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Graduate Degree Explained

Considering a graduate degree? Explore its definition, types, and the potential it holds for personal and professional growth.

Graduate Degree - Guide

For as long as we can remember, education has been essential for success, and a graduate degree can boost career prospects.

Recent data shows that people who have completed graduate degrees earn an average of 21% more than those who only have a bachelor’s degree. 

Workers with graduate degrees (master’s, professional, and doctoral degrees) not only had higher earnings, they also had lower unemployment rates

These statistics alone highlight the tangible benefits of pursuing advanced studies. But beyond the numbers, a graduate degree offers a deeper understanding of one’s chosen field, opening doors to opportunities and networks previously out of reach. 

Let’s break it down.

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What is a Graduate Degree?

A graduate degree is an advanced academic credential granted to individuals who have successfully completed a specialized study and research beyond the undergraduate level. This degree signifies mastery or a high-order overview of a specific field of study or area of professional practice.

The Difference between Undergraduate and Graduate Degrees

At its core, the difference between undergraduate and graduate degrees lies in the depth of study and the level of specialization.

Undergraduate Degree

This is often a student's first step into higher education. It provides a broad overview of a subject, laying the foundation for further studies. Typically, it culminates in a bachelor's degree, such as a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) or Bachelor of Science (B.S.).

Graduate Degree

This is a step up in academic rigor. It focuses on specialized knowledge, research, and professional skills. Graduate degrees can be research-oriented or professionally oriented, depending on the field and the specific program.

Types of Graduate Degrees

After understanding the essence of a graduate degree and how it stands apart from undergraduate studies, it’s crucial to delve into the specific types of graduate degrees available. 

These degrees, each with its unique focus and requirements, offer a pathway to deepen your expertise and open doors to specialized career opportunities. There are essentially two types of graduate degrees:

Master's Degrees

These are typically the first level of graduate study. Depending on the program and country, they can range from one to three years.

M.A. (Master of Arts)

Often awarded in the humanities, arts, and social sciences.

M.S. (Master of Science)

Typically awarded in natural sciences, engineering, and some areas of social sciences.

MBA (Master of Business Administration)

A professional degree focusing on business management and leadership.

Doctoral Degrees

These represent the pinnacle of academic achievement and are heavily research-focused.

On average, it takes between 3 and 7 years to finish a doctoral degree. But, some programs may last longer with extensive research or dissertation requirements.

Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy)

Awarded in many fields, it's a research-intensive degree requiring a dissertation.

M.D. (Doctor of Medicine)

For those pursuing a career in medicine.

J.D. (Juris Doctor)

For aspiring lawyers focusing on law studies.

How Much Does a Graduate Degree Cost?

Investing in your education is a significant decision, both academically and financially.

The cost of a Master’s degree can vary between $30,000 and $120,000 depending on factors such as school, major, and program length. That said, a Master’s degree, on average, costs $62,650.

Application and Admission Process for Graduate Degrees

Pursuing a graduate degree is exciting, but it also comes with its set of challenges, especially when navigating the application and admission process. 

Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you through:

1. Research and Selection

Begin by researching institutions and programs that align with your career goals. Consider factors like faculty, curriculum, location, and alumni network.

2. Prepare Necessary Documents

This typically includes transcripts, letters of recommendation, a statement of purpose, and sometimes, samples of previous work or research.

3. Standardized Tests

Depending on the program, you might need to take tests like the GRE, GMAT, LSAT, or MCAT.

4. Submit Your Application

Ensure you meet all deadlines and provide all required documents. Some institutions might have an application fee.

5. Interview

Some programs may require an interview as part of the selection process.

6. Await a Response

After submitting, there’s a waiting period. This can range from a few weeks to several months.

7. Post-Acceptance

Once accepted, you’ll likely need to submit a deposit to secure your spot. This is also the time to explore housing options, finalize financial aid, and prepare for your new academic journey.

Is Graduate School Right for You?

