There are four main degrees that students can obtain within the U.S. higher education system:
- Associate's DegreesAn associate’s degree typically takes two years of study to complete. Entrance requirements for two-year colleges, or community colleges, that offer associate’s degrees are typically less rigorous than those for four-year colleges. ACT and SAT scores may not even be required.
The Associate of Arts (A.A.) and Associate of Science (A.S.) degrees are two year transfer degrees offered in a wide range of subjects designed to ensure students develop the skills and knowledge necessary to continue their education through a Bachelor of Arts degree, or to competitively enter the workforce after the completion of two years of study towards the Associate of Arts or Associate of Science degree.
Associate Degrees can be obtained in a large range of subject areas including Healthcare, Business, Education, Criminal Justice, Technology and the Arts and Humanities. Transfer credits from an Associate degree to a Bachelor of Arts degree are governed by Articulation Agreements between inter-state institutions, specifying the courses and credits received at a Community College that may be considered for transfer towards the Bachelor’s degree.
Associate of Applied Sciences (A.A.S.) degrees are occupation-focused degrees that prepare students for specific professions after graduation. Students take general education classes as well as hands-on industry-focused courses with practical projects.
The Online Guide to Associate Degree’s provides information on Community Colleges, programs, and fields of study available.
You can also search for programs and learn more online through the Associate Degree Guide.
Advantages of the associate’s degree are as follows:
- Lower costs – The Associate Degree allows for transfer to a college or university Bachelor of Arts program in the third year of study, enabling students to attend a Community College for the first two years at a much lower tuition rate.
- Catching up – Because of the less competitive entry requirements of Community Colleges, students with lower high school grades or low standardized test scores still have an opportunity to pursue post-secondary education by transferring to a Bachelor of Arts degree program by beginning their studies at a Community College and transferring to a State university.
- In class advantage – Class sizes are smaller at Community Colleges, allowing for more personalized attention, and faculty spend a greater proportion of their time teaching.
- Career focus – The Associate Degree also provides a unique perspective to students by focusing on occupation oriented training and career courses that teach you to identify the job skills, experience and requirements needed to enter the labour force. This knowledge can help you to determine your major when transferring to the Bachelor of Arts degree, and will give you a competitive advantage in applying your learning to your career objectives.
- Bachelor's DegreesBachelor’s degrees include the B.A. (Bachelor of Arts), B.Sc (Bachelor of Sciences), and BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts).
Typically four years of study leads to the Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree in the United States. The Bachelor of Arts is the most common post-secondary degree sought in the U.S. and is a requirement for graduate and postgraduate studies. Freshman is the term used to identify students in their first year of undergraduate study, Sophomore the second year, Junior the third and Senior the fourth year.
The majority of universities offer both the Bachelor of Arts (BA) and Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) degrees. The BA provides a broader range of courses with more elective hours, while the B.Sc. provides a stronger technical background with more focus on math and science, and fewer elective hours. The Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA), offered by many colleges and universities, is defined by the focus on applied arts training within one of the disciplines of Visual Art, Studio Art, Theatre, Dance, Music (Vocal/Instrumental), Fashion, and Design. Two-thirds of courses towards the BFA are taken in your applied art, with the remainder one-third of courses taken from disciplines within the liberal arts.
Bachelor’s degrees typically require 120 credits for graduation, or 15 credits per semester.
- Master's DegreesThe Master of Arts degree is the first graduate level qualification offered following the successful completion of the Bachelor of Arts degree in the United States, and typically takes two years to complete. Individuals who earn a Master’s degree are known to make higher incomes, and hold higher level positions in business, government and the not-for profit sector.
Further coursework, oral presentations, independent research, examinations and a graduate thesis are typical requirements of the Master’s of Arts (MA) and Master’s of Science (M. Sc.) degrees.
Increasingly, graduate programs have been skipping the master’s degree and having students take tracks that lead them directly from the Bachelor’s degree to the PhD, or doctoral degree. Some professional master’s degree programs do not follow this trend, as they are designed to train students in particular professional areas such as business (MBA), public administration, urban planning or architecture (MPA), social work (MSW), education (M.Ed.), library sciences (MLA), theology (Th.M), public health (MPH), nursing (MNP), visual, performing or applied arts (MFA) or public policy (MPP). Professional Master’s degrees are most often terminal, meaning they lead to an occupational vocation, rather than towards further study at the doctoral level. Graduates from professional Master’s programs go on to work in a variety of professions in government, the private sector and non-governmental organizations.
Professional degree programs typically require between thirty-six (36) and forty-eight (48) credits, meaning either one or two years of full-time study. A more traditional thesis option is available through some programs, but more likely professional Master’s programs will offer work-placement opportunities through paid or un-paid co-op placements or internships.
- Doctoral DegreesThe Doctoral degree is the highest level research degree available through the U.S. education system. The doctorate is designed to train research professionals, and demonstrates a high level of specialized original research and analysis. Studies at the doctoral level typically include examinations (oral and written), coursework or seminars, teaching duties, conference presentations, the publication of research or reviews, and the research and writing of an original thesis that must be submitted and defended before a panel of academics specializing in the field. The doctoral degree demands a high level and quality of research that often involves the study of specialized collections, original editions of publications or documents, subject interviews, field work, site specific analysis or the use of specialized equipment, technologies and resources.
Professional doctoral degrees can be obtained in fields such as Education, Science and Law, and are sometimes alternatively labeled as Ed.D., Sc.D., Jur.D.
Direct entry PhD. programs, which skip the master’s degree and proceed directly from the bachelor’s degree to the doctoral degree, require the successful completion of the Bachelor of Arts degree, and can last from four to six years of further study. Students who have obtained a previous Master’s degree may be eligible for Advanced Standing to a direct entry doctoral program, bypassing certain core courses or elective requirements and allowing continued studies at the PhD. level to take between four to five years.
By the time you have reached the level of post-graduate study, you should be well acquainted with the research methodology, practices, academics, publications, research resources, facilities and professional placement opportunities required for success in the field. While study at the doctoral level does prepare students to become future academic researchers within the field, over half of PhD. graduates go on to work in the public and private sectors. It is important to consider which track you intend to pursue, academic or professional, for each will determine a set of criteria required to successfully enter the workforce.
Those seeking to work in academia will want to place more emphasis on teaching experience, publications, languages, post-doctoral grants, conference participation, their breadth and depth of specialized research experience and institutional affiliations. Those seeking to work in the public or private sector might place more emphasis on internship or work placement opportunities, professional networks, collaborative research and training courses in business, law, policy or international relations to broaden the applicability of their research to the professional sector. Those pursuing academic doctoral degrees should also consider how they might diversify their experience beyond academia to include an emphasis on the applied implications of their research in defined areas of the private or public sectors.