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Degree Explanations

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Degree Explanations

A degree is any of a wide range of status levels conferred by institutions of higher education, such as universities, normally as the result of successfully completing a program of study.


The first universities were founded in ancient India in Taxila (Takshashila University) and Nalanda (Nalanda University) in the 7th century BC and 5th century BC respectively, followed by Byzantium in the 5th century (in Constantinopolis and Athens). The first university in the Islamic world was founded in Cairo (Al-Azhar University) in the 10th century, while in western Europe, universities were founded in the 12th and 13th centuries. As with other professions, teaching in universities was only carried out by people who were properly qualified. In the same way that a carpenter would attain the status of master carpenter when fully qualified by his guild, a teacher would become a master when he had been licensed by his profession, the teaching guild.

Candidates who had completed three or four years of study in the prescribed texts of the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic), and who had successfully passed examinations held by their masters, would be admitted to a bachelor's degree. 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").

Today the terms "master", "doctor", and "professor" signify different levels of academic achievement, but initially they were equivalent terms. 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. Note that medicine is now the only field in which the term "doctor" is applied, albeit informally, to students who have only obtained their first academic qualification.

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 Andrew's, Glasgow, Aberdeen, and Edinburgh.

The naming of degrees eventually became linked with the subjects studied. Scholars in the faculties of arts or grammar became known as "masters", but those in philosophy, 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 philosophy, medicine and law, the degree of doctor assumed a higher status than the master's degree. This led to the modern hierarchy in which the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) is a more advanced degree than the Master of Arts (M.A.). The practice of using the term doctor for all advanced degrees 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.

In Europe, degrees are being harmonised through the Bologna process, which is based on the three-level hierarchy of degrees (Bachelor (Licence in France), Master, Doctor). This system is currently in use in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. This system is gradually replacing the two-stage system now in use in some countries.

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 degree.

In 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.

Types of academic degree

Some examples of specific degrees follow each general term. For more information, see the article about the general term.

Associate's degrees (U.S.): AA, ABS, AS, AAS
Foundation degrees (U.K.): Fd A., Fd Ed., Fd Eng., Fd Mus., Fd Sc., FdTech
Bachelor's degrees: B.A. or A.B. , B.A.A., B.A.A.S., BBus, BCom or BComm, BE or BEng, BTech, BS or B.Sc. or SB, BFA, BCL, LL.B., BM or MB or B.Mus., BBA, BMed, MB B.Chir. or MB ChB or MBBS, BSSc
Master's degrees: M.A., MS or M.Sc., M.St., LL.M., MALD, MApol, MPhil, MRes, MEM, MFA, MTh, MTS, M.Div., MIA, MBA, MPA, MSW, MPAff, MLIS, MLitt, MPH, MPM, MPP, MPT, MRE, LL.M., M.Eng., M.Sc., M.Biochem., M.Chem., M.Phys., M.Math., M.Mus., MMusTech, MESci, M.Geol., MTCM, MSSc., BCL[1] (Oxon), B.Phil.[1] (Oxon),
Specialist degrees: EdS, B.Acc., C.A.S..
Doctorate degrees: Ph.D., EdD[2], DProf, EngD, DNursSci, DBA, DD, DDS, DSc, DLitt, DA, DMA, DPS, DMus, DCL, ThD, PharmD[3], DrPH, DPT, DPhil, DOM, OMD, PsyD, DSW, M.D., and J.D.

Abbreviations for degrees can place the level either before or after the faculty or discipline, depending on the institution. For example, DSc and ScD both stand for the (higher) doctorate in science. Various other abbreviations also vary between institutions, for instance BS and BSc both stand for 'Bachelor of Science'.

There 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 BA' means that the degrees conferred were - in chronological order - BSc, BA, 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 practise 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 English 'Oxf.' and 'Camb.' (Other Latin abbreviations include Exon. for the University of Exeter, Dunelm. for the University of Durham, Ebor. for the University of York and Cantuar. for the University of Kent at Canterbury.) 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; and the use of 'York' instead of 'YorkU' by graduates of York University in Canada.

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 legum as opposed to the singular 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.

