Updated on Friday 1 March 2013
Some students choose to continue their learning beyond the four years of study as an undergraduate by going on to receive a graduate education. This specialized advanced study can result in either a master’s degree or a doctoral degree.
Because of the size and variety of higher educational institutions in the United States, it can be difficult to
determine which school will offer a program that is
best suited to your goals and interests.
For graduate students, the research or study facilities available are critical, as independent research is often a
crucial component to the graduate school education. Potential graduate students will also want to look at the
publication records of the faculty in a chosen department.
These factors are probably your best measures of quality. for a particular school and/or program, although you should remember that even a “good” department might not have a top professor on the specialization for which you are looking to study.
Each year, over 500,000 students earn a master’s degree, making the master’s the most frequently awarded graduate degree. There is a variety of types of master’s offered in the U.S., but the two most basic are the Master's of Arts (M.A.) and Master's of Science (M.S.). Other popular graduate degrees include the master’s of business administration (M.B.A.), fine arts (M.F.A.), law (L.L.M.), social work (M.S.W.) and specialist in education (Ed. S). Students typically spend between two and three years studying to earn a master’s degree, though it is possible to earn some degrees in just one year. In general, master’s degrees require that you complete six to eight advanced courses, in addition to an intensive study project and/or a thesis (a long paper based on independent scholarly research). Some graduate programs offer internships, which provide a chance to work in your specific field of study with the sole purpose of gaining knowledge and experience.
Graduate education is different from the undergraduate level of study, in that all of your coursework is relevant to
the academic area on which you have chosen to focus. You will probably be required to take certain courses, but you
may also have the chance to take more electives than you did as an undergraduate. The coursework tends to be more
challenging, but you are only studying material that is directly related to your chosen field, so many students find
it more interesting. Graduate students also tend to find that invaluable networking opportunities with their graduate
student peers and professors are a result of their study experience.
Only 3% of Americans earn a master’s degree, so you may well find that a graduate education is a benefit if you
choose to stay in the U.S. when you enter
into a profession. A personal sense of accomplishment and achievement often accompany the earning of a master’s
The doctoral degree, or Ph.D., is the highest academic credential that a student can earn in the U.S., making it
arguably the most prestigious. In 2005, U.S. institutions awarded more than 45,000 doctorates. On average, a student
may spend four to six years earning his or her doctorate following receipt of the master’s
Doctoral coursework typically consists of three to four semesters of full-time advanced classes, usually done in
small seminars. Students must then pass written and/or oral exams before beginning a period (usually at least a year)
of intense independent research on a highly specialized topic relevant to their studies. This original research will
ultimately result in the student spending a year or more writing a book-length thesis, or dissertation. Once the work
is complete, students earn a Ph.D. only after defending the thesis to a committee of three or five professors in the
program who have helped to guide their research efforts throughout the student’s years of study.
Many Ph.D. students find that one of the benefits to this course of study is the mentoring that they receive from their professors and other faculty in their academic department. Because so much research and guidance is needed in doctoral work, particularly when preparing the dissertation, many students find that they form close relationships with people who share their interest in a specialized area of study.
Some colleges and universities offer programs that allow international students to study for a very specialized
degree at a higher level of education. For example, foreign attorneys and other international students can choose to
study for the LL.M., which offers advanced legal study at a U.S. university’s law school. While most law students in
the United States spend an average of three years studying to become a lawyer, foreign attorneys can earn an LL.M.
degree in a shorter period of time, often in one year. LL.M. programs provide international students with a chance
to explore American legal issues and legal research methods in classes with American law students, as well as
sharpen their English language and academic skills.
LL.M. programs can have a competitive admissions process, accepting only international students with a strong legal and academic background, as well as strong English language and writing skills. The main benefit, however, is the invaluable learning experience of American law through this intensive and often challenging program.
For more information about the study of law, please see our dedicated help section for legal education in th USA.