An academic degree is a college or university diploma, often associated with a title and sometimes associated with an academic position, which is usually awarded in recognition of the recipient having either satisfactorily completed a prescribed course of study or having conducted a scholarly endeavour deemed worthy of his or her admission to the degree. The most common degrees awarded today are associate's, bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees. Most higher education institutions generally offer certificates and several programs leading to the obtainment of a Master of Advanced Studies, which is predominantly known as a Diplôme d'études supérieures spécialisées under its original French name.
OverviewThe modern academic system of academic degrees evolved and expanded in the medieval university, spreading everywhere across the globe as the institution did:
- "No other European institution has spread over the entire world in the way in which the traditional form of the European university has done. The degrees awarded by European universities – the bachelor's degree, the licentiate, the master degree, and the doctorate – have been adopted in the most diverse societies throughout the world."
Emergence of the Doctor's and Master's degrees and the licentiateThe doctorate (Latin: doceo, I teach) appeared in medieval Europe as a license to teach (Latin: licentia docendi) at a medieval university. Its roots can be traced to the early church when the term "doctor" referred to the Apostles, church fathers and other Christian authorities who taught and interpreted the Bible. The right to grant a licentia docendi was originally reserved to the church which required the applicant to pass a test, to take oath of allegiance and pay a fee. The Third Council of the Lateran of 1179 guaranteed the access – now largely free of charge – of all able applicants, who were, however, still tested for aptitude by the ecclesiastic scholastic. This right remained a bone of contention between the church authorities and the slowly emancipating universities, but was granted by the Pope to the University of Paris in 1231 where it became a universal license to teach (licentia ubique docendi). However, while the licentia continued to hold a higher prestige than the bachelor's degree (Baccalaureus), it was ultimately reduced to an intermediate step to the Magister and doctorate, both of which now became the exclusive qualification for teaching.
At the university, doctoral training was a form of apprenticeship to a guild. The traditional term of study before new teachers were admitted to the guild of "Master of Arts", seven years, was the same as the term of apprenticeship for other occupations. Originally the terms "master" and "doctor" were synonymous, but over time the doctorate came to be regarded as a higher qualification than the master degree.
Today the terms "master", "doctor" (from the Latin - meaning literally: "teacher") and "professor" signify different levels of academic achievement, but in the Medieval university they were equivalent terms, the use of them in the degree name being a matter of custom at a university. (Most universities conferred the Master of Arts, although the highest degree was often termed Master of Theology/Divinity or Doctor of Theology/Divinity depending on the place).
The earliest doctoral degrees (theology - Divinitatis Doctor (D.D.), philosophy - Doctor of philosophy (D.Phil., Ph.D.) and medicine - Medicinæ Doctor (M.D., D.M.)) reflected the historical separation of all University study into these three fields. Over time the D.D. has gradually become less common and studies outside theology and medicine have become more common (such studies were then called "philosophy", but are now classified as sciences and humanities - however this usage survives in the degree of Doctor of Philosophy).
The University of Bologna in Italy, regarded as the oldest university in Europe, was the first institution to confer the degree of Doctor in Civil Law in the late 12th century; it also conferred similar degrees in other subjects, including medicine.
The University of Paris used the term "master" for its graduates, a practice adopted by the English universities of Oxford and Cambridge, as well as the ancient Scottish universities of St Andrews, Glasgow, Aberdeen, and Edinburgh.
Emergence of the bachelor's degreeIn the medieval European universities, candidates who had completed three or four years of study in the prescribed texts of the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic), and the quadrivium (mathematics, geometry, astronomy and music), together known as the Liberal Arts, and who had successfully passed examinations held by their master, would be admitted to the degree of Bachelor of Arts, from the Latin baccalaureus, a term previously used of a squire (i.e., apprentice) to a knight. Further study, and in particular successful participation in and then moderating of disputations would earn one the Master of Arts degree, from the Latin magister, teacher, entitling one to teach these subjects. Master of Arts were eligible to enter study under the "higher faculties" of Law, Medicine or Theology, and earn first a bachelor's and then master or doctor's degrees in these subjects. 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").
The evolution of the terminology of degreesThe naming of degrees eventually became linked with the subjects studied. Scholars in the faculties of arts or grammar became known as "master", but those in theology, 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 theology, medicine and law, the degree of doctor assumed a higher status than the master degree. This led to the modern hierarchy in which the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), which in its present form as a degree based on research and dissertation is a development from 18th- and 19th-century German universities, is a more advanced degree than the Master of Arts (M.A.). The practice of using the term doctor for PhDs developed within German universities and spread across the academic world.
