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Study abroad : Subject Guides

Professional degrees vs academic degrees

During the course of your study abroad research you've probably come across qualifications defined as professional or academic degrees. What's the difference you ask? We explore the details of what sets these two degree types apart.

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A long-standing debate among international students is which qualification is better between a professional degree and an academic degree. There can be some confusion as to what the exact definition of each is, whether an academic university degree is a professional qualification and what the highest paying professional degrees are. We’re here to help as we explore the differences between the options and preside over a showdown between the two. It’s time to find out who wins in the battle of professional degrees vs academic degrees.


What is a professional degree?


A professional degree has a focused and specific curriculum that aims to develop your skills in a distinct area of specialisation. The purpose of a professional degree is to ensure that you are work ready for a career in a given field and have received the necessary training to hit the ground running. Quite a significant amount of your time studying will be dedicated to practical and real-world training.


Professional degrees look to bridge the gap between the academic world and the world of industry. A degree of this nature will often include mandatory industry internships and work placements as part of your curriculum. The practical application of knowledge and theory is essential.  Completion of the degree is for the most part mandatory should you want to work in particular fields and be licensed to do so. Some examples of professional degrees include:



If you are interested in exploring more of the specifics of professional degrees you can visit our guide to professional degrees.


What is an academic degree?


An academic university degree is designed to foster critical thinking and focuses more on the pursuit of research-oriented tasks in various subjects or academic disciplines. Academic degrees are not necessarily designed with any particular career orientation, often leading to them being described as “generalist degrees”.  However, they do develop a broad skill set that can be applied across fields.


This is not to say that areas of specialisation do not form part of academic degrees. With an academic degree, you are able to focus on areas of interest or specificity, both at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels.  This can even be with a particular industry in mind.  Some examples of academic degrees include:



What are the major differences between professional and academic degrees?


First and foremost, there are a few critical points to remember when evaluating professional and academic degrees:


  • Professional degrees are academic qualifications
  • Professional degrees are required for entry to certain professions
  • Academic degrees are not oriented to specialised professional careers or roles and can be used in various fields and career settings
  • Professional degrees generally take longer to complete than academic degrees
  • Professional degrees may have additional qualification criteria such as bar exams, licensing tests and trainee programmes attached.
  • A professional bachelor’s degree is not the same as a bachelor’s degree


One way of thinking about the difference between professional and academic degrees is that the former is heavily weighted towards the development of professional practice while the latter nurtures academic discipline and a theoretical approach to subjects.  Professional degrees will equip you with a clearly defined set of skills, while academic degrees will add a broad transferable set of skills to your arsenal.



What are the benefits of a professional degree?


The primary benefit of a professional degree is that it provides a clear career path and trajectory. If you are a student who has a very good idea of what you would like to pursue professionally, then this type of degree would be a good bet. You must clearly evaluate your academic abilities, skills and career objectives thoroughly before making your choice. 


Some of the other benefits of pursuing a professional degree are the favourable graduate outcomes for such qualifications. Although the degrees are designed with particular careers in mind, the skills you’ll gain can be transferable to other spheres and may give you an advantage. You will be competitive in the job market and have good employment prospects. In a number of cases, your starting salary will be higher than in the case of an academic degree.  


Remember that competition for places in professional degrees is fairly high and so you need to ensure that you meet the entry requirements and apply as early as possible.


Don’t miss out on our subject guides to medicine, engineering, veterinary medicine and pharmacology



What are the benefits of an academic degree?


Taking up the option of studying for an academic university degree has a number of plus points. The first is that you’ll receive a good academic grounding with exposure to a wide range of subjects and knowledge, with the potential to specialise. You’ll gain key skills that prove very useful upon graduation including communication, research, critical thinking and collaboration. An academic degree can also be a pathway to a professional qualification if at the start of your studies you are a little unsure of your academic or career path.


Academic degrees will also open the doors to a variety of career options and fields. In fact, the qualification is often critical in helping students to discover their interests and direction. You’ll be encouraged to harness your imagination and creativity during the course of an academic degree, which will stand you in good stead whatever path you decide to take. Some of the careers that you might end up in after studying for an academic degree include:


  • Marketing
  • Human resources
  • Creative arts
  • Education
  • Business
  • Media
  • Public relations


While you here you should definitely have a look at our guides to degrees in the humanities, computer science, social sciences, and economics.   


Which type of degree should I choose?


Choosing between a professional degree and an academic degree will depend on a number of key factors including:


  • Your interests and goals
  • Your skills set and abilities
  • Your career objectives
  • Your personality
  • Your finances


Primarily the decision is very much connected to whether you have a clear idea of what sort of profession you would like to enter and the professional career progression you would like to achieve. It also depends on whether you are more practically oriented or enjoy pursuing research and interrogating theory.


You may need time to find your feet or discover a subject area or specialisation that interests you and, in this case, an academic degree would be best. However, if you’re committed to a particular career path and know it’s what you want then a professional degree is for you.


Don’t forget that if you’re looking for advice on how to make decisions about your academic future you can read our take on choosing a degree to suit your personality, MA VS MSc and some of the top postgraduate degree choices for international students.  You can also make use of our course matcher tool to find your ideal degree. 


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