First professional degrees are academic degrees that are earned on the basis of the development of practical skills related to the day to day function within a particular profession. This is in contrast to undergraduate degree programs, where the emphasis is more on analysis of the subject matter and theories that underpin a given field. In most cases, a first professional degree is pursued after the student has obtained an undergraduate degree and has a firm grasp of both theory and analysis as they relate to the field.
While the exact structure of a first professional degree program will depend greatly on the educational standards set by the nation of residence, there are several elements that are more or less common in most situations. First, the professional degree program normally requires the successful completion of an academic degree program associated with the same field. The idea behind this process is to ensure that the student is familiar with the basics of the profession, including general theory. During the pursuit of the degree, the concepts and information attained in the undergraduate program will set the stage for practical application during the course of the professional degree studies.
Next, a first professional degree program is often associated with a field or profession that is regulated by government in some manner. The regulation may be somewhat indirect, such as in the case of a professional degree concerned with religious studies, or a profession that has a broad and direct impact on the nation, such as medicine, engineering, or law. Essentially, if there is a need for some licensing process above and beyond obtaining educational credentials, the profession in question is likely to be among those fields that require graduate and possibly post-graduate work before a government agency grants the license.
Last, it is important to note that some professions may view this type of degree as one more step on the road to a successful career in a given field. Once the academic degree and the first professional degree are obtained, the student may continue his or her studies by pursuing an advanced professional degree and possible a terminal academic degree. Each of these types of degrees adds something to the professional proficiency of the student and helps to expand the ability of the student to function within a given field.
Depending on the demands of the profession involved, there are instances where the first professional degree also serves as the terminal academic degree. This is true when no additional degree programs are available to further expand the bank of knowledge and experience of the student. When this is the case, the first professional degree encompasses the practical application of theory in skill-based work such as an internship, as well as the in-class requirements that accompany any type of formal schooling.