You are here: Home > Education & Career Options

Healthcare Education and Degree Creep

Most students understand generally that today’s dentists and physicians are “doctors” as a result of “doctoral” education beyond college.

Not everyone realizes just what that means in concrete terms, so here’s a useful visual of what happens after high school:

  • Associate's degree: two years
  • Bachelor's degree: four years
  • Master's degree: two years
  • Doctorate degree: four years

At the external websites we’ve recommended for “Choosing a Healthcare Career”, you’ll get a sense of which careers require which of the degrees displayed above.

Take a look at the bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral programs available at UW Oshkosh, and the master’s and doctoral programs that come after PreHealth at UW Oshkosh.

Deciding on a degree for your career goals

For nearly every career, continuing education is a lifelong necessity to keep up with advances. But, every so often, a career simply experiences what I call “degree creep."

What was once a simple certificate after high school might turn into an associate’s degree; or an associate’s degree career might now require a bachelor’s degree; bachelor’s becomes master’s; and so on.

This process of degree creep is simply a sign that the knowledge base for competency has reached a critical level in the eyes of the professional organization that oversees the career.

Recent examples include the physical therapist profession, which went rather quickly from bachelor’s to doctoral; and Radiologic Technologist, which has gone from certificate to associate’s degree (and is reportedly poised to go bachelor’s).

A longer education costs more money, of course, and that usually translates to a higher professional salary.

There are two problems with this scenario:

  • higher salaries raise the overall cost of healthcare; and
  • a longer education makes a labor shortage even worse, because it takes longer to produce the necessary manpower to care for an ever-larger patient population.


Some professions actively work against degree creep (because they are already experiencing acute labor shortages), whereas others have “invented” new, less-educated professions so as to “extend” the practice of existing, high-level professionals.

For example:

  • Dental hygienists (associate’s degree) act as “extenders” for dentists (doctoral degree).
  • Physician assistants (master’s degree) act as “extenders” for primary care physicians (doctoral degree).
  • Physical therapy assistants (associate’s degree) act as “extenders” for physical therapists (doctoral degree).


If you choose a healthcare career that currently requires “only” a certificate, associate’s, bachelor’s, or master’s degree, you would be wise during your job shadows to keep your ears and eyes open for any signs of pending degree creep.

For many students, it’s easier to get a little more education than the minimum, now, then to return to school, later. “Extra” education can also mean the difference between advancing in the organization, or not.

by linnm37 — last modified May 09, 2013 01:40 PM