What is the difference between an academic department and a program in U.S. colleges and universities? I am attempting to model the relationship between Departments and Programs. Thanks!

2 Answers 2


I am not sure everyone uses the words the same way, but here is the difference at schools I have been at:

  • A department is a collection of faculty who are organized into a unit for management and course planning purposes. Some departments have faculty from just one area, while others have faculty from many areas. The division into departments is used in particular for hiring and tenure decisions, which often begin with at the department level. Several departments are collected together to form a division, school, or college, which is the next level up the management hierarchy. Different schools use different divisions, but the smallest one is almost always called a department.

  • A program is a collection of courses that lead to a particular degree or certificate. These courses (ignoring general education) may be taught by one department, or by many. For example, a degree program might be "bachelor's of science in mathematics" or "bachelor's of arts in management". The mathematics program will require predominately courses from the mathematics department, while the management program may require courses from the management department, the accounting department, the economics department, and maybe a computer information systems department also.

Some departments offer a single degree program, while other department offer multiple degree programs. On the other hand, some degree programs are interdisciplinary and are offered jointly by several departments in collaboration.

Each faculty member will work for one or more departments; these assignments are called "appointments". A student will not be part of a department in the way that faculty are, but a student may "declare" one or more degree programs, and in that way each student is typically "advised" by faculty of one or more departments.

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    It's important to understand that in the US system most degree programs at the undergraduate level require a student to take a substantial number of courses outside of their nominal field of study. For example, a mechanical engineering student would typically have to take mathematics courses, taught by faculty from the mathematics department rather than by faculty from the mechanical engineering department. It's not at all unusual for more than half of the total courses in a degree program to be taught by faculty from other departments. Mar 8, 2016 at 23:42
  • Yes, certainly. For terminology, undergraduate courses are often separated into general education, which is similar for all students at the institution (or sometimes the college); program requirements, which are preparatory courses required for a specific degree program but offered by other departments, such as mathematics requirements for engineers or science requirements for mathematicians; and "major courses" which tend to be upper level courses that make up the heart of the specific degree program. The boundaries between these are not always clear. Mar 8, 2016 at 23:50
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    @BrianBorchers Some US graduate programs also require taking courses outside the nominal field of study. For example, the CS PhD program at Berkeley requires an "outside minor", which includes at least two courses from outside the EECS department.
    – JeffE
    Mar 8, 2016 at 23:50

In my experience in one case. Departments group the faculty for purposes of finances, hiring, promotion. Programs group the students, especially graduate students, according to what they are studying. In many cases, each department houses one program. But not in all cases.

Two hypothetical examples:

The program in Biochemistry has no department of its own, but draws faculty from three departments---some from Chemistry, some from Medicine, and some from Microbiology.) A professor may be a member of the Department of Chemistry, but may teach courses in both Chemistry and Biochemistry.

The Department of Romance Languages and Literatures has programs in French, Italian, Spanish, and Portugese. A professor may be a member of that Department, but teach courses in only one of those programs.

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