Here are the types of academic degrees you might encounter in U.S. higher education, and what each one means:
Certificate – Recognition for completing a non-degree program. Some colleges or universities also allow you to pursue a certificate while studying for a degree in another field.
Associate’s – The degree given by a community or junior college for completing two years of full-time undergraduate study (or the equivalent). An associate’s degree can be tied to a specific career/technical skill, or it can be a transfer degree, counting towards the completion of a bachelor’s degree at another institution.
Bachelor’s – The degree awarded by a college or university for completing four years of undergraduate study (or the equivalent). The most common types of bachelor’s degrees are the bachelor of arts (B.A. or A.B.) and bachelor of science (B.S.), but you could see any number of other specialized bachelor’s degrees.
Master’s – The degree awarded by a graduate school for completing postgraduate study (postgraduate = after the bachelor’s degree). Most master’s degrees take one or two years of full-time study to complete. Like bachelor’s degrees, there are many specialized types of master’s degrees, but the most common are the master of arts (M.A.), master of science (M.S.) and master of business administration (M.B.A.).
Professional Degree – Some careers require a specialized professional degree in order to practice in that field. Examples are the doctor of medicine (M.D.), required for medical doctors, and the juris doctor (J.D.), required for lawyers. Most (but not all) professional degrees are postgraduate degrees requiring you to get a bachelor’s first.
Doctorate (Ph.D.) – The highest academic degree awarded by a university. A Ph.D. usually requires at least 3 years of graduate study beyond the last degree received, and completion of oral/written exams and a dissertation of original research. We’ve actually covered the Ph.D. before in the Glossary, in the context of explaining the difference between a Ph.D. doctor and a medical doctor (short answer: you call them both doctors, but they’re two totally different things).
Have you come across a word related to education in the U.S. that you want to see defined in our Glossary of Confusing Words? Let us know in the comments or by using the form below.