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Various degree titles - why?

  1. Jan 3, 2012 #1
    A number of schools, especially liberal arts colleges, award degrees with the title AB or SB. MIT, for one, only awards SB degrees, even for an English Literature major. Brown is a somewhat more peculiar case, in that their Bachelor of Science degrees are designated by Sc.B. (which just writing BSc/B.Sc backwards, which by the way, is the degree awarded in English, Indian, Australian and now, many European institutions, including German ones) Frankly, the case of Brown just screams "hey, look at us, we're so pompous!" but maybe I'm wrong and there's a good reason for that.

    There's also the case of certain schools who award a BA degree for a science subject, say a BA in Physics, instead of BS if one chose to not do a thesis or opted out of some labs. Also, a few universities, award only a B.A for all undergraduate degrees, with the exception of "undergraduate master's degrees" in the case of Engineering, Mathematics and Sciences (even then, one is still awarded a BA after the 3rd year). In the case of the UK, these would Oxford, Cambridge, Edingburgh and Durham. (not certain on the last two)

    The French have an even more elaborate system and they happen to call their undergraduate degree the "Licence". So much for the Bologna process...
    At least, they are making an effort to change their system a bit and the DEA, DESS and Maitrise are being replaced in favour of the Master's degree...

    Would things not be a lot less complicated if everything were to be standardised? It took me hours and hours of reading to get to speed with all this mumbo-jumbo.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 3, 2012 #2


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    Hey Mepris.

    In Australia, our science degrees here have a standard structure and specific requirements to get a Bachelor of Science in whatever, but this is no different to other degree program like commerce or arts. Also the science degrees are a lot more structured than arts where many arts degrees allow you a large amount of electives in comparison to the science courses.

    My educated guess is that its probably the same over in the states where a BSc. has more stringent requirements on the amount of required subjects as well as a more narrow scope of the actual subjects that are allowed to be taken.

    But with regards to the rest, I have been reading a variety of posters on this forum describing their native education system, and it really does make me wonder why there isn't some kind of standardization.

    One thing though that I have seemed to observe is that for the most part in terms of PhD's, someone who has just been granted their PhD in one country is usually treated the same as the person in another country who got their PhD provided that both had a reasonably similar foundational education.
  4. Jan 3, 2012 #3
    Would things be easier to grasp if everything was standardized? Sure. Do I expect to see it occur in the U.S. any time soon? I'm not holding my breath.

    The education system in the U.S. is quite decentralized. Accreditation commissions - while recognized (in some manner that I don't recall precisely) by the U.S. Department of Education - are generally regional in nature, outside of those intended to assess particular programs, particularly of a professional nature (such as in law or health care).

    There is also, at least superficially, a philosophical element. Those colleges/universities that award a B.A. degree view the natural sciences as part of a proper liberal arts education, at least in principle. On the other hand, everyone who graduates from a U.S. military service academy is awarded a B.S. degree since they're all required to take a core technical curriculum - even that English major could go onto become a nuclear propulsion officer in the Navy, for instance.

    And some universities do things since it makes sense to them, at least. My graduate alma mater awards two masters' degrees along the way to the Ph.D. - an M.A. upon completion of coursework and an M.Phil. upon completion of all requirements excluding the dissertation. It's unusual, but I can see the logic. Sort of.

    I wouldn't really worry about it, though.
  5. Jan 3, 2012 #4
    Yes, being the two oldest universities in the English-speaking world allows Oxford and Cambridge to play by their own rules. Essentially, the rest of the world has fragmented into different ways of doing things, and Oxbridge has remained (relatively) stable. One thing that confuses everyone - Oxford and Cambridge still award an MA to undergraduates because it is the medieval equivalent of becoming a full "member" of the university community.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Master_of_Arts_(Oxbridge_and_Dublin [Broken])

    When you see things like "Charles Darwin, MA" on the cover of a book, this is what it is referring to. Oxbridge also call their doctorates a D.Phil, which is more consistent terminology with BSc and MSc than "PhD" is. In Germany (and a few other places), you have another layer on top of a doctorate not seen in most other countries:


    While there are many attempts to standardize educational standards, things are still pretty intricate. Consider it a fun anthropological or historical artifact.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 5, 2017
  6. Jan 3, 2012 #5
    The good news is that I've never met anyone who really cared about exactly what abbreviation is used for a given degree. BS, BA, BSc, BEng... they're all bachelor's degrees and pretty much interchangable. Even if at your university everyone knows that the BS is *much* more prestigious than the BA... outside, no one really knows, or cares.

    As Sankaku said, consider it a fun anthropological or historical artifact.
  7. Jan 3, 2012 #6
    This sounds reasonable, yes.

    I, too, have observed something similar (forum posts) as far as PhDs go.

    Another odd thing with Australia, or at least I've noticed this with a few universities (I pretty much stopped looking once I saw that financial aid was sparse...), is that they have numerous bachelor's degrees. Not just the LLB, BA, BSc or BEng. The ANU for instance, even has a Bachelor of Finance, a Bachelor of European Studies and one of Genetics, among many others!

    A handful of universities around the world, with the majority being Australian (Wollongong!) ones, award a B.Math to their Mathematics undergraduate. I'll have to admit I do find this one pretty cool to have - not that I'd write "Mepris, B.Math" everywhere I could! Not that I would call myself Mepris for that matter...

    These, I would guess, is like Mike H suggested - the universities choose what "makes sense to them".

