Degree, Academic


Degree, Academic, title granted by a college or university, usually signifying completion of an established course of study. Honorary degrees are conferred as marks of distinction, not necessarily of scholarship.


Institutions of higher learning have granted degrees since the 12th century. The word itself was then used for the baccalaureate and licentiate, the two intermediate steps that led to the certificates of master and doctor, requisites for teaching in a medieval university. During the same period, honorary degrees were sometimes conferred by a pope or an emperor. In England, the Archbishop of Canterbury, by an act passed during the reign of King Henry VIII, acquired the authority to grant honorary Lambeth degrees.

During the Middle Ages, the conferring of a doctorate also allowed the recipient to practice the profession in which the certificate was awarded; this condition still holds true for the legal and medical professions in European countries, such as France, in which the government controls the universities.


In Germany and at most Continental universities, only the doctor’s degree is conferred, except in theology, in which the licentiate, or master’s degree, is also presented. Granting of the doctorate is contingent upon the acceptance of a dissertation and the passing of examinations. The baccalaureate is not usually a university degree in Europe. In France, it is acquired by passing a state examination at the completion of secondary education; the only university-conferred baccalaureate is that awarded by the faculty of law.

Most British universities grant the bachelor’s degree after the satisfactory completion of a three- or four-year course. Some, such as Oxford and Cambridge, have examinations, called tripos, for honours. The master’s degree in arts or science is granted after a further period of residence and study and the payment of fees. Other English universities grant the master’s degree only after a candidate has passed a series of examinations and presented an approved thesis. Doctorates (Ph.D. or D.Phil.) are awarded for individual research contributions in the arts or sciences. Postgraduate work leads to the writing of a thesis and the passing of oral (viva voce) and written examinations. Honorary degrees, such as the D.Litt. are sometimes given to prominent public figures.

In Australia, a bachelor’s degree precedes a master’s degree, with the latter being earned after an additional year or two of study. Degree courses vary between three and six years of study, with a doctor’s requiring a further two to five years. The most commonly granted degrees in the United States are the BA, or bachelor of arts, and the B.Sc., or bachelor of science, both generally given after the completion of a four-year course of study and sometimes followed by a mark of excellence, such as cum laude (“with praise”); magna cum laude (“with great praise”); or summa cum laude (“with highest praise”). The master’s degree is granted after one or two years of postgraduate work and may require the writing of a thesis or dissertation. The doctorate requires two to five years of postgraduate work, the writing of a thesis, and the passing of oral and written examinations.


The academic dress worn at degree-granting ceremonies consists of a long, full-cut gown and a mortarboard, a stiff square-shaped cap with a tassel. In the United Kingdom, a hood lined with coloured silk indicating the graduate’s institution is worn. More ornate gowns are worn for the D.Phil. and other higher degrees, and for ceremonies such as the Insaenia (the ceremony at which honorary degrees are granted). Full subfusc is still required at Oxford for examinations; this black and white outfit consists of dark suits for men and a white blouse and black skirt for women, as well as a mortarboard and cap.

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