr.Ing. (Doktor-Ingenieur) in engineering.
In Europe, degrees are being harmonised through the Bologna process, which is based on the three-level hierarchy of degrees (Bachelor, Master, Doctor) currently used in the United Kingdom and the United States. This system is gradually replacing the two-stage system now in use in some countries.
Types of academic degrees
Some examples of specific degrees follow each general term. For more information, see the article about the general term.
- Associate's degrees (U.S.): AA, AS
- Foundation degrees (U.K.): FdA, FdEd, FdEng, FdMus, FdSc, FdTech
- Bachelor's degrees: BA, BS, BSc, BFA, BCL, LLB, MB, BChir
- Master's degrees: MA, MSc, MS, MPhil, MFA, MTh, M.Div., MBA, MPA, MPAff, MLitt, MPM, MPP, LLM, MEng, MSci, MChem, MPhys, MMath, MESci, MGeol
- Doctorate degrees: PhD, EdD, DNursSci, JD *, DBA, DD, DSc, DLitt, DA, DMA, DMus, DCL, ThD
* Note: In the U.S., according to legal convention, the J.D. degree does not confer the title of doctor.
In some countries, such as Australia, a diploma is a specific academic award of lower rank that a academic degree. Australia has different types of several different types of diplomas: Diplomas, Advanced Diplomas, Graduate Diplomas and Postgraduate Diplomas. A diploma can also be an additional course done after a standard bachelor degree giving specilisation in a particular field. For example, Australian schoolteachers often study a bachelor's degree in Arts or Science (with a significant education component) for the first three years, then in their final year do a Diploma of Education (DipEd), which qualifies them as school teachers. In Ireland a National Diploma is below the standard of the honours bachelor degree, whilst the Higher Diploma is taken after the bachelor degree. In Germany and Austria the diploma (in German Diplom) is the standard academic degree, comparable with the Master's degree.
In Australia, Universities also issue certificates, which require less study than a diploma (e.g. six months). These include Certificates, Graduate Certificates and Postgraduate Certificates. There are also AQF certificates (Certificates I-IV) granted by vocational and technical education providers.