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What is a Graduate Degree?

For those considering graduate school, it’s important to take the time to understand what an advanced degree program entails. Read on to learn about the different types of graduate programs, the time commitment, cost, and enrollment conditions required, and what students should expect at this level of advanced study.

What is a Graduate Degree?

An undergraduate degree—either a bachelor’s or associate degree—is considered a baseline educational requirement in many professions. As such, the pursuit of this degree has become commonplace among high school graduates. As of 2018, 69 percent of students chose to complete their undergraduate degree immediately after earning their high school diploma.

A graduate degree—including master’s degrees, doctorates, and PhDs—provides an advanced understanding of a specific topic or field, and demonstrates a commitment to lifelong learning that many employers value. Those who choose to enroll in graduate school often do so with a series of focused, career-oriented goals in mind, which sets the stage for a substantially different type of learning environment than one might experience during an undergraduate career.


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Types of Graduate Degrees

Students embarking on graduate school should begin by determining if an academic or professional degree is right for them.

Students who desire a career in a specific field (such as law, pharmaceuticals, medicine, or education) may opt to pursue a professional degree. These programs emphasize hands-on learning and often require students to obtain substantial real-world experience prior to graduation.

Academic (or research) degrees align with a single, specific area of study or field.  Students in pursuit of these degrees are required to develop an in-depth understanding of their subject area and complete a thesis or capstone project to demonstrate their knowledge.

Learn More: Professional Degree Vs. Academic Degree: What’s the Difference? 

Master’s Degree

Although master’s degrees may be the most common form of graduate study, there are various professional and academic graduate-level degrees that students should consider. Some of the most common include:

  • Master of Arts Degree (MA): An MA is a type of academic master’s degree that correlates most directly with humanities-based subject areas such as communications, teaching, languages, and more. Classes in these programs are primarily discussion-based and might require fieldwork, a thesis, or a capstone project prior to graduation. Some common MA programs include Homeland Security, English, and Elementary Education.
  • Master of Science Degree (MS): An MS is another type of academic master’s degree which typically correlates with advanced study in fields that relate to science and mathematics. Courses in these programs often require extensive lab work or research and culminate with thesis or capstone projects, as well. Some common MS programs include Cybersecurity, Corporate & Organizational Communication, Leadership, and Project Management
  • Master of Fine Arts (MFA): An MFA is a professional degree for artists in fields such as graphic design, music, theater, film, and more. Alongside a practical and abstract exploration of their art, graduates of these programs often receive the credentials necessary to teach at the undergraduate level. Some common MFA programs include Information Design & Visualization, Creative Writing, and Acting.
  • Master of Professional Studies (MPS): An MPS is an interdisciplinary degree focused on a single area of professional study. Unlike MA or MS degrees, these programs are typically more hands-on in nature and require an internship, work-study, or co-op experience prior to graduation. Some common MPS programs include Analytics, Informatics, and Digital Media.

Professional Doctorate

A professional doctorate is focused on the advanced practice of knowledge and skills, making it a degree for those who are more professionally oriented. While these programs also help to develop research skills, the main focus is to apply knowledge to industry to solve new and emerging problems.

  • Juris Doctor (JD): This degree provides students with the practical skills and expansive knowledge needed to practice law in America. While JD programs share some commonalities with other graduate-level law degrees, such as an MS in Legal Studies or a Master of Laws, there are key differences between the three.
  • Doctor of Education (EdD): This is another professional doctorate degree not to be confused with a PhD in Education. This type of program is for educators and professionals who want to direct and implement change within their organizations. These degrees are designed to prepare students to become leaders in their communities.
  • Doctor of Medicine (MD): Students hoping to pursue a career in medicine or surgery pursue this professional doctorate degree.
  • Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD): Individuals pursuing a career in the pharmaceutical industry must obtain a PharmD. These programs include components of research, teaching, and clinical practice.

Learn More: Why Earn a Professional Doctoral Degree?

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

A PhD is a postgraduate doctoral degree based on extensive research in a given field. Students can earn a PhD in areas such as technology, humanities, social sciences, and more. Individuals who complete their PhDs often pursue a career in academia, though some may continue on to complete similar research for the remainder of their career. Some common PhD programs include Counseling Psychology, Bioengineering, and Pharmacology. PhDs are not to be confused with professional/clinical doctorates, which are designed to provide students with the practical skills needed to excel in their career. 