A bachelor's degree is usually an undergraduate academic degree awarded for a course or major that generally lasts for three, four, and in some cases and countries, five years. (Note that some postgraduate degrees are entitled Bachelor of ..., e.g. the University of Oxford's Bachelor of Civil Law and Bachelor of Philosophy.)

Honours degrees and academic distinctions

Under the English system, and those influenced by it such as the Canadian, Irish, Indian, Singaporean, and Hong Kong systems, undergraduate degrees are differentiated either as pass degrees or as honours degrees, the latter denoted by the appearance of "(Hons)" after the degree abbreviation. An honours degree generally requires a higher academic standard than a pass degree, and in Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Scotland, South Africa, and the Canadian province of Ontario an extra year of study. In Scotland, there also exist General Degrees.

England and Wales

In England and Wales, there are two different types of degree, Honours degrees and Ordinary degrees and many universities offer undergraduate courses leading to both. The length of study required for both types of degree can vary from two to four years.

Honours degrees (usually written as BA(Hons) or BSc(Hons) are generally regarded as being of a superior academic standard, and are usually awarded for the more traditional academic subjects such as English, Philosophy or Mathematics etc. An Honours degree is always awarded in one of four classes depending upon the marks gained in the final assessments and examinations. The top students are awarded a first class degree, the next best, an upper second class degree (usually referred to as a 2:1), the next a lower second class degree (usually referred to as a 2:2) and those with the lowest marks gain a third class degree. An Ordinary or Unclassified degree (which does not give the graduate the right to add (Hons)) may be awarded if a student has completed the full honours degree course but has obtained a very low pass mark which is insufficient to merit even a third class honours degree.

Ordinary degrees are unclassified degrees awarded to all students who have completed the course and obtained sufficient marks to pass the final assessments and examinations. Ordinary degree courses usually have lower entry requirements than Honours degree courses. Although Ordinary degree courses are often considered to be easier than Honours degree courses, this is not always the case, and much depends on the university attended and the subject being studied. In many of the 'new' universities now offering a large range of modern degree subjects, Ordinary degree students are able to transfer to an Honours degree course in the same subject if an acceptable standard is reached after the first or second year of study.


At the Scottish Ancients (St Andrews, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee), undergraduate degrees are differentiated as either General Degrees or Honours Degrees.

An Honours degree (usually MA(Hons) for arts/social sciences or BSc(Hons) for sciences) is awarded for students who have completed four years at university - two years at sub-honours level, studying a variety of different subjects, and two years at honours level studying one subject in depth, usually including a dissertation in the final year.

A General Degree (usually MA or BSc) is awarded to students who have completed three years at university studying a variety of subjects. The first two years of a General and Honours degree are identical, but candidates for the General study in less depth in their final year, and over a wider variety of subjects. Candidates for the General do not usually complete a dissertation. A Scottish General degree is different from an English Pass degree even though both may be denoted BSc.

United States

Almost all U.S. universities (such as DeVry University) and colleges award bachelors' degrees with honors -- usually "cum laude" (with praise), "magna cum laude" (with great praise) and "summa cum laude" (with highest praise) -- degrees without honors are awarded "rite." Requirements for such notations of honors generally include minimum Grade Point Averages, with the highest average required for the "summa" distinction. In the case of a few schools, a senior thesis for degrees in the humanities, and laboratory research for "pure" science degrees is also required.

Some U.S. colleges and universities have a separate academic track known as an "honors" or "scholars" program, generally meant for the top students of the school and offering more challenging courses or more individually-directed seminars or research projects. The students are awarded the same bachelor's degree as students in the regular course, but with the notation "in cursu honorum." Usually, the above "laude" honors are separate from the notation for this honors course, but a student in the honors course generally must maintain grades at least worthy of the "cum laude" notation anyway. Hence, a student from such a school might receive a diploma Artium Baccalaureatum rite or Artium Baccalaureatum summa cum laude in the regular course, or Artium Baccalaureatum summa cum laude in cursu honorum, for instance.
New Zealand

Many of the eight New Zealand universities consider (e.g. [3] [4] [5] [6]) most of their honours degrees as a postgraduate degree, separate from an undergraduate bachelors [7] [[8] in most cases. There are some apparent exceptions at these universities, for example a few selected degrees at Victoria and Canterbury, and most honours programmes at Otago (e.g. [9]), where honours are or can be studied for as part of the undergraduate programme. Classes are awarded.

