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Everything you need to know about getting your graduate degree

Written by Jimmy Rustling

Education is on the rise across the world, with more and more people choosing to study for an undergraduate degree after they finish high school. This is perhaps not surprising, but one consequence of this is that the college degree is becoming devalued as increasing numbers of people gain them. As a result, a greater percentage of people are opting to continue their studies – or return to them after gaining work experience –to achieve a graduate qualification.

Competition for jobs can be fierce these days, and a graduate degree is one way of boosting your skills and standing out from the crowd. Some employers are even making these qualifications a necessary requirement for certain positions – a trend that only looks set to increase. However, despite this, it can still be difficult to know if the time, money, and effort that you need to put in to get through graduate school will ultimately be worth it in the end.

This article will give you a general overview of graduate education and its advantages to help you decide whether this path is the right one for you.

What is graduate education?

Graduate education is advanced training that goes beyond an undergraduate college degree. The two main types of a graduate degree are Master’s degrees and doctoral degrees, both of which will be explained in more detail below. They are generally taken by people who want to advance further in their career, or deepen their knowledge of their subject area. It’s estimated that around 13.1% of American adults now have an advanced degree, and that number is continuing to rise.

A graduate degree can be taken at any time, either immediately after completing an undergraduate course or many years later as a more mature student. There are options for both part-time and full-time study, with courses lasting anywhere between one and eight years, depending on the type of degree and the study method you choose. These days many graduate programs can also be taken online or via distance learning and traditional in-person classes on campus.

However, you choose to study; a graduate degree involves intensive work and specialized training. The specifics will vary depending on the type of program and the subject area you choose, but it usually combines some taught elements with a large amount of independent research. Often this all culminates in the production of a final thesis.

What is the difference between a Master’s degree and a doctoral degree?

A Master’s and a doctorate are both types of graduate degrees; however, they differ quite significantly from one another. This section will give you an idea of the main differences between them to help you decide which type of qualification is most appropriate for you.

A Master’s course tends to be more career-focused, whereas a doctoral program is more research-focused. The former also takes less time to complete, usually around one or two years, whereas achieving your doctorate usually takes between three and eight years.

Some of the various types of Master’s courses you can study are:

  • Master of Arts (MA)
  • Master of Science (MS or MSc)
  • Master of Fine Arts (MFA)
  • Master of Business Administration (MBA)
  • Master of Public Health (MPH)
  • Master of Research (MRes)
  • Master of Public Administration (MPA)
  • Master of Engineering (MEng)

The main difference between all of these is the subject studied – although there is some overlap – and the study method. Some are considered stepping stones towards a doctoral degree, whereas others are the highest level of study available in their field.

When undertaking a Master’s, you will generally complete a mixture of taught modules that can be assessed by either examination or coursework. Many programs also require you to conduct independent research and write a dissertation. The specifics will vary quite considerably, depending on your subject. You are usually required to have a Bachelor’s degree to enroll for a Master’s. Still, there may be exceptions if you have a considerable amount of work experience or relevant professional qualifications.

When it comes to doctoral programs, the most common type is the Doctor of Philosophy or Ph.D. This can be undertaken in pretty much any subject area. However, there are also more specialized doctoral courses for specific fields, such as the Doctor of Education, or EdD. A doctorate is much more focused on research, with little in the way of taught elements. You will generally be expected to conduct original research that contributes to academia, for which you will write and defend a thesis. Some doctoral programs require you to have a Master’s to enroll, but not all of them.

The right type of graduate degree for you will depend upon your goals. If you are looking to boost your employability and work-related skills, a Master’s is probably the most appropriate course. However, if you want a research career or to work in academia, a doctorate may well be more suitable. Other things to bear in mind are that a doctoral degree is longer and therefore often costs more; however, the pay-off is becoming a true expert in your field and achieving one of the highest qualifications available.

How do I choose my subject?

Deciding what subject to study at graduate level is a personal choice. You should think carefully about what you have an interest in and are genuinely passionate about because you will be studying it intensively for a long time – especially if you do a doctoral degree. However, it would be best if you also thought about what your future goals are. If you are hoping to boost your career prospects, you ought to find out which qualifications are most valued in your industry, and in which specific subjects. It’s also a good idea to bear in mind that those might change over time, so try and envisage what your field will look like by the time you’ve finished studying.

Another factor to remember is that each subject will differ by institution. Even if they have the same broad title, the specific modules and topics you cover will be unique to each university. You can also check the staff profiles to see their particular specialisms to ensure their interests line up with your own, as one of them may well supervise your final dissertation.

What are the benefits of a graduate education?

Whether it’s a Master’s or a Ph.D., there are a multitude of benefits to undertaking a graduate degree. Firstly they can greatly level up your skillset, whether that’s job-specific skills or more general transferable talents. This, in turn, can boost your employability, job security, and salary. A graduate program can also help you update and modernize your skills, network with other professionals, and learn from your industry experts.

Having a graduate education gives you a competitive advantage in your current workplace and can also help you transition to a new career. This is great if you find that your interests and passions have changed over the years, leading you in a different direction from the subject you initially majored in at college.

It’s not all about work, though. Studying for a graduate degree can allow you to deepen your knowledge of a topic that you love, meet interesting people, and contribute to the field by conducting research and writing publications. Plus, if you successfully complete a Ph.D., you get to call yourself Doctor at the end!

Can I complete a graduate-level study even if I have a job and a family?

Absolutely. These days it’s increasingly common for people to go back to university to complete graduate education after many years away from academia. Universities are well aware of this and offer plenty of support and flexibility to mature students. For example, many courses allow you to study part-time, meaning you can work alongside your studies and fit your coursework around your busy schedule. The added bonus of this is that you don’t have to worry about losing money while studying for your MA or MSc, and the cost of the course is spread out over a longer period.

If you need even more flexibility, the number of online and distance learning programs is increasing too. These enable you to study at the institution of your choice without having to move house or quit your job, and you can study at a time and pace that suits you. This is a very popular option, with many working professionals completing an online EdD or MBA, such as immediately putting their new knowledge and skills to good use in their current careers. You might even find that your company is willing to fund your studies.

If you are self-funding, be sure to check for available scholarships and the possibility of financial aid. However old you are and whatever your current life situation, there will be a graduate degree to suit you. So start researching possible programs and institutions today to find out more and get started on the next exciting stage of your academic journey!

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About the author

Jimmy Rustling

Born at an early age, Jimmy Rustling has found solace and comfort knowing that his humble actions have made this multiverse a better place for every man, woman and child ever known to exist. Dr. Jimmy Rustling has won many awards for excellence in writing including fourteen Peabody awards and a handful of Pulitzer Prizes. When Jimmies are not being Rustled the kind Dr. enjoys being an amazing husband to his beautiful, soulmate; Anastasia, a Russian mail order bride of almost 2 months. Dr. Rustling also spends 12-15 hours each day teaching their adopted 8-year-old Syrian refugee daughter how to read and write.