As you get closer to finishing your undergraduate program, you might find that your fellow students start talking about graduate school more often. They will start telling you about potential Master’s or PhD programs they are interested in applying to.

You might be asked, “Do you think you will pursue a graduate degree?”

So, what is graduate school and why is it so potentially important to your career opportunities?

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What is Graduate School?

The term “graduate school” does not refer to a specific school but instead to certain kinds of academic programs. The purpose of a graduate degree program is to provide students with advanced training in a certain academic discipline—beyond what they learned in their bachelor’s degree.

These programs focus on helping advancing your academic knowledge on a very specific subject. Often, such programs will include opportunities for contributing to original research projects and even completing your own research.

If you are planning to apply to graduate school, then you might find our article getting a good recommendation letter for graduate school interesting. The article is a roundup of advice from 38 experienced deans, professors, and program directors for how to get a fantastic letter of recommendation.

What is a Graduate Degree?

A graduate degree is an advanced degree such as a master’s degree, a doctoral degree, or professional degree. Typically, a student will need to complete an undergraduate program before being eligible for a graduate degree program.

Do you know the difference between a doctorate, doctoral degree, or PhD?.

We will demystify all these terms in this article. (Hint: they all refer to the same thing).

You are also going to learn the difference between professional and graduate school, the five benefits of going to a graduate school, and where to get funding for your education.

Understanding the Different Graduate Degrees Available

Many Different Graduate Degrees Are Available

There are three main types of graduate degrees offered by graduate schools.

They include:

  1. Master of Science (MS)
  2. Master of Arts (MA)
  3. Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

You can subdivide these types of graduate degrees into industry specific degrees (i.e. a Master of Business Administration (MBA), Master of Divinity, Master of Engineering, etc.), but these three categories generally suffice.

There are a ton of specific graduate programs (check out Wikipedia’s list of more than 100 different Master’s degrees), but right now we are just discussing the broad categories of graduate degrees.

A Master of Science or Master of Arts degree will provide you with additional schooling in your chosen academic field beyond what you learned during your bachelor’s degree.

The Doctor of Philosophy is considered to be the most advanced degree in a given academic discipline.


If you are applying to graduate school, then you will probably be required to take a standardized test such as the GRE, GMAT, LSAT, MCAT, etc.

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Types of Master’s Programs

Depending on the discipline you have chosen, your master’s degree could consist of:

  • Coursework only
  • Special full-term project and coursework
  • Coursework, writing, and presenting an academic thesis

Graduate programs that have been designed to place you into the workforce will normally lean towards the first two options. If you notice that your specific grad degree only consists of coursework, then you should be prepared to deal with a heavier course load as compared to your peers undertaking other programs.

The following is a detailed look at the different types of graduate degree programs.

What is a Master of Arts Degree?

What is a Master of Arts degree

The Master of Arts (MA) degree is a graduate program that deals with social science and humanities disciplines such as history, communications, anthropology, language, etc.

Master of Arts degree could also be considered the step between getting a bachelor’s degree and getting a full PhD (you might incidentally earn a Master’s degree while pursuing a PhD).

A Master of Arts program can also be extremely focused.
Have you thought about getting a Masters of Arts in the History of the Book, which is very specifically about the history of making and distributing books?

Depending on the program and discipline, a typical MA degree will last for between one and two years for a full-time student. Select disciplines or fields may also offer a three-year MA degree.

What is a Master of Science Degree?

The Master of Science (MS) degree is the graduate degree for students interested in pursuing quantitative and scientific disciplines.

As is the case with the Masters of Arts, the Masters of Science can be very general regarding its focus disciplines, e.g., Master of Science in Computer Science or Master of Science in Biology. It can also be highly-specialized, e.g., Master of Science in Agricultural Economics or Master of Science in Predictive Analysis.

Also, just like in a Master of Arts program, some MS programs are intended for students that already completed a bachelor’s degree program in the same discipline. There are also MS programs that have been tailored for students that would like to get some exposure in a certain field that may be new to them.

Some Master of Science programs will focus primarily on instruction while some will include a thesis or project requirement, so the student will spend substantial time on his or her own research.

A Master of Science program also typically lasts between one and two years for full-time students. Some select programs or fields will, however, take up to three years.

What is a Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD)?

What is a Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD)

A PhD is the most advanced degree that can be bestowed upon any student, regardless of the discipline they are pursuing. It can also be referred to as a doctoral degree or a doctorate.

