We will elaborate on the differences throughout this post. However, we will start with a brief statement on the standard principle that separates these two degrees.
An academic degree concentrates on a major that prepares you for research-oriented work.
A professional degree prepares graduates to work in a specific field, such as medicine, law, or pharmacy.
The differences are not always distinct. There are areas of overlap. Some of the differences are apparent at the masters and doctoral level. Depending on your career goals, one degree may be more suitable.
A law degree is one example of a professional degree. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree, you apply for acceptance into law school. For most students, the average is three years of law school. Upon graduation, you receive your Juris Doctor (J.D.). In the United States, you need to pass the state bar exam to practice law. You may work in the law profession with your J.D., however, to refer to yourself as an “attorney”-you need to pass the bar.
There are other examples of terminal degrees considered professional degrees — a Doctor of Education, Doctor of Pharmacy, Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine, Doctor of Podiatry, and Doctor of Medicine (MD).
Arguably, the MD is both academic and professional, depending on its application. Using the degree in the practice of medicine is professional. In the role of a faculty member at a medical school would be academic. The clinical professors who teach medicine in a variety of specialties have an MD. In the academic setting, these doctors practice medicine indirectly through their educational work. They may also use their degree as academic and professional if they retain a medical practice, as well as teach.
Not all professional degrees are at the doctoral level. At the graduate level, there is a Master of Divinity (MDiv), which prepares students to work in ministry. This degree includes practical ministry skills that you apply directly to the profession. In addition to classes in Biblical Studies and History of Religion, the purpose of the MDiv is to minister to audiences. Your career goals should focus on serving as a church pastor, chaplain, leader in a non-profit religious organization, or related profession involving spiritual guidance.
The Master of Divinity differs from a Master of Theology. The former is often a more extended program taking three to four years. The number of hours exceeds the traditional masters of two years or less. For example, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, is 88 credit hours. The Moody Theological Seminary in Chicago, Illinois, has an online 90 credit hour MDiv.
Academic degrees cover an assortment of disciplines. Any subject involving a curriculum weighted with theory, history (of the topic), methodology, and research material is academic. An undergraduate degree in psychology, sociology, literature, or public policy is not providing sufficient education in the discipline to use it directly in the workplace. A Bachelor of Arts will not qualify you to be a psychologist. A master’s degree in clinical psychology brings you closer to using your knowledge as a counselor or therapist.
In the example above, the undergraduate academic degree (psychology) prepares you for a professional degree. Architecture is another example. A Bachelor of Science in Architecture lists as a pre-professional degree at Kent State University. During the first two years, you take liberal arts classes and introductory courses in architectural theory, history, and design. The next step is the professional architectural degree, referred to as the Master of Architecture.
To become an architect, you need a professional degree from a program accredited by the National Architectural Accrediting Board.
We mentioned earlier in this piece – academic degrees are generally research-oriented. Some of the classical fields entail medical research. Examples are epidemiology (the study of infectious disease), genetics, cancer research, and toxicology. Not all research relegates you to a laboratory. There are job opportunities in environmental areas, such as climatology and oceanography. Most professions in research or academia require the minimum of a master’s degree. A Ph.D. is the norm in the upper echelon of scientific study.
The line blurs between an academic and a professional degree when one complements the other. In structural engineering, students need to study physics to understand loads and compression forces. Geology is necessary to know what the soil conditions will support. Mathematics helps the engineer calculate material stress factors, water flow rates, spans, weights, and wind resistance. Without the academic background in these sciences, the structural engineer would be incompetent in the professional application of this knowledge.
This article placed masters and doctorates in the limelight. You do not need to aspire to a graduate program to reap the benefits of a professional degree. To become a radiologic technician, for example, requires an Associate’s degree. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 63% of technicians have this two-year degree. Students apply their education directly to the clinical practice of using x-ray and other imaging equipment.
The above profession pays well. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median wage for radiology technicians was $60,070 (May 2017). Furthermore, the occupation grows at a rate of 13% or a change in 30,300 jobs through 2026!