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

If you’re looking for a way to advance your career, earn more money, or take on more responsibility within your organization, earning an advanced degree could help you reach your goals. After all, sixty-one percent of employers claim the skills needed for their positions have evolved, now requiring a higher base-level of education. What’s more, there will be a 14 percent growth in jobs requiring a master’s degree by 2024.

When deciding whether or not to pursue an advanced degree, it’s important to know which kind of degree will help you meet your personal and professional goals: a professional degree or an academic degree?

Each degree has its own benefits that may make one degree more relevant to you depending on your profession.

Not sure which degree is right for you? Below are the key similarities and differences to consider 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, depending on the institution you attend.

These programs often put a great deal of 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.

Certain professional degrees are required—by law—to be earned before you can work in a specific job, for example, as a doctor or a lawyer.

What Can You Do with a Professional Degree?

There are several different types of professional degrees, each of which is designed to prepare you for a different career.

Some of the most common professional degrees include:

Juris Doctor (JD)

A Juris Doctor is a professional degree that prepares students for a career practicing law. Lawyers can specialize within administrative, constitutional, criminal, or other forms of law, and can expect to earn a median salary of $119,250, with employment projected to grow eight percent by 2026.

If you’re considering a career in law but don’t want to be a practicing lawyer, earning your Master of Legal Studies might make more sense for your goals. (Learn more about the differences between a JD and an MLS.)

Doctor of Medicine (MD)

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

Doctor of Education (EdD)

A Doctor of Education is a degree for educators and professionals who want to direct and implement change within their organizations. EdD programs typically combine exploratory research with comprehensive coursework. Common career paths for EdD holders include:

  • Postsecondary Education Administrator: $92,360
  • Elementary and Secondary School Education Administrator: $94,390
  • Instructional Coordinator: $63,750

Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD)

A Doctor of Pharmacy is a degree for individuals interested in working in the pharmaceutical industry. PharmD programs typically provide opportunities in research, teaching, clinical practice, and other key areas within the pharmacy industry. Graduates with this degree typically become:

What’s an Academic Degree?

An academic or research degree focuses on a specific field of study and is often more research-oriented than professional programs. Courses build on the technical knowledge that is learned throughout the program, and students are typically required to plan, organize, and conduct research to complete their coursework.

Academic degree programs often require a thesis or capstone project in order to graduate. Whereas professional degrees are designed to directly prepare students for a particular career, academic degrees can be applied to a wide variety of potential careers.

What Can You Do with an Academic Degree?

Many degrees can be classified as academic degrees. Depending on the industry you work in, earning one can help enhance your career by teaching you the knowledge and skills you need to advance within your organization. Some common career-enhancing academic degrees include:


Nurses assess patients’ health, manage patient care, and advise patients on health management and disease prevention. A master’s degree in nursing helps students become clinical nurse leaders, nursing administrators, or nurse practitioners. Nurses make $70,000 per year on average, and the demand for skilled nurses is projected to grow 15 percent by 2026.

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 degree specialization include software engineering, mobile computing, programming languages, user experience and user interface design, and computing theory. Depending on your specialization, you could become a:

(Not sure if earning a master’s degree in computer science makes sense for you? Learn more about the benefits of pursuing an MS in CS.)

Information Systems

An information systems degree prepares students for careers in information technology (IT) through their studies in network technology, databases, and computer security. The knowledge and skills acquired in an IS program helps individuals solve organizational problems and support business operations and management. Employment of information technology professions is projected to grow 13 percent by 2026—much faster than most occupations. Careers include:

Figuring Out Your Next Move

Once you’ve determined whether a professional or academic degree best suits your personal and professional goals, determine what prerequisites you need prior to applying, including what exams you need to take, such as the GRE or MCAT.

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.

Interested in earning an advanced degree?

Explore Northeastern’s 200+ graduate programs to find the one that can best help you achieve your goals.