Because a PhD is the most advanced degree in graduate school, it is considered a terminal degree.

A doctoral degree is meant to prepare students to engage in academic work (teaching and research) in a specific discipline and is typically a qualifier for holding a professor position at research institutions and universities.

PhD programs typically expect students to have pre-existing academic training in a related field or discipline. This academic training is typically a completed Master’s degree, but some PhD programs are designed for students with a Bachelor’s degree only.
Typically students with a Masters degree in a certain discipline will have a headstart in completing a PhD program much more quickly, as they will have already completed some of the prerequisite coursework.

Having previous research experience is a huge advantage in getting into a PhD program as well. If your Master’s program allowed you to participate in and publish research, that publishing history will be very helpful for being accepted into a PhD program and for succeeding in the program.

A typical PhD program will first require the student to complete some preliminary coursework, which is then followed by an oral or written exam in that field. Once this part is complete, you will be able to start working on research and your PhD dissertation.

Usually a PhD student will also work as a research assistant to a professor or a teacher’s assistant, which will provide some income in the form of a stipend.

How Many Years Does It Take to Complete a Doctorate Program?

A Doctor of Philosophy degree can take anywhere from 5 to 13 years. Most students spend closer to 8 years finishing a PhD program. In 2007, the average student completed a PhD in 8.2 years.

What is a Professional Degree?

What is a Professional Degree

You have probably noticed that we haven’t discussed many of the popular graduate degree programs such as the Doctorate of Medicine (MD), the Juris Doctor (JD), Master’s of Divinity (M.Div) among many others. These programs fall under the umbrella of professional degrees.

Here’s a list of some of the more popular professional degrees:

  • Chiropractic (D.C., D.C.M.)
  • Dentistry (D.D.S., D.M.D.)
  • Law (LL.B., J.D.)
  • Medicine (M.B., M.D.)
  • Optometry (O.D.)
  • Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.)
  • Pharmacy (Pharm.D.)
  • Podiatry (D.P.M., D.P., Pod.D.)
  • Theology (M.Div, S.T.B., B.D.)
  • Veterinary Medicine (D.V.M., V.M.D.)

So, what is the major difference between a professional degree and typical Master’s or Doctoral degree?

A professional degree is required to work in a certain professional. This requirement could be through license requirements (this applies to doctors, lawyers, etc). It could also be an organizational requirement, such as for many religious organizations.

A typical Master’s or PhD will advance your knowledge in a certain area and certify this knowledge with the reputation of the University, but it may not be required for the professional position. You may get paid more in that position if you have a graduate degree, but you could attain the same position with a Bachelor’s degree.

There is not always a clear line between a professional degree program and other graduate degree programs. Some institutions refer to all (or some) of their more advanced degree programs as graduate degrees without providing a distinction between professional and graduate schools. Getting a professional degrees can lead into a career in academia, such as when a professional lawyer or engineer becomes a teaching professor.

Gray areas aside, the primary distinction between a professional and academic graduate degree is whether the program focuses on building professional skills or academic skills.


If you are applying to graduate school, then you will probably be required to take a standardized test such as the GRE, GMAT, LSAT, MCAT, etc.

Magoosh has some of the best and most affordable online test prep programs on the market (they are also offer 7 day free trials of their programs), so you might want to check them out.

What Is Graduate School and How Is It Different from Undergraduate?

Whether you have been working in a certain industry for years or have just completed your bachelor’s degree, enrolling in a graduate school program is bound to cause academic culture shock.

Graduate school typically requires a much larger commitment of your time, energy, and money compared to an undergraduate program.

If you are currently enrolled in an undergraduate program and you are planning to continue on to a graduate program afterwards, then check out our article with tips for preparing for graduate school as an undergraduate student.

There are several major differences between undergraduate and graduate programs.

Graduate School Has More Difficult Entry Requirements Compared to Undergraduate

Graduate School Has More Difficult Entry Requirements Compared to Undergraduate

Most graduate school programs require specific standardized tests such as the GRE, the GMAT, the LSAT, the MCAT, etc. These tests are much more difficult than the SAT or ACT tests required by undergraduate schools.

Usually preparing for these standardized tests will take more of your time and effort compared to the undergraduate standardized tests.

If you are preparing for one of these tests, then you might want to check out the 7 day free trial offered by Magoosh test prep.

Grad schools also tend to dig deeper than extracurricular activities listed on your application and your GPA, placing a lot of emphasis on application interviews, professional experience, and recommendation letters.

