Graduate Degrees Explained

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Graduate Degrees Explained
Graduate degrees are either professional or research degrees earned at the doctoral or master's degree levels. The difference between the traditional doctorate and master's degrees involves the amount of study you do and the depth of your research. It may take five to seven years to finish a doctor degree versus one to two years for a master’s degree.

The Professional School Degree
The professional degree leads to the development of skills necessary for a career in a specific field, such as: medicine, law, education, pharmacy, journalism, nursing, social work, or business administration.

The Research/Academic/Graduate Degree
The Research/Academic/Graduate Degree focuses on in-depth study in a particular area. With the Ph.D., you are prepared to teach at the college level or to conduct high level research. As you review graduate programs, you will probably see references made to these terms.

The differences are not as clear as they once were. Over the last few decades degrees have become more specialized especially at the master's degree level.

The Doctoral Degree
The Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) is the highest academic degree. It requires the completion of course work as well as an original research project under the direction of a major professor. The candidate is trained to do research which results in the discovery of new knowledge, insight, or ways of doing things.

Admission to a Ph.D. program usually requires a bachelor's degree in a closely related field. Attaining a master's degree first can be a way to prepare for the Ph.D. especially in a field that is significantly different or more closely defined than your undergraduate degree.

Typical Doctoral Program
First two to three years involves:

  • Completing pre-dissertation requirements
    • Taking courses, examinations, and selecting dissertation topics
    • Meeting the language proficiency requirement
    • Maintaining expected level of quality performance in courses
    • Selecting a major professor

  • Taking the general exam 
    • Students must usually pass a general examination, separate from course examinations in the major subject as well as in other subject areas.
  • Preparing a prospectus
    • This is a preliminary statement of what you propose to do for your dissertation.
    • The format will be specified by the department and varies from field to field.
    • It usually contains the following:
      • A statement of the topic (often in the form of hypotheses to be tested) and why it is important.
      • A review of what has been done on this topic in the past.
    • A statement about where most of this research will be carried out.
    • A preliminary outline of the organization of the dissertation.
    • A provisional timetable for its completion.
  • Admission to candidacy
    • This means you have successfully completed the pre-dissertation requirements and are prepared to do your original research

The next two to three years are devoted to conducting the research and doing the actual writing of the dissertation itself.

  • During this time you will be involved in the research necessary to prepare your dissertation.

  • The dissertation demonstrates your ability to use relevant sources to make an original contribution to your field, such as: 
    • the discovery of new information
    • the achievement of a new synthesis
    • the comparison of historical events
    • the development of new methods or theories
    • the application of established methods to new materials.
    • the analysis of themes or ideas in literature
  • The university you attend will provide you with instructions on the format for the preparation and presentation of the dissertation.

Conferral of the Ph.D. occurs upon completion and defense of your dissertation.

The Master's Degree
In general, it takes about one to two years of full-time study to complete a master's degree. The number of credits will vary from 32 to 60. You may also be required to take a comprehensive examination and/or write a thesis. (The Master's Thesis is a research paper on an approved topic written under the advisement of a faculty member.)

Master's degrees can be earned in most fields. They can be professional or research in nature.

The Professional Master's Degree
These programs of study provide you with specific knowledge and skills to qualify you or enhance your qualifications for a particular profession. You will probably be required to do some type of fieldwork or internship.

In many cases, the professional master's degree is all that is needed to enter a certain field, for example, in social work, the M.S.W; in fine arts, the M.F.A.; in library science, the M.L.S. These are referred to as terminal master's degree programs. 

The Research Master's Degree
The emphasis in these programs of study is research and scholarship. Writing a thesis and/or taking comprehensive examinations is usually required. It, too, can prepare you for a position of greater responsibility in your field than if you had the bachelor's degree alone. This may be a final degree but is more often a step toward the Ph.D.

NOTE: In deciding upon a degree program, take into account that courses in a master's degree program are not always accepted by a doctoral program at another institution. You may need to more or less start over again or at least supplement your master's course work.

Joint Degree Programs
Enable a student to earn two graduate level degrees concurrently, such as: J.D. /M.A., M.B.A./M.S.W, and the MA/M.F.S. These are rigorous programs because requirements must be met in two different departments. Carefully read catalogs to understand specific entrance and program requirements.