How Long Does it Take to Earn a Graduate Degree

The timeline for completion of a graduate degree will vary depending on three factors:

  1. The type of degree you pursue.
  2. Your desired subject area.
  3. The specific institution at which you are studying. 

On average, however, those enrolled in a master’s program full-time will likely complete their degree within one-and-a-half to three years. Individuals who pursue their master’s degree part-time might take longer than three years to complete it, depending on how many credits they enroll in each semester.

Most PhD and professional doctoral candidates will finish their degrees in five to six years, though the time commitment may vary depending on the subject area. Some more intensive degree programs, like an MD, can take up to eight years to complete.

Learn More: How Long Does It Take to Earn a Master’s Degree?

Graduate Degree Requirements

Requirements for different graduate programs vary greatly depending on the subject, institution, and whether or not it is a culminating degree. The most common requirement, however, is an undergraduate degree, as this acts as a base for advanced learning.

Other application requirements for specific graduate programs might include:

You may also need to take and submit your scores for a subject-specific exam (e.g. LSAT, MCAT, etc.) or for the general Graduate Record Examination (GRE), which is a requirement for many graduate programs globally.

The Cost of A Graduate Degree

The cost of a graduate degree will also vary greatly depending on what program and what institution you are considering. Yet, many people make incorrect assumptions about the price of graduate school based on their knowledge of undergraduate costs.

“Many of us have in our heads the sticker price of $30,000 to $40,000 per year for undergraduate education,” Sean Gallagher, executive director of the Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy at Northeastern told U.S. News & Report in 2017. “So we say, ‘OK, it’s two years for a graduate degree, so it’s going to cost me $70,000 to $80,000 or more.’ And while there are certainly programs at that price point, there are many programs where you can get the entire graduate degree for between $20,000 and $40,000.”

No matter the program, graduate school will be both an educational and financial investment in your career. As such, institutions like Northeastern have adopted a variety of financial aid options for students to help hedge the cost of graduate studies. Students can utilize scholarships, grants, and even tuition reimbursement programs through their employers to help pay for their advanced education.

Learn More: Paying for Grad School: Where and How to Start

5 Characteristics of a Strong Graduate Program

#1) Flexible Learning Options

In most universities, graduate programs are designed to accommodate the needs of working professionals and are thus offered in a variety of exceedingly flexible formats.

Firstly, students at the graduate level can choose to enroll in either a part-time or full-time capacity. A part-time graduate program offers working professionals the opportunity to take on only as many classes as they can handle per semester, and work toward finishing their degree at their own speed. Full-time students, on the other hand, must be enrolled in a specific number of credit hours per semester as determined by the university, and will work toward completing their program in a linear manner. At Northeastern, for example, full-time students must be enrolled in nine quarter hours of graduate credits per semester.

Universities like Northeastern also offer a variety of graduate programs in online, on-ground, and hybrid formats to best fit the needs of any given students. Taking online or hybrid courses is an effective way for students who are already working in their field to balance their coursework with their other professional commitments, as well.

For those who aren’t ready to commit to an entire graduate program, some universities also offer graduate certificates in many in-demand areas of study. Certificate programs provide either a condensed understanding of basic advanced principles as they relate to an area of study, or a very niche look at a specific aspect of the subject. Though the amount of knowledge attained in a certificate program is vastly less than that of a full graduate degree, some prefer this condensed format of study for its reduced cost and shorter time commitment.

#2) A Focused Curriculum 

By the time a student reaches graduate school, they are likely no longer in the exploring phase of their education. Instead, these students have often experienced life as a working professional, determined which area of study best aligns with their passions, and have made the educated decision to become an expert on that topic through the pursuit of a graduate degree.

For this reason, many graduate programs offer students a far more unified educational experience than at the undergraduate level. Often, this will be reflected in a common curriculum that all students within a single program must follow. While they may still be able to pick the specific topics that most interest them off this predetermined list of classes, each course will relate back to their base area of study. This is done in an effort to give students a much more in-depth exploration of that specific topic rather than a surface-level understanding of many, unrelated ones.

