Professional Degrees vs. Academic Degrees: What’s the Difference?

Sixty-one percent of employers claim the skills needed for their positions have evolved, requiring a higher base level of education. What’s more, 18 percent of jobs will prefer or require a master’s degree by 2022.

When deciding whether to pursue your advanced degree, it’s important to consider whether you want to earn a professional or academic degree. Each has its own benefits and may be relevant to you depending on your profession.

Below are the key similarities and differences when deciding between a professional and academic degree.

What’s a Professional Degree?

A professional degree helps students prepare for careers in specific fields, such as law, pharmacy, medicine, and education. The length of the programs vary, and can span anywhere from one to five years.

Certain professional degrees are often required by law to be earned before one can work in a specific job, such as becoming a doctor or lawyer. There is also a focus on real-world application, with many professional programs requiring students to complete internships or projects in their field of study before graduation. This allows students to gain extensive on-the-job training and boost their resumé.

What’s an Academic Degree?

An academic or research degree focuses on a specific field of study, and courses build on the technical knowledge learned. This degree is often more research-oriented than professional programs, and students are typically required to plan, organize, and conduct research to complete their coursework. The programs often require a thesis or capstone project in order to graduate.

What Can You Do with a Professional Degree?

There are several different types of professional degrees, including:

JD: A Juris Doctor is a professional degree for law. Lawyers can specialize within administrative, constitutional, criminal, or other forms of law. Lawyers can expect to earn a median salary of $118,160, with employment projected to grow six percent by 2024.

MD:  A Doctor of Medicine is awarded to those who want to pursue fields within medicine or surgery. Those who receive an MD typically earn a lucrative salary, which varies depending on the specialization. Average earnings include:

EdD: A Doctor of Education combines exploratory research with comprehensive coursework for educators and professionals who want to direct and implement change at their organizations. Careers include:

  • Postsecondary Education Administrator: $90,760
  • Elementary and Secondary School Education Administrator: $95,390
  • Instructional Coordinator: $62,460

PharmD: The Doctor of Pharmacy provides opportunities in research, teaching, clinical practice, and other areas within pharmacy. Graduates with this degree typically become:

What Can You Do with an Academic Graduate Degree?

There are various academic graduate degrees you can earn to enhance your career. They include:

Nursing: Nurses assess patients’ health, manage patient care, and advise health management and prevention. A master’s degree in nursing helps students become clinical nurse leaders, nursing administrators, or nurse practitioners. Nurses make $68,450 per year on average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and there are more than 2.7 million nursing jobs available today.

Computer Science: A graduate degree in computer science can prepare students for a variety of careers through their study of computers and computational systems. Areas of specialization include software engineering, mobile computing, programming languages, user experience and user interface design, and computing theory. Depending on specialization, you could become a:

Information Systems: An information systems degree prepares students for careers in information technology (IT) through their studies in network technology, databases, and computer security. This helps them solve organizational problems and support business operations and management. Employment of information technology professions is projected to grow 12 percent—much faster than most occupations. Careers include:

Figuring Out Your Next Move

When taking the next step toward earning your academic or professional degree, figure out what prerequisites you need prior to applying, including what exams you need to take, such as the GRE or MCAT.

Lastly, keep in mind that your decision should be based on the value you want from your degree, whether it’s to specialize in a particular field, gain more knowledge, increase your earnings, or advance into a leadership position. Make sure to take the time to evaluate your current and future career plans, and conduct the necessary research within your field to determine your best option moving forward.


Are you interested in earning an advanced education? Explore Northeastern’s more than 200 graduate programs.