College Degree Levels
There are four major categories of degrees available for postsecondary students. These college degrees in order of complexity are: associate, bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees. Earning one of these degrees can take 2-8 years, depending on the level of the degree and field of study. Graduate-level university degrees may require students to complete one or more undergraduate programs prior to enrollment. When comparing different degrees, students can consider which program best fits their career goals and academic interests. Keep in mind that all college degrees require completion of a high school diploma first.
|Degree Level||Average Completion Time (full-time)||Common Prerequisite|
|Associate degree||2 years||High school degree (diploma) or equivalent|
|Bachelor's degree||4 years||High school degree (diploma) or equivalent|
|Master's degree||1-2 years||Bachelor's degree|
|Doctoral degree||2+ years||Master's degree (sometimes bachelor degrees are acceptable)|
Types of Degrees
Of the four major types of college degrees, an associate's degree is generally the easiest to obtain. Associate-level programs offer different degrees for a variety of careers. These 2-year programs may provide the necessary training to prepare students for entry-level positions in fields like nursing, graphic design, and other vocational areas. Associate degree programs are most commonly available from community colleges and technical schools.
Completing an associate degree program may qualify graduates to enter the workforce. Transferable associate degree programs cover the general education requirements needed to continue a student's education at a 4-year university. The most common degrees available at the associate level include the following:
- Associate of Arts (AA)
- Associate of Science (AS)
- Associate of Applied Science (AAS)
What is a bachelor's degree? A bachelor's degree program is an undergraduate program that usually takes four years to complete. Enrolling in a bachelor's degree program requires that students choose a major area of study, such as finance, history, communications, or biology. Graduates from a bachelor's degree program are qualified to work in entry- or management-level positions, depending on the field.
A bachelor's degree is also usually required for admittance into a graduate program. The different types of degrees available in a bachelor's degree program include the following:
- Bachelor of Arts (BA) - teachers; writers, counselors, lawyers, researchers, curators
- Bachelor of Science (BSc) - chemists, physicists, biologists, mathematicians
- Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) - actors, dancers, artists, authors
- Bachelor of Applied Science (BAS) - engineers, software developers, project managers
- Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) - entrepreneurs, managers, business executives
- Bachelor of Architecture (BArch) - architects, interior designers, industrial designers, city planners
The next education level in the degree hierarchy is the master's degree. Master's degree programs are graduate programs that let students specialize in an area of study. They typically take 1-2 years to complete. Along with an undergraduate degree, enrolling in a master's degree program usually requires a minimum GPA and an acceptance score on a graduate entrance exam, such as the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). Many master's degree programs require a thesis or capstone project for graduation.
Earning a master's degree may qualify graduates to work in advanced or executive-level positions. A master's degree is also required for entrance into some doctoral programs. Different degree programs available at the master's degree level include the following:
- Master of Arts (MA) - academics; authors, therapists, professors, researchers
- Master of Science (MS) - data scientists, software engineers, mechanical engineers
- Master of Business Administration (MBA) - executives, CEOs, professors, business consultants
- Master of Fine Arts (MFA) - authors, poets, creative directors, professors
- Master of Laws (LLM) - judges; law firm partners, lawyers, politicians
- Master of Publishing (MPub) - graphic designers, typographers, publishers
The highest college degrees are doctoral degree programs, also known as PhD programs. Because they are the most advanced type of degree program available, admittance into a doctoral degree program may require individuals to hold a master's degree, although several programs accept candidates who only hold bachelor's degrees. Additional requirements to be accepted into these programs may include submitting standardized test scores and sending in letters of recommendation.
Completing a PhD program usually takes several years, and often involves the completion of a dissertation and a major research project. Medical-related doctoral programs may have students complete hands-on clinical hours with real patients during the final years of the program. When obtaining a doctoral degree, college choice can be extremely important as funding and requirements can vary significantly.
PhD graduates are qualified to work as experts in areas of business or research, and professors at the postsecondary level. Common types of doctoral degrees include those listed below:
- Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) - academics, professors, specialists in a field, writers, scientists
- Juris Doctor (JD) - lawyers; legal librarians, law firm partners, legal scholars
- Doctor of Medicine (MD) - doctors; surgeons, medical scientists, instructors
- Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) - dentists, dental surgeons, orthodontists
- Doctor of Education (EdD) - college presidents, high-level educational administrators, provosts
While there are many different college degrees, the four main degree levels include associate, bachelors, masters, and doctorate.
Online Degree Programs
Do you need more flexibility to get the degree you've been wanting to go after? More and more colleges are providing distance learning opportunities that allow students to manage their own schedule to better fit studying around other time commitments. Over 1,600 accredited public and private colleges offer online degree programs that grant students at all levels degrees in a wide variety of subjects.
Which Degree Should I Pursue?
Which degree you pursue is going to depend entirely on your level of interest, your chosen career, your academic and financial background, and the amount of time you wish to devote to your education. For many careers, getting anything more than a bachelor's degree is essentially overkill; for others, less than a master's will be insufficient. Look into the degree levels that employers in your field look for and consider what kinds of advancement you might see if you were to pursue a more advanced degree.
What If My Career Is Not Listed Here?
This article provides only a small representative sample of the careers associated with each degree. For all of these degrees, many different careers are possible. It is also possible to create an unusual or unconventional path for yourself with the degrees you have obtained or that you wish to obtain. Many people who get degrees in law, for instance, go on to develop alternative careers outside of or tangentially related to the legal field.
How Long Does a Doctorate Degree Take?
The table above lists doctoral degrees as taking 2+ years. This is accurate, particularly for doctoral degrees other than the PhD. However, getting a PhD generally takes at least five years, and the current average for PhD completion in the US may be as many as eight years. This is because a PhD requires completing a dissertation in addition to advanced courses, and this can take a long time.