Students in graduate school still have the opportunity to customize their education to best fit their needs, however. In fact, programs like those at Northeastern recognize that one of the most impactful offerings they can give their students is the chance to declare a concentration within their degree and tailor their studies in a way that aligns with their professional aspirations.

#3) Opportunities for Hands-On Learning

Northeastern University is known for its emphasis on experiential learning at all phases of a student’s educational journey, offering opportunities for real-world, hands-on learning through internships, work-study, co-ops, and more. There are also a variety of graduate-specific experiential learning opportunities for students, such as Northeastern’s Experiential Network (XN) initiative.

A Closer Look: Northeastern’s XN initiative offers students the opportunity to participate in six-week-long, virtual projects for active organizations within the university’s expansive network. These projects align with students’ academic work, allowing them to apply what they learn in the classroom to these real-world scenarios. Following the format of gig-economy work experiences, students spend 30-40 hours on each project and, in that time, practice making decisions and completing work that will have a genuine impact on these organizations’ success.

In general, graduate degrees tend to be research- or capstone-oriented in nature, meaning that, depending on a student’s area of study, they will be frequently honing their practical abilities alongside their theoretical skills. Graduate programs emphasize this type of learning in an effort to develop well-rounded professionals in each field. These hands-on learning opportunities also offer students unparalleled exposure to different facets of their industry—as well as different types of workplaces—which can then be used to help them make an educated employment decision after graduation.

#4) An Industry-Aligned Network

Students have a unique advantage when it comes to networking in grad school. Between the opportunities to make connections in the classroom, at university-hosted events, and even in the professional world through hands-on learning experiences, these students are in the ideal setting to build their network.

Connecting with Classmates

Your classmates in grad school will likely be equally as driven and passionate about the exact same area of study as you are. You will also have the opportunity to grow together throughout your time in the program, resulting in a slew of common experiences and relationships that will help to keep you connected with and looking out for one another throughout your career. Although they may start out as your classmates, these individuals have the potential to become powerful players in the professional industry post-graduation, as well.

Connecting with Professors

Smaller class sizes and a more collaborative learning environment allow students to develop more personal connections with their professors during grad school than in their undergraduate studies. These relationships can be some of the most important in regards to your career, as professors at top universities like Northeastern are industry leaders and have connections that can be used to make introductions or open doors to potential employment opportunities after graduation.

Connecting with Industry Professionals

Given the emphasis on hands-on learning in grad school, students have the chance to develop their professional networks in their region and with organizations that they may be able to work with post-graduation. Having these types of industry-aligned connections is vital in today’s competitive job market, especially since a connection that has worked with you first-hand in a professional environment can speak to your qualifications in a far more concrete and impactful way than those who are only able to speak to your abilities abstractly.

Students who take the time to develop their professional network while in graduate schoolwhether online or on-ground—have the potential to see the positive impact of those connections for the remainder of their professional career.

#5) Substantial Impact on Your Career 

Many students pursue graduate degrees to advance their careers. Whether that means getting a promotion, increasing their current salary, or even transitioning fields, these students are looking to make a positive change by showing employers the extent of their knowledge, network, and exposure to experiential learning.

While these goals are often achieved during the pursuit of a graduate degree, students’ careers can be impacted by graduate study in more ways than one. The overall career outlook for graduate degree holders, for instance, is incredibly positive compared to those with only a bachelor’s or associate degree.

For example, the current jobless rate for individuals with a master’s degree or higher is 12.5 percent lower than those who only hold a bachelor’s degree. Similarly, in regard to salary, those with a graduate degree earn 28 percent more than those with just an undergraduate degree on average. These individuals will also make over a million dollars more than those with just a high school diploma in their lifetime.

What’s more, graduates of advanced degree programs are some of the most in-demand within organizations today. When it comes to applying for a new role, 61 percent of employers are finding that the skills required for their open positions have evolved to require a higher education among applicants. By 2022, it is also expected that 18 percent of all jobs will require a graduate degree. Earning an advanced degree will help improve your skills and demonstrate your commitment to career development—two of the best ways to stand out in today’s competitive job market.

Explore Your Options at Northeastern

Ready to take the leap? Consider advancing your career with a graduate degree from Northeastern, a top-40 university. Evaluate the personal and professional benefits of a graduate degree, then explore Northeastern’s 200+ master’s, doctorate, and certificate programs to find the one that best aligns with your career goals.

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