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Graduate Education System

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.

Graduate school—often shortened to “grad school”—is a school that awards advanced academic degrees to students who have previously earned an undergraduate degree. A distinction is generally made between graduate schools and professional schools, which offer specialized advanced degrees in professional fields such as medicine, nursing, business, engineering, or law.

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.

Earning a Master’s Degree

A master’s degree:

  • Provides education and training in a specialized branch or field.
  • May be either academic or professional.
  • Most programs offer a thesis and non-thesis option.
  • Generally requires one to three years of additional study beyond a bachelor’s degree.

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.). 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 degree.

A Doctoral Program

A doctoral degree:

  • Is designed to prepare students for college faculty and research scholar positions, as well as for other careers that require advanced knowledge and research skills.
  • May be academic (such as a doctor of philosophy, or PhD), professional (such as a doctor of education, or EdD), or doctor of business administration (DBA).
  • Requires candidates to pass a comprehensive examination and complete a piece of original research leading to a dissertation.
  • Usually required five to eight years of study beyond a bachelor’s degree.
  • Some programs might require applicants to have completed a master’s degree.

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 degree.

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.

A Professional Degree

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.

For more information about the study of law, please see our dedicated help section for legal education in the USA.

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.

Other popular graduate degrees include the master’s of business administration (M.B.A.), fine arts (M.F.A.), social work (M.S.W.) and specialist in education (Ed. S).

Find out about studying medicine in the US.

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