Perhaps one of the greatest debates in the hunt for online teaching jobs is whether or not a candidate needs a terminal degree to teach. It is important that I separate out online from on ground for this particular article because the requirements and reasoning for pursuing a terminal degree are often different, and more on that below.

First, the most common question - does a candidate need a terminal degree to teach? The answer? A candidate does not need a terminal degree to teach. 67% of faculty in our poll conducted (n>100) did not have a terminal degree when they began teaching. Terminal degree for our purposes is a doctorate, of any type (JD, EdD, PhD, DM, DBA, etc). I began teaching with a bachelors degree, and most of our clients and my colleagues did not have a doctorate when they began teaching - or even as they advanced in their careers.  I have lots of colleagues making a six figure salary teaching with their masters.

Second question – “but the job listing says doctorate preferred, or doctorate required.” Yes, it probably does. However, over 80% of dean’s and human resources admins I have (sometimes begrudgingly) told me that they are listing out their “nice to have’s, not the marching orders.” Simply put, deans would rather have a terminally degreed candidate because it makes accreditation meetings (at least that part of it) less painful and it looks good to have professors with a doctorate on the team. But it’s not always necessary. If you mostly qualify for the job, and you want it, my advice is to apply regardless.

The next logical question here of course is what reasons a school may actually prefer someone without a doctorate (yes that happens!). The first and most obvious is pay. While not all schools pay more with a doctorate, many do. If a program or degree does not require a terminally degreed candidate, those without one who can be paid less will be seriously considered (not all schools pay less though). Next, the 18 graduate hour rule is still in play here. If you have 18 graduate hours (it’s up to the dean or department chair how those will be defined in a transcript review) in a subject matter area, you will likely qualify to teach it with or without your doctorate. I have had a few deans (who are also friends) admit to me that without their doctorate, they preferred faculty without one too. (yes, I know – we are likely thinking the same thing)

Now all of that said – if you are looking at either a second masters, some additional graduate hours through a master’s program - or a doctorate, I would choose the doctorate hands down. Why? Simple: you have more options. There is very little you cannot teach, and the “equivalent degree” principles often apply, meaning that if you have a doctorate not every university will require you have 18 graduate hours in the subject that you teach in.

Sounds confusing? It isn’t – bottom lines:

  1. Yes you can teach without a doctorate
  2. Yes a doctorate has proven to be a good investment from our data regarding job hiring, response time to interview, and long term revenue stream as a professor
  3. A doctorate will not limit what you can teach
  4. You will have more opportunity to teach subjects you do not have 18 graduate hours in (based on each university’s guidelines) and have options to mentor doctoral students

As promised, a bit about on ground teaching positions. We will be expanding our services to include those on the hunt for on ground teaching work. Many colleges hire without a doctorate, just as they do in the online world. But, tenure-track positions are almost invariably limited to those with a doctorate. If that is your goal, you should be looking at how quickly you can complete your degree, and the reputation of the place you earn it (reputation and accreditation matters regardless of whether you want an online or on-ground position).

In a future article, I will compare and contrast the teaching positions and administrative options based on degree and look forward to your thoughts!

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Contact the author Dr. Dani Babb
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