English-speaking world

BA, AB, BS, BSc, SB, ScB

Today, the most common undergraduate degrees given are the Bachelor of Arts (Artium Baccalaureus) and the Bachelor of Science (Scientiĉ Baccalaureus). Originally, in the universities of Oxford and Cambridge all undergraduate degrees were in the Faculty of Arts, hence the degree of Bachelor of Arts. Since the late 19th century, most universities in the English-speaking world have followed the practice of the University of London in dividing undergraduate degree subjects into the two broad categories of arts and sciences, awarding the degree of Bachelor of Science to students of the latter category of subjects.

In the United States, many colleges (particularly what are known as "liberal arts colleges") and universities award the BA for all "academic" subjects (whether English literature or chemistry) often these colleges and colleges within universities only offer academic (rather than pre-professional) courses. Schools that have professional training ("Police Science", "Finance", "Nursing", and so on) often reserve the BS degree for these subjects. Some schools award the BA for humanities academic courses and the BS for courses in the physical sciences.


The Bachelor of Liberal Arts is awarded to students who major in liberal arts, interdisciplinary studies, or who design their own concentrations.


At a some colleges the Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies is awarded to students who major in liberal arts, while Bachelor of Science in Liberal Studies designates interdisciplinary studies drawn from both liberal arts and professional disciplines.


The Bachelor of Architecture is awarded to students who complete five years of study in the field.

BEng, BE, BESc

The Bachelor of Engineering (Baccalaureus in Arte Ingeniaria) degree is a professional degree awarded to students who have completed four or five years of study at an accredited university.


The Bachelor of Business Administration degree is awarded to students after four years of full-time study in one or more areas of business.


The Bachelor of Social Work is awarded to students who complete an undergraduate degree in Social Work


The Bachelor of Journalism degree is a professional degree awarded to students who have studied journalism at a four-year accredited university. Not all universities, however, grant BJ degrees. In the United States, schools tend to offer the BS with a Journalism major instead.

BM or B.Mus.

The Bachelor of Music degree is an undergraduate degree at most conservatories in the U.S.


The degree of Bachelor of Laws is the principal academic degree in law in most common law countries other than the United States, where it has been replaced by the Juris Doctor degree.

BS in Ed

The Bachelor of Science in Education (note, this is the degree's name, not merely a BS with an Education major) is an undergraduate pre-professional degree offered by many U.S. colleges and universities for those preparing to be licensed as teachers. Students follow the regular four-year Liberal Arts, Sciences and Humanities course, with additional courses in such subjects as Developmental Psychology, Educational Theory, Student Assessment and testing and so on. Preparatory to the MS in Ed, this degree is most often taken by those interested in early childhood, elementary level, and special (handicapped)education, or by those planning to be school administrators. (Secondary level teachers -- for high school students -- often major in their subject area, as History or Chemistry or Mathematics, instead).


The Bachelor of Fine Arts is a specialized degree awarded for courses of study in fine arts, usually by an "arts school" or conservatory.


The education systems in Asian countries are largely patterened after the western models.


In the Philippines, where the term "course" is used to refer to a bachelor's degree, several undergraduate categories exist - the two most common degrees awarded being Bachelor of Science (BS) and Bachelor of Arts (AB or BA). Specializations ("majors") in economics, business administration, nursing, architecture, and engineering fall under Science in most colleges and universities. The latter two specializations normally require five years of schooling, in contrast to the standard of four years. Other common degrees are Bachelor in Education (BEd), and Bachelor of Laws (LLB, a graduate degree).


Institutes of higher learning in Japan provide four years of college education leading to a bachelor's degree which is referred to as "gakushi", e.g., Gakushi in Economics. Some institutes offer six-year programs leading to a professional degree.


Bachelor's degrees exist in almost every country in Europe. However, these degrees were only recently introduced in some Continental European countries, where Bachelor's degrees were unknown before the Bologna process


Bachelor's degrees, called Bakkalaureus, existed originally in Germany, but were abolished up until 1820 as part of educational reforms at this time. The Magister degree, originally a graduate degree, became the new first degree after five years of study. In 1899 a second first degree, the Diplom, was introduced when the Technische Hochschulen received university status. However, in 1998 a new educational legislation reintroduced the Bachelor's degree (first degree after 3 to 4 years of study) in Germany. Today these degrees are seldom called Bakkalaureus since the English term Bachelor is much more common. The traditional degrees will be abolished by 2010.