The French terminology is tied closely to the original meanings of the terms. The baccalauréat (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. Spain had a similar structure: the term "Bachiller" was used for those who finished the secondary or high-school level education, known as "Bachillerato". The standard Spanish university 5-years degree was "Licenciado", (although there were a few 3-years associate degrees called "diplomaturas", from where the "diplomados" could move to study a related licenciatura). The highest level was "Doctor".
Degrees awarded by institutions other than universitiesIn the past, degrees have also been directly issued by authority of the monarch or by a bishop, rather than any educational institution. This practice has mostly died out. In Great Britain, Lambeth Degrees are still awarded by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Academic dressMain article: Academic dress
In most countries, gaining an academic degree entitles the holder to assume distinctive academic dress particular to the awarding institution, identifying the status of the individual wearing them.
Current levels of attainment of degreesTraditionally more men than women attended and earned degrees at the world's universities. A milestone was reached in the United States according to results of the 2010 census, as women surpassed men in attaining master degrees, for the first time. The U.S. census reports that 10.5 million men have master's degrees or higher, compared with 10.6 million women. The first year that women surpassed men in earning bachelor’s degrees was in 1996.
Indicating earned degreesThere are various conventions for indicating degrees and diplomas after one's name. In some cultures it is usual to give only the highest degree. In others, it is usual to give the full sequence, in some cases giving abbreviations also for the discipline, the institution, and (where it applies) the level of honours. In another variation, a 'rule of subsumption' often shortens the list and may obscure the chronology evident from a full listing. Thus 'MSc BSc' means that the degrees conferred were - in chronological order - BSc, MSc. The subsumption rule reflects the principle that a person of a given high status does not separately belong to the lower status.
For member institutions of the Association of Commonwealth Universities, there is a standard list of abbreviations, but in practice many variations are used. Most notable is the use of the Latin abbreviations 'Oxon.' and 'Cantab.' for the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, in spite of these having been superseded by (little used) English 'Oxf.' and 'Camb.' Other Latin abbreviations include St And. for the University of St Andrews, Exon. for the University of Exeter, Dunelm. for Durham University, Ebor. for the University of York, Cantuar. for the University of Kent (formerly the "University of Kent at Canterbury") and N'cle for University of Newcastle upon Tyne. Confusion results from the widespread use of 'SA' for the University of South Australia (instead of S.Aust.) because 'SA' was officially assigned to the University of South Africa. For universities of different commonwealth countries sharing the same name, such as York University in Canada and the University of York in the UK, a convention has been adopted where a country abbreviation is included with the letters and university name. In this example, 'York (Can.)' and 'York (UK)' is commonly used to denote degrees conferred by their respective universities.
The doubling of letters in LL.B., LL.M., LL.D. is because these degrees are in laws, not law. The doubled letter indicates the Latin plural (genitive case) legum as opposed to the singular (genitive case) legis. Abbreviations for the degrees in surgery Ch. B. and Ch. M. are from Latin chiruguriae and often indicate a university system patterned after Scottish models. The combination of M.B. with Ch. B. arose from a need to graduate the students at the time of year allocated to graduation rituals, but the legal inability to confer the M.B. before they had been properly approved by professional regulatory bodies. Thus the Ch. B. was conferred first, and the M.B. was conferred later, after registration, and without ceremony. In recent times the two have come to be conferred together and are widely (mis)understood to constitute a single degree.
Some degrees are awarded jure dignitatis. That is, a person who has demonstrated the appropriate qualities to be given a particular office may be awarded the degree by virtue of the office held. It is another kind of earned—but not generally strictly academic—degree. An exception occurs when a doctorate is conferred based on both the office and a completed dissertation. In such circumstances the degree is awarded "dissertation et jure dignitatis".
Online degreeAn online degree is an academic degree (usually a college degree, but sometimes the term includes high school diplomas and non-degree certificate programs) that can be earned primarily or entirely through the use of an Internet-connected computer, rather than attending college in a traditional campus setting. Improvements in technology, the increasing use of the Internet worldwide, and the need for people to have flexible school schedules that enable them to work while attending school have led to a proliferation of online colleges that award associate's, bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees.
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