Quick Guide: Your College Degree Options

There are generally four categories of college degrees: associate degree, bachelor’s degree, graduate degree, and doctorate or professional degree. Each category comes with its own particular subcategories, and there are some subtle differences between a doctorate and a professional degree.

If you ever find yourself lost in the sea of abbreviations for degrees, you're not alone. This quick guide is here to clear the air regarding the types of degrees available to you and what each one means.

Guide to College Degrees, Professional Studies & Certifications

Associate degree.

An associate degree is a two-year degree typically offered at community colleges, technical colleges, and career colleges. However, some four-year universities offer them as well. Examples of some associate degrees include Associate of Arts (AA) and Associate of Science (AS).

AS degrees are generally more narrowly focused and prepare students for science and math-related careers. AA degrees are broader and focus on fields outside of math and science such as liberal arts, business administration, criminal justice, and culinary arts.

Some students who earn an associate degree transfer to a four-year program to earn a bachelor’s degree. Others complete associate degrees and then go straight to work.

Bachelor's or Baccalaureate Degree

Bachelor’s degrees require students to complete four- or five-year programs in a specific academic discipline. The two most common types of bachelor’s degrees are bachelor of arts (BA) and bachelor of science (BS). Other types of bachelor’s degrees include the bachelor of fine arts (BFA), and bachelor of architecture (BArch).

Because bachelor’s degrees train students to enter a specific field, many professional careers require them. Earning a bachelor’s degree can open the door to many job opportunities and increase your potential income.

Some institutions offer a liberal arts and career combination program, also called a 3-2 program. This is a type of dual degree in which a student completes three years of liberal arts study followed by two years of professional or technical study. In the end, students earn two bachelor’s degrees, usually a BA and a BS.

An example of this is Columbia University’s 3-2 Combined Plan program in which students can earn a BA and a BS in five years.

Some colleges also let you earn a teacher certification by combining bachelor's degree study with state certification requirements. State requirements vary, but these programs usually feature professional education courses, including student teaching.

Graduate Degree

Graduate degrees are advanced degrees that some students pursue after earning a bachelor’s degree. The two most common are master of arts (MA) and master of science (MS). Other examples include master of fine arts (MFA) and master of business administration (MBA). A graduate degree is like an extension of a bachelor’s degree whereby a student further enriches their knowledge of their field and narrows their f ocus of study .

Graduate degrees usually take around two years to attain, but this can vary based on the degree. Many institutions allow students to enroll in a graduate program in a field unrelated to their bachelor’s degree. This may require some extra credit hours, though.

Professional Degree

Students earn professional degrees to become licensed to work in professions like medicine or law. The M.D. degree is an example. Professional programs generally require a college degree before you start them and then at least three years of study to complete.

Doctoral Degree and Professional Degree

The doctorate and professional degrees are the highest levels of education one can attain. They signify mastery of a subject and often come with the coveted title “doctor.” Although the two are similar, there are some important differences.

A doctorate or doctoral degree is a research-oriented degree focused on scholarly development. The most common doctorate is the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). Despite the name, a PhD covers many disciplines, not just philosophy.

A professional degree is an application-oriented degree, meaning it prepares students for a specific working position. There are many types of professional degrees. Some examples are: doctor of medicine (MD), doctor of pharmacy (PharmD), and doctor of medicine in dentistry (DMD) in the field of medicine, and juris doctor (JD) and doctor of juridical science (SJD) in the field of law.

A graduate degree does not need to precede a doctorate or professional degree. Often, students will go straight into a doctorate or professional program following their bachelor’s, however some programs will require a master’s degree to gain entry. Completion can take anywhere from four to eight years, depending on the field of study.

Many doctoral students work either full-time or part-time while they study in the program. This, along with the field they are studying, will significantly affect the time it takes to complete their degree.

Joint Degrees

Some students may choose to pursue a joint degree, also known as a dual degree, which means they simultaneously study for a bachelor’s degree and a graduate degree. Joint degrees can be pursued in the same college or can be split between two different colleges. For example, Berklee College of Music and Harvard University offer a dual bachelor’s/master’s program in which a student receives a bachelor of arts (BA) at Harvard and a master of music (MM) or master of arts (MA) at Berklee.

Depending on the program, it may be possible to study at the same time for a master's degree and a doctorate. For example, the University of Southern California offers a program leading to doctor of pharmacy and master of public health degrees.

How do academic degrees go in order?

There are four types of degrees. In order of level of education, they rank as associate degree, bachelor’s degree, master’s or graduate degrees, and doctorate or professional degrees.

How many degrees are there in college?

Most community colleges offer only two-year associate degrees, while most four-year colleges offer bachelor’s, graduate, and doctorate or professional degrees. Some four-year colleges may also have associate degree programs.

How many years do you have to be in college to achieve certain degrees?

Though it will vary between academic disciplines, associate degrees usually take two years to achieve, bachelor’s degrees take four years, master’s degrees take two years, and doctorate or professional degrees can take anywhere from four to eight years.

