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What Is a Professional Degree?

Learn about the basics of a professional degree, what you can do with this degree, and how it's different from a PhD.

May 24, 2024
  • Education
What is a professional degree?

✨5-second summary

  • A professional degree is a terminal graduate-level degree for jobs that require practical training and knowledge.
  • Professional degree examples: Juris Doctor (JD), Doctor of Medicine (MD), Doctor of Education (EdD), Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD), Doctor of Psychology (PsyD).
  • A professional degree takes from 3 to 5 years to complete and often requires licensure for you to start working.

Whether you're a student planning to pursue further education or a working professional looking for a way to increase your qualifications, you've probably come across the term "professional degree". In this article, we'll go over the basics of a professional degree, provide a few professional degree examples, and explain what you can do with this degree.

What is a professional degree?

A professional degree is a specialized graduate-level degree for jobs that require specific knowledge and practical training. It's very common in medicine and law. These degrees are usually considered terminal and focus mostly on hands-on skills to prepare you for entering the workforce. However, you should note that many professions also require licensure in addition to education.

Professional degree examples

Here are the most popular professional degrees:

  • Juris Doctor (JD)
  • Doctor of Medicine (MD)
  • Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD)
  • Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS)
  • Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD)
  • Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT)
  • Doctor of Physiotherapy (DPhysio)
  • Doctor of Optometry (OD)
  • Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM)
  • Doctor of Education (EdD)
  • Doctor of Psychology (PsyD)

How long does it take to get a professional degree?

Most professional degrees take from 3 to 5 years to complete. However, the exact duration of the full-time studies largely depends on your chosen field and program:

  • A JD program typically lasts for about 3 years.
  • Although an MD program generally takes 4 years to finish, you may also be required to complete a residency program that may take 3 to 7 years.
  • A PharmD can require as long as 6 years to complete.
  • A DMD and a DDS are the same and take 2 to 6 years.
  • An OD may take you around 4 years to earn.
  • A DVM takes 4 years to get on average.
  • An EdD usually takes from 3 to 5 years to finish.

If you decide to enroll part-time, your degree may take significantly longer.

Professional degree cost

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, the median medical school tuition and fees for the academic year 2023-2024 range from $36,000 to $65,000 depending on the type of institution and student's residency.

An EdD student pays $63,000 on average, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. As for law school in the US, a full-time student can expect to pay from $30,000 to $56,000 per year in tuition, states the Law School Admission Council.

PhD students in a research lab

Professional degree vs Doctorate

The main difference between a professional degree and a PhD is in the purpose of the program. A PhD is very research-focused and generally prepares students for a career in academia. A professional degree is designed to deepen the applied knowledge and upskill people who either plan to or already work in the field.

For example, someone with a PhD in Medicine can take academic or teaching positions at universities, research and development jobs in government, biotech or pharma companies laboratories. An MD graduate however would probably become a licensed physician and provide direct care at hospitals.

The approach to the dissertation is also different. PhD students usually conduct research to confirm or disprove a theory that is often aimed to contribute to the science of the field. On the other hand, professional degrees require students to identify and analyze real-world issues and come up with practical solutions.

Professional degree salary

The latest report from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that professional degree holders outearned PhDs in 2023 by 5%. Workers with professional degrees have the highest median earnings – $2,206 per week (or roughly $115,000 annually).

Getting a professional degree also significantly increases the chance of finding a job. The unemployment rate for professional degree graduates is the lowest – 1.2%.

Degree levelMedian annual earningsUnemployment rate
Professional degree$115,0001.2%
All workers$61,0003.0%

Professional degree jobs

Here are a few professional degree jobs examples:

  • Veterinarian: A veterinarian examines and treats animals and earns around $120,000 on average.
  • Pharmacist: A pharmacist is responsible for dispensing prescribed medication and providing consultation to customers. The average annual salary for pharmacists is $120,000.
  • Clinical psychologist: A clinical psychologist is a mental health professional trained to diagnose and treat mental illnesses. Clinical psychologists can expect to earn $212,000 per year.
  • Lawyer: A lawyer is a licensed professional who offers legal advice or represents clients in criminal or civil cases. The average salary for an attorney is $105,000.
  • Superintendent: A school superintendent plans and coordinates the administration in a school district. The mean earnings for a superintendent – $92,000 annually.

Source for salary data –


A professional degree is usually a terminal graduate-level degree that focuses on practical training and applied knowledge. These degrees are common in medicine and law. Also, it is often a requirement to have a professional degree for you to be able to work in fields that offer them.

It generally takes 3 to 5 years for full-time students to earn a professional degree. However, it may not be the last step to enter the workforce. For medical professions, you may be required to complete a residency program, and for most other jobs you'll need to get a license.

But all that effort pays off. A professional degree can increase your salary even more than a PhD. By providing you with a specific set of practical skills, this degree can make you a valued and qualified professional in your desired field.

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