Thursday, March 27, 2008

Terminal Degrees

Every field has its jargon. Game designers will happily talk about HUDs and avatars and positive feedback loops, oblivious to the fact that most people who haven't been doing this for the last few years of their career might have no idea what they're talking about. This is a particular danger when teaching, by the way, that you lapse into "designer-speak" without defining your terms, only to be met with blank stares.

People in academia do this too, and it can sometimes be confusing for the new designer-turned-teacher to keep up. A recent discussion on the IGDA game educators mailing list reminded me that one of the new terms an industry person is likely to run into is the terminal degree.

(Disclaimer: since I've only been doing this the last couple of years, I might get some details wrong. If you see any errors, feel free to post in the comments and I'll fix the post. Thank you.)

What is a terminal degree? The best description I can think of is a degree higher than Bachelor's, which is the highest degree offered, at the institution you received it, at the time you received it. Normally this means a Ph.D., but some fields don't offer one (the best-known are probably MFA and MBA) so those are referred to as terminal Master's degrees. Typically, a non-terminal Master's takes less time than a terminal Master's, which takes less time than a Ph.D. (in case you're trying to get an advanced degree as fast as possible).
Edit: Looks like I was wrong about this, it's just the highest degree offered in a field -- still, usually a Ph.D. but in some fields an MFA, or other degree. I'm not sure what happens at boundary conditions, such as if you get an MFA in Game Design (the highest degree offered today) and then one school decides to offer a Ph.D. in Game Design. Does that invalidate the 'terminality' of these other degrees?

Note that this means that if a new Ph.D. is offered at a university that previously only offered a Master's, whether the Master's is terminal or not is based on when the student enrolled; if you started before the Ph.D. was available, it's terminal. Timing matters.

Why should you care? Terminal degrees are important if you're planning to make a career of teaching. Having one means that you get paid more; at some places it's even a requirement for certain positions. If you don't have one already, think about getting one. Unfortunately, leaving a full-time career in industry to go back to graduate school is difficult for most people. Fortunately, once you do have a full-time job at a university, one of the more common benefits is being able to take classes for free or almost-free; if it's not practical to get your terminal degree first, it's quite possible to get it second.

From seeing a number of people going through graduate school, I also secretly suspect that it's called a "terminal degree" because it has a good chance of killing you.


Anonymous said...

I think your info here is not quite right. A terminal degree is the highest degree earnable in a given field of study; it doesn't have anything to do with what degree your current school/institution offers.

Most terminal degrees are a Ph.D. with a few exceptions. Some fields offer a doctarate that is not a Ph.D (such as an Ed.D.) A variety of fields, such as art and creative writing offer an MFA as the terminal degree. An MBA is not a terminal degree.

Ian Schreiber said...

Really? So this means that if you achieve the highest degree in your field except for one institution somewhere on the planet that offers a higher degree, yours is no longer terminal?

Anonymous said...

Not quite in that these academic "industries" are relatviely standardized. So a doctoral degree is the terminal degree in most fields (where it could be a PHd and EdD or many other types of doctroal degrees.) Basically there are a select few industrieis (such as art and creative wirting) where an MFA is the terminal degree in stead of something that has the word "doctor" in it. The point I was tring to make is that it is the field of study not the a specific school that determines what constitutes the terminal degree.

Chris Dodson said...

An MFA right now is the terminal degree for game design and game art. A PhD is the terminal degree for game development (programming). I have not yet heard of a PhD for actual game design (as opposed to development). I hope they don't create one, I really do not want to have to go for another degree.

And btw, since we call a PhD Doctor do we an call an MFA Master? Hmmm...

skysenshi said...

Hm. I've been told that an MFA is equivalent to a PhD, meaning that you can already be considered a doctor if you have an MFA. Is this true?

Ian Schreiber said...


Depends what you mean by MFA being "equivalent" to PhD.

In fields that offer both degrees, PhD is higher, not equivalent.

In fields where the highest degree offered is MFA, it is "equivalent" to PhD in the sense that it is a terminal degree and works similarly in terms of accreditation.

MFA does not let you call yourself "doctor". That comes from the "D" in PhD (or MD, for that matter). MFA is a Master of Fine Arts and is therefore a Master's degree, not a Doctorate.

Hope that clarifies things.

skysenshi said...

Thank you, Ian. That really clarifies things. I was feeling kind of..."Hey, that's not fair! I'm killing myself for 12 units of dissertation and they get to call themselves doctors for only 6 units of thesis?" Hehehe.

Chris, I am actually hoping for a PhD in Game Design to come out. It would be something I am actually interested in. Right now, I'm doing Communication Research because it has a Media Studies track, but it's still not quite close to what I really want to study.