What is an eight-year degree?

An “eight-year degree” typically refers to a doctorate degree or PhD. Although some doctorates can be completed in as little as three years, these degrees typically require more time studying highly specialized subjects. Students in these programs often must defend a dissertation while already working a professional job.

What are the four years of college called?

The first four years of college are the undergraduate years, and a student studying for a bachelor’s degree is called an undergraduate. The four years refer to the total accumulated credit hours; a student may take fewer or more than four years to attain their undergraduate degree.

What does a graduate degree mean?

A graduate degree or master’s degree is an advanced degree that some students pursue after earning a bachelor’s degree. Earning a graduate degree signifies mastery of a particular field of study and focuses more intensely on a subject than a bachelor’s degree does. Graduate degrees usually take two years to attain.

What do you call a master's student?

A master's student is called a graduate student or “grad student” for short. A student still studying for a bachelor’s degree is called an undergraduate student or “undergrad student.”

How many years is a master's degree?

Graduate degrees usually take around two years to attain, but this can vary based on the degree. Many institutions allow students to enroll in a graduate program in a field unrelated to their bachelor’s degree, although it may require some extra credit hours.

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What Is a PhD?

A PhD is often the highest possible academic degree you can get in a subject. Learn more about whether earning a PhD could benefit your career.

[Featured image] Two PhD students in caps and gowns celebrate their new degrees on a video call.

A Doctor of Philosophy, often known as a PhD, is a terminal degree —or the highest possible academic degree you can earn in a subject. While PhD programs (or doctorate programs) are often structured to take between four and five years , some graduate students may take longer as they balance the responsibilities of coursework, original research, and other degree requirements with raising families or working full time. 

With a PhD, you may find opportunities to work as a university professor, a researcher in a commercial or government laboratory, a consultant, or a subject matter expert (SME). If you have the intellectual curiosity and dedication, earning a PhD can be a rewarding experience. In this article, we’ll go over what it takes to earn a PhD, the requirements to apply for a PhD program, and other factors worth considering.

Learn more: What Does ‘PhD’ Stand For?

PhD: Key facts

Generally, students begin their PhD after earning a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree . However, some doctoral programs may offer you the chance to earn your master’s while pursuing your PhD, so that may not be an admissions requirement.  

What can you get a PhD in?

It’s possible to earn your PhD in a number of academic disciplines, including the natural sciences , humanities , arts, and social sciences . The 2021 Survey of Earned Doctorates, from the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, offers a numerical breakdown of actual degrees earned in broad academic fields [ 1 ]:

Engineering: 10,240

Biological and biomedical sciences: 8,149

Social sciences: 4,878

Physical sciences: 4,693

Psychology: 3,797

Computer and information sciences: 2,361

Health sciences: 2,331

Mathematics and statistics: 2,012

Agricultural sciences and natural resources: 1,334

Geosciences, atmospheric sciences, and ocean sciences: 1,064

Education: 4,252

Humanities and arts: 4,137

Business: 1,392

Other fields: 1,610

Depending on the university you attend, you may find that the broad academic fields above break down into more specific disciplines. For example, within a physical science department, you might get a PhD in physics or chemistry. Within an engineering department, you might get a PhD in electrical or mechanical engineering. Philosophy, theology, history, or English might fall within a humanities department, while economics or social work could fall within a social sciences department. Marketing could be a specific PhD major within a business department.

In terms of your PhD coursework and research, you will likely be expected to concentrate in some area of your larger subject. For example, PhDs in biology may focus on biochemistry or biostatistics, whereas a PhD in English may concentrate on twentieth-century American literature. 

Requirements to get a PhD

PhD programs typically require at least two years of advanced coursework, as well as comprehensive exams, and the successful completion of a dissertation. Let’s break that down on a year-by-year basis: 

Years 1 and 2: Take classes to develop advanced knowledge in your subject area. 

Year 3: Study for and successfully pass your comprehensive exams. 

Years 4 and 5: Research, write, and defend your dissertation. 

Once you have successfully passed your comprehensive exams, you’re typically considered “All But Dissertation” or ABD, which signals that you’ve finished everything in your doctoral program except your dissertation. 

Research supervisor 

PhD students often choose a faculty member who specializes in their area of interest to serve as the research supervisor. It can help to identify professors or programs that will support your research endeavors before applying, so you can establish a relationship with your potential research advisor early. 

The average cost of a PhD program in the US is $106,860, though that figure can differ based on the type of institution you attend and what you study [ 2 ].

Reasons to get a PhD

Earning your PhD can be an immensely rewarding experience, but the degree can be a big commitment, requiring significant time, money, and work. 

Here are some more reasons you may want to pursue a PhD:

Become a subject matter expert in a particular field.

Conduct the research you are passionate about.

Develop transferable skills that can help in your professional life. 

Make a difference in the world with new research.

