What Is a Graduate Degree: Graduate Education Explained
Learn about various types of graduate degrees, the differences among them, and how a graduate degree differs from other types of degrees.
What is a graduate degree? A graduate degree is an academic accomplishment that students can achieve after earning an undergraduate degree, typically a bachelor’s degree.
There are three levels: master's degree, Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), and professional doctorate.
A master's program lasts one to two years and consists of coursework, study, and a capstone project.
A Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) program can take four to eight years to complete and consists of research, testing, and dissertation writing.
Professional doctorate programs last three to six years and consist of several years of training, coursework, and hands-on work in the field.
What Is a Graduate Degree Introduction
If you have completed your undergrad studies and are now thinking about what to do next, the detailed information in this article about the different graduate degrees you can pursue will help you make well-informed decisions about your next steps.
A graduate degree is a way to get more experience and knowledge (through coursework, training, and research) in a specific field of study and, as a result, gain a pathway to more meaningful jobs and competitive salaries.
Here is what you need to know about graduate degrees, the various types of graduate degrees, and the differences between undergraduate and graduate degrees.
What Is a Graduate Degree?
A graduate degree is a formal designation of academic accomplishment that students can obtain after earning an undergraduate degree, typically a bachelor’s degree. The main reasons students decide to enter a graduate program are to build on the knowledge they acquired during their undergraduate studies, to gain critical thinking, problem-solving, analytical, and research skills, and to enhance their career and earnings potential.
A graduate degree is a formal designation of academic accomplishment that students can obtain after earning an undergraduate degree, typically a bachelor’s degree. The main reasons students decide to enter a graduate program are to build on the knowledge they acquired during their undergraduate studies, to gain critical thinking, problem-solving, analytical and research skills, and to enhance their career and earnings potential.
Graduate degree programs can either be course-based or thesis-based. Obtaining a course-based degree consists of participating in courses, a practicum, a qualifying exam, research, and a capstone project. Earning a thesis-based degree requires coursework and writing a thesis under the supervision of a mentor.
U.S. universities and colleges conferred 1.1 million graduate degrees in 2020/21, which amounts to an increase of 19% compared with 2010/11.
Difference Between Undergraduate and Graduate Degrees
There are some important differences between undergraduate and graduate degrees, including:
- Requirements — You need a high school diploma to apply to undergraduate programs, whereas applicants to graduate programs must have a bachelor’s degree. Some graduate education institutions may also require you to submit standardized test scores such as GRE or GMAT results.
- Curriculum — Undergraduate studies, which include core courses and electives, are designed to educate students about various subjects. Graduate programs are more closely focused on a specific field of study.
- Time Commitment — Undergraduate education usually involves a four-year program. On the other hand, graduate education — which includes the pursuit of master's degrees, doctoral degrees, and professional degrees — may require two to eight years to complete.
- Career — While an undergraduate degree is sufficient to gain entry to most jobs, a graduate degree is required for certain highly specialized professions, such as university professors and doctors.
Types of Graduate Degrees
There are three types of graduate degrees: master’s degree, Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), and professional degree. Each type of degree will provide you with knowledge and a set of skills needed in your chosen field. Let’s take a look at each one.
A terminal degree, such as a Ph.D., represents the highest form of formal educational achievement in a specific field of study.
Depending on the program, obtaining a master’s degree can take one to two years. Many institutions offer combined master's-bachelor's programs, and the usual amount of time needed to complete them is five years.
Your choice of graduate degrees includes:
- Master of Arts (MA) — For those interested in liberal arts or humanities
- Master of Science (MS) — For those interested in science
- Master of Business Administration (MBA) — For those specializing in marketing, sales, business management, finance, or accounting
- Master of Fine Arts (MFA) — For those who want to pursue the study of art, music, theater, and design
A master’s degree includes coursework, independent study, and possibly the completion of a project or thesis.
Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
A Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), the top academic degree, requires three to eight years to complete, depending on the program requirements and time needed for training and research. Courses at these programs are more focused on research and testing theories, and the dissertation should expand knowledge in your chosen field, whether you’re pursuing a Ph.D. in psychology, education, English, audiology, physics, etc.
For some students — such as those studying in “STEM” fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) — earning a master’s degree may not be a requirement for enrolling in a Ph.D. program.
Professional Degree (Professional Doctorate)
This type of graduate diploma is for specific career paths, and the time required to obtain it is between three to six years. After getting a professional degree, you can apply knowledge and skills in resolving problems in a specific field.
The list of popular professional degrees includes:
- Doctor of Medicine (M.D.)
- Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (D.V.M.)
- Doctor of Jurisprudence or Juris Doctor (J.D.)
- Doctor of Dental Science (D.D.S.) or Doctor of Dental Medicine (D.M.D.)
- Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm.D.)
- Doctor of Physical Therapy (D.P.T.)
- Doctor of Optometry (O.D.)
- Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine/Osteopathy (D.O.)
- Doctor of Podiatric Medicine/Podiatry (D.P.M., D.P., or Pod.D.)
- Doctor of Audiology (Au.D.)
- Doctor of Education (Ed.D.)
- Doctor of Business Administration (D.B.A.)
Obtaining a professional degree includes several years of coursework followed by completing a dissertation or working in the field under supervision.
A graduate certificate is a credit-based program offered by universities in the United States that usually lasts two semesters. In order to get the certificate, you’ll usually have to complete between three and five courses.
It’s not an academic degree, but it can be a productive stop on your way to a master's degree.
Here are some of the areas in which it is possible to get a graduate certificate:
- Event management
- Residential property management
- Data analytics
- Web design
- Health and society
- International relations
What Is a Graduate Degree Conclusion
A graduate degree is an advanced degree you can obtain after completing undergraduate studies. Earning a graduate degree typically involves submitting a capstone project or writing a thesis or dissertation. The term graduate degree refers to a master's degree, Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), or professional degree.
Getting a graduate degree can take two years (for a master’s) to four or more years in the case of Ph.D. and professional degrees. According to the Census Bureau, from 2011 to 2021, the number of students aged 25 and over with a master’s degree rose by 50.2% (24.1 million) and the number with a doctoral degree by 54.5% (4.7 million).
Embarking on an advanced academic journey that culminates with a graduate degree can enable you to become specialized in a field, gain a competitive edge in the job market, and eventually earn more money.
Graduate degrees are advanced academic qualifications that individuals pursue after undergrad studies. Universities and other higher education institutions offer programs where individuals can obtain graduate degrees. Upon finishing a chosen program, students gain in-depth knowledge and specialized expertise in a particular field of study. The three main categories are master's degrees, doctoral degrees (Ph.D.), and professional degrees. A graduate degree provides specialized knowledge, research opportunities, and practical training in various fields of study.
Obtaining a graduate degree can take from one to two years for a master's degree, four years for a professional degree, and three to seven years for a Ph.D.