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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