Some professional fields of study require the student to first complete a undergraduate degree program before he or she can be admitted. These field include Chiropractic, Dentistry, Law, Medicine (Allopathic, including surgery), Optometry, Osteopathy, Pharmacy, Podiatry, Theology (ordination qualifications), and Veterinary Medicine. There are many more professional fields of study in the United States, but those listed here are unique in that they are not offered at the undergraduate degree level.
It is also important to recognize that first-professional degrees in these fields are first degrees, not graduate research degrees. Several of the degree titles in this group of subjects (see Degrees Awarded below) incorporate the term "Doctor," but they are not research doctorates and not equivalent to the Ph.D. Master's degrees and research doctorates in these fields of study are awarded, but they have different names and students enroll in those programs after having earned a first-professional degree.
As with many other education systems, student competition to enter many first-professional programs is fierce and admissions is frequently restricted to only the most qualified candidates. While the United States does not operate a numerus clausus system, the relevant professional associations, state authorities, and religious authorities (in theology) are actively concerned to maintain the quality of professional studies and balance the number of students admitted and graduated, and the number of accredited programs, with the economic and social need for professional services. Foreign applicants in some programs may discover that study places allocated for non-U.S. citizens are very few and that the chances of qualifying to remain in the United States and practice are slim at best.
Content of Studies
First-professional degree programs generally involve lecture and (in health fields) laboratory courses, exercises in applied research, and supervised clinical practica or fieldwork. Most programs include an initial classroom and/or laboratory instruction period last one or two years followed by a intensive period mixing advanced coursework and seminars with supervised clinical experience and projects. The clinical experiences are intended to be educational in content and academic credit is earned for them. Clinical work is directly related to the profession for which the student is preparing, and thus may take place in a teaching hospital, legal services clinic, or religious congregation.
First-professional faculty are generally divided into two groups. Full-time academic faculty administer the program, advise students, teach the classroom and laboratory courses, and lead seminars and discussion groups. Clinical experiences are usually supervised by part-time adjunct faculty who are leading professional practitioners in the local community selected for their teaching skill, experience, and expertise.
Student progress in first-professional programs is graded on examinations and other academic assignments, but it is also based on continuous evaluation of the individual as a developing professional and includes attention to such factors as attitude, interpersonal behavior, professional ethics, and clinical skills. The goal of a first-professional program is primarily to prepare a competent practicing member of a profession, and only secondarily to produce an academic researcher or theoretician (and then only if a particular program is designed to produce research specialists).
U.S. first-professional programs either do not permit specialization at all or do so only in the advanced or clinical phase of study. Programs in law and theology provide only limited opportunity for specialization at the first-professional level because the professional licensing of attorneys and the ordination of clergy in the United States do not differentiate specialties. Health-related programs allow more specialization, but most of that is accomplished during the clinical phases of the programs and during the supervised residencies that follow graduation. First-professional programs may offer broad options for students, such as preparation for research or practice careers, but rarely actual major concentrations.
The recognized first-professional degrees are listed below together with the relevant field of study and the usual duration of accredited programs.
Chiropractic--Doctor of Chiropractic (D.C. or D.C.M.), a curriculum divided into "straight" or "progressive" chiropractic depending upon the philosophy of the institution, generally requiring 3 academic years of full-time study after 2 years or more of study at the associate or bachelor's degree level.
Dentistry--Doctor of Dental Science (D.D.S.) or Doctor of Medical Dentistry (D.M.D.), in either case a standard curriculum that generally requires 4 academic years of full-time study following either a bachelor's degree or early admission after 3 years of undergraduate study. It may be followed by an optional clinical specialization during an ensuing residency year or advanced research studies.
Law--Juris Doctor (J.D.), a standard curriculum that generally requires 3 academic years of full-time study following a bachelor's degree. The curriculum is unspecialized; all students follow a similar program regardless of their career intentions. Specialization occurs later, either through apprenticeship and job-related training or advanced study.
Medicine--Doctor of Medicine (M.D.), a standard allopathic medical curriculum generally requiring 4 academic years of full-time study following either a bachelor's degree or early admission after 3 years of undergraduate study. While the M.D. degree is awarded at the end of 4 years, virtually all students take a subsequent year of clinical internship followed by a supervised residency lasting 1-8 years (depending on the specialty) which is required for medical board certification.
Optometry--Doctor of Optometry (O.D.), a standard curriculum generally requiring 4 academic years of full-time study following 2 or more years of undergraduate study.
Osteopathy--Doctor of Ostepathy or Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.), a standard curriculum generally requiring 4 academic years of full-time study following either a bachelor's degree or early admission after 3 years of undergraduate study. (NOTE: Holders of the D.O. degree generally take a year of clinical internship and are eligible for some medical residencies.)
Pharmacy--Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm.D.), a standard curriculum generally requiring either 2 academic years of full-time study following a bachelor's degree or 4 years of study following transfer to a pharmacy program after 2 years of undergraduate study.
Podiatry--Doctor of Podiatry (D.P., Pod.D.) or Podiatric Medicine (D.P.M.), in either case a standard curriculum generally requiring 4 academic years of full-time study following 2 or more years of undergraduate study.
Theology--Master of Divinity (M.Div.) or Hebrew Letters (M.H.L.), Rav, usually standard curricula prescribed by the ordaining religious community and generally requiring 2-3 academic years of full-time study following a bachelor's degree. (NOTE: Only one U.S. institution, the Catholic University of America, holds a Pontifical charter and is authorized to award Papal degrees such as the Licentiate (Lic.).)
Veterinary Medicine--Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (D.V.M.), a standard curriculum generally requiring 4 academic years of full-time study following either a bachelor's degree or early admission after 3 years of undergraduate study. It may be followed by an optional year or more of clinical specialization.
The program lengths indicated may vary due to the practice of permitting well-prepared undergraduate students who meet all admissions requirements except that of holding an undergraduate degree to begin their professional studies while still undergraduates or without actually completing the bachelor's degree. Many professional programs have admissions agreements with undergraduate institutions that permit such options in exceptional cases. Often the bachelor's degree and the professional degree are both awarded at the completion of such dual programs.
In other cases, the professional school itself offers a complete program of study that encompasses both the preliminary undergraduate work and the advanced professional study, or admits students into the professional program after a prescribed number of credits have been earned, and awards one degree (the first-professional degree) at the end of the entire program.