Graduate Degree

A graduate degree could provide a pathway for students to study a subject in depth, conduct research in their technical field, and build professional skills. Often referred to as ‘advanced degrees’, graduate degrees could be earned in many areas as diverse as business administration, psychology or biotechnology.

written by Rana Waxman

What Is a Graduate Degree?

A graduate degree is an advanced academic degree that generally requires students to have earned an undergraduate degree (bachelor’s degree). A graduate degree might take the form of a master’s degree, doctoral degree, or first professional degree. Each degree is granted by a graduate school after successful completion of the individual program requirements.


During the 2017–18 school year, colleges and universities are expected to award 790,000 masters degrees; and 183,000 doctorate degrees.i

Graduate Degree Requirements

Graduate degree requirements could be different in each school and subject area. As a graduate degree seeker, you should therefore make sure to refer to individual colleges and universities to see what each degree will require. That said, some of the basic requirements could include a curriculum that consists of some or all the elements below.

  • Required Core Courses – The foundation of the subject matter
  • Electives – Extra courses that could help a student tailor their studies to mirror interests or career goals
  • Concentration – A series of courses, much like a certificate, that provide extra coursework in a subject relevant to the major. This might help build specific proficiency or enhance understanding.
  • Research – Quantitative and/or qualitative research (e.g. statistics)
  • Capstone – Final project
  • Comprehensive exam – Tests that could demonstrate a candidate’s understanding of course material
  • Thesis or Dissertation – Original research paper on a topic in the field

Types of Graduate Degrees

There are various types of graduate degrees, due factors such as the different levels of study; categories of majors (arts vs science); and individual degree requirements.  Broadly, graduate degrees include the following types of awards and their variations.

  • Masters Degrees
  • Advanced Degrees: Specialist Degrees, First Professional Degrees
  • Doctorate Degrees

At each of these levels of graduate studies, you should also keep in mind that in some degree programs, more course weight is placed on research, while in others, the focus is on practitioner skill-sets.

Research Focused Graduate Degrees

Some graduate degrees, such as a master’s (with thesis option) and Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) are research-focused. While students engage with course material through things like lectures, seminars and lab work, they also could conduct some independent research.

Individuals who pursue research-oriented grad degrees could therefore learn how to form a hypothesis, conduct experiments, design surveys, collect and analyze data. This data and the research methods they use for their inquiry could then become the focus for a research project. Masters level research is often called a thesis, whereas doctoral research is called a dissertation. Each of these final pieces of scholarly writing are usually based on original thought.

Practitioner Focused Graduate Degrees

Other graduate degrees such as a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) or Master of Business Administration (MBA) are practitioner-focused. These grad degrees highlight skills and methods needed to practice professionally in a certain field.

Students who pursue this type of degree take structured courses and may be required to take part in an internship or practice. To culminate their degree requirements, students may have to complete a capstone project or comprehensive exam where they demonstrate what they have learned throughout the course of their studies. Typically, their work highlights an issue in their field and some type of practical solution for it.

Masters Degrees

The master's degree is thought of as a second-cycle degree as it is usually the first graduate-level award after the bachelor’s degree. Masters degrees generally take a full-time student around 2 years to complete, although this is a variable. Part-time programs are often available.

Two of the most common academic master’s degrees are the Master of Arts (MA) and Master of Science (MS or MSc.).  However, there are many different master’s degree titles, especially in the professional fields. Keep in mind that some graduate schools may offer a choice, while others may not. Furthermore, the individual institution decides what to call their degrees and what you need to do to earn one, so don’t hesitate to check out any topic of interest and see what ‘tracks’ are available.

Master of Arts (MA)

A Master of Arts degree (MA) is usually awarded in majors that are classified as arts or social sciences. In their course of study, students may learn through a blend of lectures and seminars. Also, MA students are often assessed through a comprehensive exam or an independent capstone project. MA degrees may indicate a more holistic, theoretical approach to subject matter. MAs are also often considered terminal degrees in a field.

Eager to earn a Master of Arts? You could look for an MA in areas such as communication, counseling, education, economics, languages, history, and more.

