A graduate school is an institution that offers advanced education and post baccalaureate degrees in specific academic disciplines or professional areas.
Broadly speaking, graduate degrees fall under two umbrella categories: master’s degrees and doctoral degrees. Eligibility requirements, length of commitment, and number of required credits for completion may vary according to institution, discipline, and degree level.Back to Top
Generally, the minimum threshold for enrollment in grad school is the completion of a bachelor’s degree, or a comparable undergraduate degree from an accredited college or university.Back to Top
Traditional graduate school programs are academic in nature, with a focus on producing original research in a particular discipline. There are also numerous “professional” graduate school options, which are centered on developing applicable skills and knowledge for a specific profession. Many graduate degree programs provide a combination of both academic and professional education.Back to Top
As a graduate school student, you will typically take a number of core courses in your area of concentration while also pursuing an independent study with the support of an advisor or mentor. In most cases, you will parlay this research undertaking into a final capstone project, thesis project, or dissertation. Many graduate students also work as teaching assistants, graders, or research assistants, gaining real-world experience while advancing toward a graduate degree.Back to Top
The primary difference between an undergraduate degree and a graduate degree is that the former will emphasize traditional classroom and lecture hall instruction while the latter will incorporate a major emphasis on independent research. Another major difference is that your undergraduate degree will usually be composed of a major in a specific area of study alongside a well-rounded education in the sciences and humanities, whereas your graduate degree will be almost entirely focused on your area of focus.Back to Top
While the doctorate and the master’s degree are both “graduate” degrees, they signify different types and levels of mastery. The most immediate difference, from an academic standpoint, is that master’s degrees tend to be “professional degrees,” focused on developing and honing practical skills in a specific area whereas doctoral degrees tend to be research driven, emphasizing research and instructional skills. That said, the implications of a master’s or doctoral degree can vary widely from one field to the next. In some disciplines, the master’s degree is a terminal degree (i.e. the highest degree you can earn) as with the Master of Business Administration (MBA), the Master of Fine Arts (MFA), and the Master of Social Work (MSW). Each of these would qualify you to apply your skills as a leader in your profession. In other fields, like education, history, or philosophy, a doctoral is the terminal degree, and is required to work as a tenured professor or researcher.Back to Top
Depending on your intended profession, the master’s degree may be a terminal degree, or a stepping stone to a doctoral degree. In most cases, your master’s degree program will range from 30 to 45 credit hours. The average full-time student can earn a master’s degree in 1.5 to 2 years. You will likely also be required to develop a thesis, conduct original research, and defend your findings. Typically, you will work closely with an advising professor or mentor throughout this process.Back to Top
There are two overarching master’s degree types: The Master of Arts (MA)—which will usually combine a core focus in the selected science with an array of humanities and social sciences; and the Master of Science (MS)—which typically allows you to focus the bulk of your coursework and research time on a specific field of science like engineering, mathematics, or medicine. There are also numerous specialized master’s degrees for specific fields and professions. Prominent examples include the Master of Public Administration (MPA), Master of Social Work (MSW), Master of Education (MEd), and Master of Engineering (MEng). In these instances, you will typically be required to earn a master’s degree before you can sit for a licensing exam or earn certification for hiring in your state.
For a more comprehensive look at the advanced degree landscape, check out our overview of graduate schools in the U.S.. If you are ready to pursue your master’s degree online, read on...Back to Top
In some cases, a master’s degree may be a basic requirement for practice in your field. For instance, a wide range of healthcare, mental health, and wellness professionals must earn a master’s degree to practice in clinical settings including marriage counselors, occupational therapists, epidemiologists, genetic counselors, and more. Likewise, many professionals working in education must earn a master’s degree including librarians, administrators, museum curators, and, in many public school districts, tenured teachers. A wide range of other fields, such as social work, public accounting, and engineering, make the master’s degree a basic threshold for professional licensing.Back to Top
Graduate school can be costly but there are numerous options available to those seeking ways to offset the cost. In addition to pursuing financial aid and scholarship opportunities, you may be able to qualify for earning opportunities within your program. For instance, some schools may provide stipends to select students to help offset general living costs while in pursuit of a degree. Find out more from the financial aid department at your graduate school. Other options may include paid teaching opportunities and paid internships, which you might be able to secure through your program’s department or with the assistance of an academic advisor.Back to Top
There may be a robust wage premium for those with master’s degrees in certain specialized areas. For instance, a bachelor’s degree can qualify you to work as a registered nurse, which offered a median pay of $75,330 in 2020. By contrast, a master’s degree in nursing can qualify you to work as a nurse practitioner, which offered a median pay of $111,680 in the same year. This demonstrates the potential ROI on a master’s degree which qualifies you to lead in your field. Another notable example is the highly popular Master of Business Administration (MBA) which, by opening a wider pathway to executive leadership opportunities, can ultimately lead to far greater earning potential than an undergraduate degree in the same area.Back to Top
Master’s degrees are often designed for students with one foot in their education and the other in their profession. But this requires a tremendous balancing act. Online graduate degrees offer convenience, flexibility, and accessibility for working professionals. that is why so many excellent, fully-accredited graduate schools offer online advanced degrees in a large and growing cross-section of disciplines. Read on for a sampling of the best online master’s degree programs popular areas of study:
For a comprehensive look at the Best Online Master’s Degree Programs by state or discipline, check out The 50 Best Graduate Schools of 2022.Back to Top
The Master of Business Administration (MBA) is among the most popular and versatile graduate degrees, especially for working professionals. You can earn your MBA in a wide range of concentrations, most of which are available online.
Fully accredited online doctoral degree programs are available in some areas of specialization. In many cases, you may be required to fulfill certain in-person components such as a practicum, field work, or residency. However, a number of programs offer fully online access to class discussions, lecture periods, and office hours. The following are the best online doctorate degrees in a growing array of specializations.Back to Top
Whether you are attending graduate school online or in person, expect to be challenged. Graduate school is designed to prepare you for top research and leadership opportunities in your field and is therefore quite rigorous. From the selection and admission processes to your coursework and thesis project, earning your advanced degree will require focus, hard work, and a genuine passion for your area of study. In addition to these virtues, we strongly recommend checking out out our grad school resources. We have insights and tips to help you every step of the way.
If you are still trying to decide whether or not a master’s degree is right for you, find out more about the advanced degrees specific to your discipline. We take a closer look at the eligibility requirements, credit hours, course content, career prospects, and salary expectations associated with a graduate degree in most major academic disciplines.
If you have decided to make the leap into a specialized graduate degree program, you should be prepared for a fierce level of admissions competition. Top graduate schools in areas like business, law, and medicine attract elite students from all over the world. Finding an admissions consultant with a focus on your discipline could help you gain an edge on the competition.
And to jump right to our comprehensive look at the Best Online Master’s Degree Programs by state or discipline, check out The 50 Best Graduate Schools of 2022.