Grad school admissions officers are not just trying to confirm that you are a smart, capable student, but that you are good at collaborating on teams, meeting hard deadlines, and handling heavy workloads.

Grad School Is More Focused and Specialized Compared to Undergrad

Your application for grad school will require you to choose a specific grad school program with a narrow field of study. From the very beginning of the program you will be focusing on a smaller set of specialized courses and research.

The end goal of most graduate programs is to make you an expert in a small field, so the programs don’t include much fluff material. There are no “underwater basket weaving” courses in grad school (unless the program is a Master’s of Baskets and Boxes or something like that).

What is Grad School Like in the Classroom?

What is Grad School Like in the Classroom

Unlike undergraduate programs, there are no 200+ student courses taught in large lecture halls during graduate school. Instead of listening anonymously to a lecture, you will be required to participate in discussions with your professor and your fellow students.

Many grad school courses have 20 students or fewer in attendance, so the atmosphere is very different compared to the large classroom format of many undergrad courses.

Why Go to Grad School?

Now that we have answered the question “What is Graduate School?”, let’s look at why you might want to pursue a graduate degree.

Is graduate school a good idea for you? What are the benefits of grad school?

The video below was put together by Idealist.

You Want to Make More Money


A graduate degree will typically boost your potential career earnings. Many upper level management positions as well as specialized positions require some sort of graduate degree as a prerequisite. Typically these positions will come with better salary and benefits compared to what you might get with an undergrad degree.

Even though most grad degrees provide some sort of pay bump, you should research your specific field to see if a grad degree would have this effect.

You Need a Graduate Degree to Work as a University Professor

A good motivation to attend grad school, apart from earning your PhD will be to prepare yourself to work in a university or other institution of higher learning. For those that harbor a desire to become a professor teaching at a university, they need to get a PhD. For researcher or lecturer positions at community or small colleges, Master’s degree might suffice.

If you are hoping to pursue a career teaching at a university, then graduate school is an important step along that path.

You Want to Increase Your Credibility and Authority

You Want to Increase Your Credibility and Authority

Credentials are vital to your credibility, especially in technical fields. If you want to be considered an expert in a subject, then having a graduate degree in that area is a huge boost.

Most top earning consultants have an MBA of some kind because it makes the client feel more comfortable hiring their services. If you want to be a writer in a certain topic, then the first question you will be asked is “who are you and why should I listen to you?

The couple of letters on your resume showing that you completed a graduate degree are a big building block for your answer to this question.

You Want to Pivot into a New Career Path

One common use of a Master’s program is to make the jump from one career into another.

If you studied Communications in undergrad and have been working in sales for a few years, but you want to move into the management track, then getting an MBA can help make that leap for you.

You can also completely change fields with a graduate degree. Going back to school for a law degree instead would allow you to become a lawyer and move out of sales entirely.

How Can You Fund Graduate School?

How Can You Fund Graduate School

Finding funding for your graduate school studies can be quite difficult. Often, you will find that funding, which is in the form of scholarships, fellowships, and grants tend to be highly competitive.

There are many funding strategies for grad school (for example – here are several approaches to paying for a PhD), depending on your opportunities.

Apply for Scholarships

There are tons of scholarships available for graduate students, but not as many as undergraduate. The competition for these scholarships is also more fierce because of their scarcity and the ambition of typical graduate students compared to undergraduate students.

Work as a Teaching or Research Assistant

Many graduate programs will allow you to apply for teaching or research assistant positions, which come with a stipend, tuition reduction, or other benefits.

Essentially these positions are entry level academic positions, so there will be a lot of work compared to the cash reward but experience listed on your CV can be very helpful.

Would Your Boss Pay for Your Graduate Degree?

Some companies will offer you the benefit of paying for part your graduate school tuition and expenses. This benefit is more common with larger corporations, but you might be able to work something out with your management even at a smaller company.

Most likely you will be restricted on the type of graduate school program you can apply to get tuition reimbursement from your company. They are not likely to be interested in helping you pivot into a different field, so the program will need to tie into your future career with the company.

Call Up Your Bank and Ask for Some Money

A lot of graduate school tuition is paid for with student loans. Graduate school does a lot to contribute to the student loan crisis, so do your research before deciding to go this route.


Graduate school might be a good opportunity for you, but it’s not for everyone. Graduate programs require a huge investment of your time, energy, and money.

You should make sure you understand what you are getting into before you apply to graduate school.

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