Master of Science (MS)

A Master of Science (MS, MSc) is usually awarded in majors that are categorizes as sciences, or applied sciences. In their course of study, MS students often cover technical topics that could require some type of computational analysis. Some MS programs could also involve laboratory work or students might need to learn specific techniques. Finally, there could be a strong research component, as some MS programs use evidence to inform their decisions. For this and other reasons, MS programs often act as a pathway to a PhD or other advanced degree.

Know you are science-focused? You could look for a MS in areas such as cybersecurity, management, biology, chemistry, engineering, health and statistics.

Master of Professional Studies (MPS)

A Master of Professional Studies (MPS) is slightly different from a MA and MS in terms of its goals. The MPS degree combines theory with practical and applicable skills that graduates might use in a current workplace. Called in some schools as ‘professional masters’, an MPS degree might be found in niche areas such as project management, real estate, technology management, integrated marketing communications and more.ii

Education Specialist (EdS)

The Education Specialist (EdS) degree is a higher education award that denotes studies and research beyond the master's degree but not quite the equivalent of a research doctorate. Sometimes referred to as a Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study (CAGS), the EdS degree is an advanced degree for teachers who want to refine or gain skills in areas such as administrative leadership, early childhood or education technology.iii

Doctorate Degrees

The highest level of graduate degree is a doctorate degree. At this level, students could sometimes choose between a Doctor of Philosophy(PhD) and a Clinical/Professional Doctorate.

Candidates sometimes enter a doctoral program after earning a bachelor’s degree. For these individuals, it could take about four years to complete the requirements, but this is not a hard and fast time frame. If you already have earned your master’s degree, as is sometimes required, you may be able to complete your doctorate in the same subject with less additional study. However, some students might choose to complete their degree part-time, and others may just need more time.

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

The Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) is a research doctorate. As a terminal award, it is granted once a candidate has successfully completed and defended the independent research presented in their doctoral dissertation (thesis). The dissertation, based on original work, is designed to contribute new knowledge to a technical field.

In their program of study, PhD students might take part in seminars and round-tables to learn and discuss course material. Some of these courses could teach students how to write, collect and interpret data, and conduct their own research. Others explore advanced topics in the given subject, often related to their area of inquiry.

PhD degrees are available in many different disciplines, ranging from Educatin to Psychology to Bioengineering.iii Earning a PhD is often a requirement for careers as a university professor, researcher or scientist many fields.iv

Professional Doctorates

Professional Doctorates (Doctor degrees) are terminal degrees of equal weight to the PhD but with different requirements and focus. PhD students, as stated, are often expected to have extensive knowledge in their field which they could apply to solve a real-world problem, through research and a dissertation. By comparison, professional doctorate students may be expected to apply current and existing knowledge to solve a problem – whether in a workplace, or community. They might accomplish this through a doctoral capstone, product or portfolio. Examples of professional doctorates include the following. iii

  • Doctor of Social Work (DSW)
  • Doctor of Business Administration (DBA)
  • Doctor of Management (DM)
  • Doctor of Computer Science (DCS)
  • Doctor of Psychology (PsyD)

First Professional Degrees

First professional degrees are typically designed to prepare students for a specific profession and often meet the academic requirements for licensure or certification. Professional degrees are considered graduate-level programs as they require students to have completed specific undergraduate coursework before they enroll.

Holders of first-professional degrees are recognized to have an entry-level qualification to their profession. Also, after successful completion of a first professional degree, a student could embark on further graduate study in their field.

While several of these professional degrees use the term “doctor” in the title, most programs do not require either independent research or require a dissertation (thesis). Therefore, they should not be confused with PhD degrees or other research doctorates. A few examples of first professional degrees follow.iii

  • Master of Business Administration (MBA)
  • Master of Education (MEd)
  • Master of Social Work (MSW)
  • Master of Fine Arts (MFA)
  • Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT)
  • Master of Engineering (MEng)
  • Master of Health Administration (MHA)
  • Master of Public Administration (MPA)
  • Master of Public Health (MPH)
  • Master of Divinity (DVM)
  • Doctor of Chiropractic (DC)
  • Juris Doctor (JD)
  • Doctor of Medicine (MD)
  • Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD)
  • Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM)

Graduate Studies vs Graduate Degrees

Students who are not (yet) graduate degree-seekers could still engage in graduate studies, both through MicroMasters and Certificate Programs.

Is a Graduate Certificate a Degree?