    I see. A few European universities have adopted the "M.D" degree but I suspect it's mostly to make them look somewhat "international" or something as the ones I've noticed who do this are the ones who have Medicine programs in English. (Croatia and Russia)

    Curiously, in the case of Law, even America was awarding the LLB back in the day but then they shifted to the JD. My best guess is it's because it's a way distinguish between the JD, a postgraduate degree and the LLB, which is usually an undergraduate degree. Things do get a little confusing though, seeing as the JD is called a "professional doctorate" but the LLM is level above it.

    Now this, I can appreciate. :-)
    Heh, that's interesting. Which country is that, if I may ask?

    Fair point.

    Yep. I haven't re-read the Wiki page but from what I recall, one doesn't have to do "anything" but wait for a couple of years (3, I think) to get the MA. It's more an honorary title than anything else.

    On that note, I read on wiki of some Muslim-British lawyer who was awarded an honorary doctorate (he did not actually hold one prior to that) and from thereon, used the title "Dr". Thoughts on this?

    Actually, it's just Oxford. Oxford also have a funny issue with their PhB degree! You might want to read into it. :-)

    I never noticed that before, though. In that case, then I suppose Brown, Harvard, MIT and the rest of their troupe actually got it right!! (S.B/Sc.B/A.B --> S.M/Sc.M/A.M --> PhD)

    Anyway, maybe the D.Phil should just be awarded instead of the PhD. Either that or switching to the "ScB/SB" scheme! Of course, all of this is just very superficial and in the grand scheme of things, it does not matter so much but I find it very irritating!

    Last edited by a moderator: May 5, 2017
  8. Jan 3, 2012 #7
    Yes. :-) :-)

    It can get tricky in some cases.

    Look at this dude's CV. The two years spent at the Lycee Louis Le Grand were his first years of post-secondary education but with the French system being what it is, those two years were spent in a secondary school! (a lycee) In France, the grandes ecoles are separate from the universities and they are considered more prestigious than universities, who anyone with a high school diploma get can into. The ecoles require much fiercer competition. Anyway, back to Yacine. The ecole he went to afterwards, has a 4-year curriculum and he was NOT awarded a B.S degree in Mathematics after two years there. In fact, most of the first year at Polytech' is spent in military service. He probably listed his educational background the way he did, so as to accommodate to the American system. (i.e, being awarded a B.S degree after four years of university education) Also, the fourth year at Polytechnique is generally spent overseas or at a local partner institution, such as the ENSAE, and at the end of which, students are awarded diplomas from both ecoles. Also, the "diplome d'ingenieur" he was awarded, even though his studies were in mathematics, statistics and economics, is "grade de mastere" but still, not technically a master's degree. And this can complicate things a little. Obviously, it didn't for him, seeing as he was able to do his PhD at the MIT but what we don't know is how much work he had to put to explain all of this. If things were more standardised, we probably wouldn't be having this discussion!
  9. Jan 3, 2012 #8
    I'll agree that internationally, things become much trickier.

    I'm not sure which I'd want to do less... tell a Frenchman that he should be more like an American, or tell an American he should be more like a Frenchman!

    And so goes any chance of standardization... :smile:
  10. Jan 4, 2012 #9
    Sorry, it looks like the link got mangled in my last post. Try again:

    Are you saying my MA is useless? It places me in the very ancient and important pecking-order of the university!

    In reality, yes, it is just an honorary title :-)

    It actually gets a little stranger. Your BA is actually converted into the MA so, as far as the university is concerned, you no longer have a Bachelors degree - only the MA.

    I believe you are right - I think I just assumed Cambridge used DPhil as well.

    Do you mean the BPhil? It and the MPhil actually make sense in the line of terminology with the DPhil.
  11. Jan 4, 2012 #10


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    This rather confusing situatioin is the main reason for the so-called Bologna process

    which aims to standardize the higher education in Europe, This has been going on for years, and it is slowly starting to make things easier. However, something like this takes time, and there will always be universities etc (i.e. Oxbridge) that for one reason or another do not want to conform.

    And of course it won't help with the difference between US and Europe.

    Note also that the situation in the UK is somewhat worse (in my opinion) than in many other countries, the reason being that a "normal" PhD here is only 3 years (and in theory you don't even need to do a masters before that) which means that many students struggle to compete with PhD students from other countries (where a PhD is 4 or 5 years) when it comes to the quality of their work and in terms of publications (especially in experimental physics where it sometimes takes 3 years just to learn the methods and set up the experiment. In reality most students take at least 3.5 years (and frequently 4 years) to finish, but the situation is quite confusing.
  12. Jan 4, 2012 #11
    Be brave! Sometimes you have to take a deep breath, and then do the telling... Thankfully, physicists ignored nationalistic sentiments when it came to the universal adoption of the metric system. Even us Brits were happy to accept that from the French...
  13. Jan 4, 2012 #12

    Observational astronomers and physicists in the US have to use English measurements, because it's *really* hard to get metric screws at a hardware store so if you build any sort of instrument, you have to use English measurements (which causes all sorts of problems if you use forces).

    For theoretical measurements you use metric, which creates all sorts of fun (not) when you convert between the two.
  14. Jan 4, 2012 #13


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    Well yes, but we Brits just subverted metric units to suit ourselves. The "length unit" for many construction purposes is 300mm, which is more or less 1 foot. Food is sold in packs with weights like 190g, which (as any fule kno) is 7 ounces in real money...
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