Graduate education differs from undergraduate education in that it offers greater depth of training, with increased specialization and intensity of instruction. Compared to undergraduate coursework, graduate-level of study is more self-directed and requires greater focus and motivation.

This section gives you an introduction to the graduate degrees available in the USA, the different types of higher educational institutions that exist, and some key terms you will come across if you want to study at a U.S. college or university.

Graduate Degrees

The two graduate degrees offered in the United States are the master's degree and the doctoral degree; both involve a combination of research and coursework.

Depending on the subject, courses may consist of formal lecture presentations or they may comprise of informal discussions among faculty and students. The latter 'seminars' involve small groups of people where in addition to an exchange of views, students may be required to contribute to the analysis with presentations; either individually or as part of a group.

Master's Degrees

Master's degrees are designed to strengthen a student's education and training in a specialized subject area, well beyond the level of baccalaureate study. There are two main types of master's programs available to students: academic and professional.

Please note, the specifications below are generalized. Consult your college or university's website for detailed information on the type of master's degrees they offer.

Academic Master's
  • Awarded in the arts, sciences, and humanities disciplines
  • Original research, research methodology, and field investigation are emphasized
  • Offers a thesis and a non-thesis option
  • May lead directly to the doctoral level
  • E.g. Master of Arts (MA); Master of Science (MS)
Professional Master's
  • Designed to lead the student from the first degree to a particular profession
  • Do not lead to doctoral programs
  • Prefer prior study in the subject area.
  • Does not offer a thesis option
  • Often designated by specific descriptive titles
  • E.g. Master of Business Administration (MBA); Master of Social Work (MSW); Master of Education (MEd)

Doctoral Degrees

The doctoral degree is designed to train research scholars and, in many cases, future faculty members. Receipt of a doctoral degree certifies that the student has demonstrated capacity as a trained research scholar in a specific discipline.

At the doctoral level, the PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) is the most common degree awarded in academic disciplines. Other doctoral degrees are awarded primarily in professional fields, such as education (EdD or Doctor of Education) and business administration (DBA or Doctor of Business Administration). Doctoral programs include advanced coursework, seminars, and the writing of a dissertation that represents the student's original research, completed under the supervision of a faculty adviser.

A comprehensive examination marks the successful completion of required coursework and the beginning of the research concentration of their doctoral program. It takes place after three to five years of study and is designed to test the student's ability to apply their knowledge and understanding of the subject matter creatively and originally.

The PhD is awarded to students who complete an original piece of significant research, write a dissertation describing that research, and successfully defend their work before a panel of faculty members who specialize in the discipline. This may take an additional two to three years. To earn a doctoral degree, therefore, may take anywhere from five to eight years beyond the bachelor's degree, depending on the field of study.