Types of Graduate Degrees
There are, of course, many different types of graduate programs out there. How do you know what kind of program is right for you? Start by asking yourself the following questions:
- What do I see myself doing with my graduate degree?
- What is the final career goal I want to achieve?
This self-knowledge, contextualized by some research, will be the most important factor in understanding what kind of graduate program is right for you.
As you keep these questions in mind, read more below about different types of graduate degress:
Academic Degree vs. Professional Degree
Academic degree (some Master’s and most Ph.D.) programs typically focus on theory and research, with the end goal of your producing some kind of independent research project (a Master’s Thesis or doctoral dissertation). If your career goal is to perform research or to teach at the collegiate level, the most direct route will be via a research-focused graduate program, usually at the Ph.D. level. Those programs last from four to twelve years, averaging six in the sciences and eight in the humanities.
It is true that academic degrees can be useful in fields outside of academia - but, depending on your career goals, you might be better served by pursuing a specific professional degree. These are degrees that are linked more strongly to specific careers, and are often required to receive licensure or other state authorization to practice professionally. Even in cases where a specific professional degree is not required to work in a given field, a professional degree program might provide a more practical and practice-oriented training than a theoretical and research-oriented academic degree.
Of course, it’s impossible to draw a completely neat distinction between academic and professional graduate programs - this is why it is important not only to keep career goals in mind while you think about graduate school, but to also research the kinds of credentials working professionals have in your desired field.
The links in the following list provide more information on professional degree programs and preprofessional resources at NYU:
Return to Gradudate Degree Types
Master's vs. Ph.D.
For many fields, you’ll have to option to apply for Master’s programs and Doctoral programs. But which should you apply for? About.com offers a helpful discussion of the main differences between these two types of graduate degrees in their article, "What is the Difference Between a Master's Degree and a Doctoral Degree?"
Here are some main points to consider:
Master's degree programs are often willing to except applicants at an earlier stage in their academic development. For example, while it is always helpful to have some research experience, Master's programs will usually anticipate that applicants will need additional research training at the start of their graduate career to help them to reach the level of sophistication and focus necessary for graduate work. Additionally, Master's programs may have more flexible standards for GPA and relevant test scores, and able to accept applicants with solid-but-not-stellar academic records. Once in the Master's program, students usually perform well enough to make a substantial improvement in their overall application metrics.
In contrast, Ph.D. programs typically expect an applicant to have already some meaningful research experience as a demonstration of their aptitude for advanced, independent research. Most Ph.D. programs will also look very carefully at the entire applicant's portfolio (academic record, samples, statement, letters of recommendation), and expect a high level of polish in all components.
So, if you feel that your overall applicant profile is lacking for a Ph.D. program -- in other words, if you are lacking in research experience, if you don't have strong faculty recommendations, if you are still figuring out a specific area of inquiry, and/or your academic record is ok -- a Master’s degree can help build this profile for an eventual application to Ph.D. programs.
Even if you are in the academic position where direct application to a Ph.D. is a reasonable possibility, it is still very important to think through whether or not it is necessary to pursue Ph.D.-level education for your particular career goals. A quick search through LinkedIn or other professional networking sites (if you’re interested in academics, Academia.edu is worth checking) will help you get more info about how degrees relate to career opportunities. You can find more information about the costs of a Master’s vs. Ph.D. program in Financing Graduate School.
Time to Degree
It takes longer to earn a Ph.D than a Master's. So, think about the time you are willing to commit to your academic study: if you are willing to spend 4+ years working on a degree (depending on the field), then a Ph.D. may be a reasonable goal; if you are not willing to spend this much time, then a Master's may be a more managable initial investment of your time, money, and energy.
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