Graduate certificates, sometimes called professional certificates or diplomas, are non-degree higher education awards. They are granted by universities and colleges to show that a candidate has completed a short series of graduate-level courses in a singular field of study. Certificates could consist of 3 to 18 credits, which is far fewer than a graduate degree requires. As a result, full-time students may be able to complete the certificate requirements in about one year.

Many graduate certificate programs are accessible to students who have earned a bachelor’s degree at an accredited college or university. These programs might help candidates to refine skillsets, refresh a resume, and update their knowledge to include recent research or new technology. Plus, earned credits could sometimes be transferred to a master’s degree program, which might reduce the time it takes to graduate.

Yet other certificates are designed to supplement a master’s degree. Once earned, the master’s degree will indicate the extra courses to demonstrate your proficiency. Post-Masters, or ‘professional certificates’ could also help students meet state or national education requirements for licensing or certification. Nursing Certificates, Education Certificates and Behavior Analysis Certificates are a few examples.

What are MicroMasters™ Programs?

MicroMasters™ programs are a series of graduate level courses that some universities have put together for students who want to learn industry-relevant skills and theory. Offered in a variety of academic areas, students might later apply to the university who offers credit for the MicroMasters™ certificate. If accepted, the student could then pursue an accelerated and perhaps, less expensive master's degree.

Popular Formats

There are three popular learning formats for earning a graduate degree: traditional, on campus programs, online graduate programs and hybrid programs. Sometimes, a graduate school provides options, but there are universities that offer strictly online degrees, as well as ones that offer only traditional formats.

On Campus: Students who earn their graduate degree on campus engage in what many consider the typical grad school experience. They could sit in the front during lectures, engage in lively debate and meet their faculty on a regular basis. Plus, there could be opportunity to network, take part in university activities, and make use of in-person resources and facilities. On campus programs are often helpful for hands-on study in fields like nursing, physical therapy and architecture. They may also be more common for PhD programs and other degrees with a large research component.

Many of today’s grad schools know their students lead busy lives, so you could find campus programs offered at do-able hours like weekends or evenings. Study abroad, walk from work, or look for a great degree program in the city, state or country you prefer.

Online: Online programs could allow students to conveniently work towards a graduate degree from wherever they have Internet instead of having to be close to the school. Distance programs could come in different formats themselves, with some that are fully online, and others that may have brief campus visits or residencies blended in. In many cases also, one could decide when they log into their virtual classroom, if assignment deadlines are met. Yet other online programs engage e-learners through tele-conferencing, with class material uploaded to the digital learning platform later.

Hybrid: Hybrid programs are another option for graduate-degree seekers that mix some on campus and some online courses. As with fully online programs, course content is generally uploaded to a web-based course management system. However, other courses, especially ones where students need to interact, are usually on site. For instance, in person courses could cover role play, team building, and technical computer laboratory skills. The hybrid format is popular in MBA programs, as well as Education and other fields.

Prepare for Grad School: Admission Requirements

Aside from a bachelor's degree, it is great to prepare yourself ahead of time for a graduate degree program. Admission requirements vary greatly, so give yourself some time to do your ‘homework’ with each school, and talk to an advisor to help round out your information.

Each graduate school has an application form and procedure. Often you could fill most forms out online, but you might need to mail sealed transcripts, so read the fine print. Furthermore, sometimes applicants must apply to their intended program and this could involve separate forms, permission from faculty or even prerequisite courses. Other material you may have to submit could include the following. Please make sure to refer to individual schools.

  • Test scores (e.g. GRE, PRAXIS)
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Current resume, work experience
  • Valid licenses (e.g. teaching license)
  • Statement of goals
  • Writing sample or example of published work

Find a Graduate Degree Program

Working towards a graduate degree gives students and current professionals the opportunity to cultivate a niche for themselves. To that end, a graduate program may be offered as a very specific degree within the context of some of the larger categories.

4 Tips to Finding “the Right” Graduate Degree

  1. Explore a Category: It may be helpful to open each category and then explore its specialties or concentrations.
  2. Choose a Graduate Degree Level: Consider a masters or doctorate within the category you have chosen.
  3. Search for a Graduate School: Use the location to refine your search for a graduate degree program and grad school by city, state or country.
  4. Consider Distance Learning: Look for 100% online graduate degree programs if you want an alternative to an on-campus graduate program.

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