Make connections with scholars in your academic community.

Open up career avenues in academic and research work.

Completing a PhD can reveal to employers that you possess a wide range of competencies that are valued in both academic and non-academic settings. 

PhD salaries

PhD holders earn a median weekly income of $1,909 compared to master’s degree holders, who earn a median weekly income of $1,574, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) [ 3 ]. They may also experience lower percentages of unemployment. The unemployment rate for PhD graduates is 1.5 percent compared to master’s degree holders at 2.6 percent [ 3 ].

Requirements to apply to a PhD program

PhD programs expect you to meet several requirements before enrolling. Here are some examples of common requirements:

Have an undergraduate degree, usually with at least a 3.0 overall GPA.

Have a master's degree, though some programs may not require it.

Take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and achieve a minimum score.

Submit a sample of your academic writing.

Submit your CV .

Provide letters of recommendation , which should ideally come from academic faculty members who can speak to your research or intellectual abilities.

Requirements differ by program and school, so take time to become familiar with the entry requirements of universities where you’re interested in applying. Admissions staff or departmental staff should be able to give you specific information about their admissions requirements.

If a program is interested in you, based on your application, you may have to complete an interview. The university representatives that interview you will look at your motivation, how prepared you are, and how suitable you are for acceptance into the doctoral degree program.

PhD vs. other terminal degrees

Terminal degrees are the highest degree available in a field of study. While the PhD is the highest academic degree you can earn in a field of study, a Juris Doctor (JD) is the highest degree you can earn in law, and a professional degree , such as a Doctor of Medicine (MD) or a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) , is the highest degree you can earn in these medical professions. 

Learn more: What is a Terminal Degree and Do You Need One?   

Professional doctorates are a different category of doctorate degree. They are usually intended for professionals already working in a field who want to pursue advanced training in their area. The main difference between a professional doctorate and an academic doctorate has to do with subject matter and research. While PhDs are interested in conducting new research, professional degree students take existing models and knowledge and apply them to solve problems. Professional doctorates are also designed to prepare learners for careers in a certain industry rather than academia.  

Examples of professional doctorates include:

DBA (Doctor of Business Administration)

DNP (Doctor of Nursing Practice)

EdD (Doctor of Education)

DPH (Doctor of Public Health)

Is someone with a PhD a doctor?

You can use the salutation "Dr" to address people who hold doctorates, including PhDs and other professional degrees. The word "doctor" comes from the Latin word for "teacher," and PhDs are often professors at universities. While it has become more common to refer to medical doctors as “Dr,” some professors use the honorific when addressing students and in professional settings.

Explore career and education options with Coursera

Learning online can be a great way to explore a field you're interested in, discover career paths , and even decide whether a PhD is for you. Consider one of Coursera's Professional Certificates , available from Google, Meta, IBM, Salesforce, and other industry leaders, and gain job-ready skills that employers are looking for.

Ready to get a Master's degree ? Coursera partners with universities to offer online Master's degrees in a range of fields like data science, public health, and business.

Article sources

NCSES. " 2021 Survey of Earned Doctorates , https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf23300/report/field-of-doctorate." Accessed August 1, 2023.

Education Data Initiative. “Average Cost of a Doctorate Degree ,     https://educationdata.org/average-cost-of-a-doctorate-degree.” Accessed August 1, 2023.

US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Earnings and Unemployment rates by educational attainment, 2021 , https://www.bls.gov/emp/chart-unemployment-earnings-education.htm." Accessed August 1, 2023.

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This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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COMMENTS

  1. PhD vs Doctorate: What's the Difference?

    The PhD, also known as the Doctor of Philosophy, is a research degree, which is one of the most common types of doctoral degrees, and is awarded to graduates in many different fields. For those asking, “Is a PhD higher than a doctorate?” the answer is simple: no. A PhD lies within the doctorate category, so one is not better than the other.

  2. Doctor of Philosophy

    A Doctor of Philosophy ( PhD, Ph.D., or DPhil; Latin: philosophiae doctor or doctor philosophiae) is the most common degree at the highest academic level, awarded following a course of study and research.

  3. What Does 'PhD' Stand For?

    PhD stands for “Doctor of Philosophy,” which refers to the immense knowledge a student gains when earning the degree. While you can actually get a PhD in philosophy, "Doctor of Philosophy" doesn't always refer to someone who has a terminal degree in that discipline.

  4. Current Guide to College Degrees, Certifications

    Doctoral Degree and Professional Degree. The doctorate and professional degrees are the highest levels of education one can attain. They signify mastery of a subject and often come with the coveted title “doctor.” Although the two are similar, there are some important differences. A doctorate or doctoral degree is a research-oriented degree ...

  5. What Is a PhD?

    A PhD is often the highest possible academic degree you can get in a subject. Learn more about whether earning a PhD could benefit your career. A Doctor of Philosophy, often known as a PhD, is a terminal degree —or the highest possible academic degree you can earn in a subject.