Graduate Study Options

What is Graduate School?

Graduate schools, simply put, are institutions that offer advanced academic degrees to students who have previously earned an undergraduate bachelor’s degree. The vast majority of graduate schools are “brick and mortar” institutions offering classes in traditional classrooms on a campus, but some also offer “distance learning” options. The term “graduate school” is typically used when referring to programs in the arts, sciences, and humanities. “Professional school” is used for programs in the medical professions, law, business, and other specialized fields.

Types of Degrees

There are several types of degrees ranging in length from one year to several and with different expectations of the kind of work the student will undertake. Types of degrees offered in the U.S. include:

  • Doctoral, research – these degrees are awarded in the sciences, arts, and engineering, but are also available in business, social work, and other professional areas. Students pursuing these degrees usually intend to do research in higher education, government, or industry, and often aim to work as faculty at colleges or universities. Students entering a doctoral research program are regarded as apprentices in their fields, with the first year or two spent in coursework usually followed by “field” or “qualifying” exams.  Then the student is allowed to move on to independent work through researching and writing a dissertation, often while working as a research or teaching assistant. Examples of research doctoral degrees: Ph.D (in humanities such as English, Sociology, Classics, Religion); Sc.D (in Biology, Chemistry, Biostatistics). In the US, the PhD and the ScD are generally considered equivalent degrees (the vast majority of U.S. schools do not offer the Sc.D. as the doctorate in the sciences...they offer the Ph.D. - at many U.S. schools, Sc.D. is an honorary degree, not an earned doctorate like the Ph.D.
  • Doctoral, applied/professional – these degrees are intended to train a corps of professionals who can apply their skills in some kind of “practice.” Length of study can range from three to five years and usually requires national or state licensing or postdoctoral work in addition to the doctoral degree. Examples of applied/professional doctoral degrees: D.B.A (business); (M.D., D.O. (medicine); J.D. (law); Ed.D (education).
  • Master’s, research – these programs require one to two years of course work often culminating in a written or oral exam and/or a thesis – a long research paper. Most research programs in the arts and sciences are of this type (M.A. or M.S.) While some master’s programs in these fields stand alone, this degree is often awarded to students on their way to earning a Ph.D .
  • Master’s, applied/professional – these programs require one to three years of course work and provide the knowledge and training one needs to enter a profession. They are sometimes referred to as “terminal degrees,” because no further advanced studies are required in order to practice in these fields. Examples include: M.S.W. (social work); M.B.A. (business); M.A.T. (teaching).
  • Master’s, creative – these programs can range from two to three years and enable students to pursue creative work in music (M.M.), fine arts (M.F.A.), and writing and poetry (M.F.A.W.), to name a few. These programs usually require a project, performance, or exhibition.
  • Certificates – Certificates are sometimes required to satisfy state or agency requirements. Teachers in public schools, for example, must have earned certificates in order to teach, counsel, or work in administration. Some certificates may simply affirm that a person has acquired a particular skill or learned certain information.
  • Combined, dual, and joint-degrees – increasingly schools offer programs in which students can take classes and use the facilities of a cooperating department or “school” within the university while being accepted into and responsible to only one of the schools.  Dual and joint-degree programs are similar to the combined programs, but with these the student works toward two degrees simultaneously and must fulfill both sets of graduate requirements. The advantage of these programs is that the time spent in school is shorter and therefore less expensive, since there is usually some overlap between the programs.

How do you choose which type of degree to pursue?

Deciding which type of degree to pursue depends entirely on what you plan to do with it once you earn it. This means that you should have a very good idea of your ultimate goal – your chosen career or some strong possibilities – before applying to graduate programs. It is wise as well to have researched whether your ideal job is likely to be in demand once you earn your degree. Finally, knowing what degree is desired or required for a particular career will be a critical factor in this decision.

If you are considering graduate school because you don’t really know what else to do, or want to postpone “big” decisions, don’t! Going to graduate school for these reasons could cost you both time and money without much benefit to you. 

Get advice!

If you are thinking about graduate school but have not yet visited the Career Development Center to investigate and discuss career options, do so now to learn more about careers and to make an appointment with a career advisor.

If you would like to discuss your graduate school options, please make an appointment with Mount Holyoke’s National Fellowships and Graduate School Advisor, Christine Overstreet.