The historical situation in Austria is very similar to the situation in Germany. The traditional first degrees are also the Magister and the Diplom. A new educational legislation in 2002 reintroduced the Bachelors degree also in Austria, but these degrees are generally called Bakkalaureus.


Similarly to Austria and Germany, there is no tradition of Bachelor degrees in Switzerland. The traditional first degrees where the Licentiate and the Diplom. Bachelor's and graduate Master's degrees replacing the old degrees since 2004.

New bachelor's degrees

The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge are perhaps alone today in awarding the B.A. for all undergraduate degrees. Almost all American universities award B.A. and B.S. degrees. However, in many universities over the last hundred years the range of bachelor's degrees has expanded enormously, especially in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, where the B.A. degree is becoming increasingly uncommon.

Some of these new degrees and their abbreviations include:

  • A.L.B. Bachelor of Liberal Arts
    B.A.S. Bachelor of Architectural Studies
    B.A.A. Bachelor of Applied Arts
    B.A.A.S Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences
    B.A.Sc. Bachelor of Applied Science
    B.App.Sc. Bachelor of Applied Science
    B.As. Bachelor of Asian Studies
    B.A.Econ. Bachelor of Economics
    B.Arch. Bachelor of Architecture
    B.B.A. Bachelor of Business Administration
    B.Bus Bachelor of Business
    B.C.A. Bachelor of Commerce and Administration
    B.Ch. Bachelor of Surgery (also the name of a postgraduate degree in some universities)
    B.Comm. or B.Com. Bachelor of Commerce
    B.Comp. Bachelor of Computing
    B.CompSc. or B.CS. Bachelor of Computer Science
    B.D. Bachelor of Divinity (also the name of a postgraduate degree in some universities)
    B.Des. Bachelor of Design (Visual design discipline)
    B.Ec. Bachelor of Economics
    B.Ed. Bachelor of Education
    B.E.S. Bachelor of Environmental Studies
    B.Eng. or B.E. Bachelor of Engineering
    B.F.A. Bachelor of Fine Arts
    B.G.S. Bachelor of General Studies
    B.H.Sc Bachelor of Health Sciences
    B.InfTech. Bachelor of Information Technology
    B.InfSci. Bachelor of Information Science
    B.J. Bachelor of Journalism (see the University of Missouri-Columbia)
    B.Lang. Bachelor of Languages
    B.M. or M.B. Bachelor of Medicine (also the name of a postgraduate degree in some universities)
    B.Math. Bachelor of Mathematics (also the name of a postgraduate degree in some universities)
    B.Mus. or Mus.B. Bachelor of Music (also the name of a postgraduate degree in some universities)
    B.M.M.S Bachelor of Multimedia Studies
    B.Ost Bachelor of Osteopathy
    B.Optom Bachelor of Optometry
    B.P.A.P.M. (Hons); Bachelor of Public Affairs and Policy Management (used at Carleton University)
    B.P.Ed. or B.P.E. Bachelor of Physical Education
    B.Pharm. Bachelor of Pharmacy
    B.Phil. Bachelor of Philosophy (originally a postgraduate degree, but now used as the name of an undergraduate degree in a few universities)
    B.Psych Bachelor of Psychology (Commonwealth Usage, Particuarly Australia)
    B.P.S. Bachelor of Professional Studies (University of Mary Washington, Virginia)
    B.R.E. Bachelor of Religious Education
    B.S. Bachelor of Surgery (Commonwealth usage, usually as part of a MB BS)
    B.S.E. Bachelor of Science in Engineering
    B.SE. Bachelor of Software Engineering (used at McGill University and the University of Waterloo)
    B.S.B. Bachelor of Science in Business
    B.S.E.E. Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering
    B.S.F. Bachelor of Science in Forestry
    B.S.S.E. Bachelor of Science in Science Education
    B.S.W. Bachelor of Social Work
    B.Tech. Bachelor of Technology
    B.Theol Bachelor of Theology
    B.Tour. Bachelor of Tourism



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