Pursuing a graduate degree is a monumental decision that can shape your life and career trajectory. It’s not just about the academic rigor but also about the time, effort, and financial commitment. 

Before diving in, it’s essential to introspect and ask yourself some reflective questions:

1. What are my long-term career goals?

Does a graduate degree align with where I see myself in the next 5-10 years?

2. Am I passionate about deepening my knowledge in this field?

Graduate studies require dedication and a genuine interest in the subject.

3. Can I commit the necessary time and effort?

Beyond classes, there’s research, projects, and possibly teaching or internships.

4. How will I finance my education?

Consider the return on investment and potential financial aid or scholarships.

5. Am I ready for academic rigor?

Graduate programs can be intense and demand a high level of discipline and commitment.


Benefits of Earning a Graduate Degree

While the decision to attend graduate school is deeply personal, there are undeniable benefits that come with earning an advanced degree:

Career Advancement

Many top-tier positions, especially in academia, research, and specialized professions, require or prefer candidates with graduate degrees. It can also lead to faster promotions or leadership roles.

Deepening Knowledge

Graduate school offers an unparalleled opportunity to delve deep into a subject, allowing for specialization and mastery that's often not achievable with just an undergraduate degree.

Financial Benefits

On average, individuals with graduate degrees earn more than those with only an undergraduate degree. This can translate to a significant increase in lifetime earnings.

Networking Opportunities

Graduate programs often provide access to a vast network of professionals, researchers, and alumni, opening doors to collaborations, job opportunities, and more.

Personal Growth

Beyond the tangible benefits, there's immense personal satisfaction in conquering challenges, expanding one's horizons, and achieving a higher level of education.

Frequently Asked Questions

Yes, many students choose to work while studying. Some programs even offer part-time options to accommodate working professionals.

Additionally, many institutions provide graduate assistantships, where students can work on campus, often in roles related to their field of study, in exchange for a stipend or tuition waiver.

A thesis master’s program requires you to conduct original research on a specific topic, culminating in a written thesis that you must defend. This option is ideal if you are considering further research or a Ph.D.

On the other hand, a non-thesis program might involve additional coursework, projects, or exams and is often preferred by those looking to enter the workforce immediately after graduation.

While not always mandatory, having research experience can be a significant advantage, especially for research-intensive programs or those leading to a Ph.D. It demonstrates your commitment and familiarity with the research process and can provide valuable connections through faculty mentors.

The importance of standardized test scores, like the GRE or GMAT, varies by program and institution. While some programs weigh them heavily, others might consider them as just one component of a holistic review process.

In recent years, many programs have also become test-optional, emphasizing other aspects of the application, such as experience, essays, or recommendations.

Both graduate certificates and master’s degrees are post-baccalaureate programs, but they serve different purposes and vary in depth and duration:

  • Graduate Certificate: This is a short-term program, often taking less than a year to complete. It’s designed to provide specialized knowledge or skills in a specific area. This can be a way for professionals to update or expand their expertise without committing to a full degree program.
  • Master’s Degree: This program is more in-depth, typically lasting one to three years. It offers a comprehensive study of a particular field, often culminating in a thesis, project, or comprehensive exam. A master’s degree is ideal for those seeking deep expertise or considering further academic pursuits.

The terms “graduate” and “postgraduate” can sometimes be used interchangeably, but they can also have distinct meanings based on the context and region:

  • Graduate Degrees: In many contexts, especially in the U.S., “graduate” refers to programs pursued after an undergraduate degree, like master’s and doctoral programs.
  • Postgraduate Programs for Professionals: In some regions, “postgraduate” might refer to specialized training or programs that professionals, like lawyers or doctors, undertake after their basic professional degrees. For instance, after obtaining a Juris Doctor (J.D.), a lawyer might pursue postgraduate studies in a specialized area of law. Similarly, after earning an M.D., a doctor might enter a postgraduate residency or fellowship to specialize in a particular medical field.


Graduate education is more than just an academic endeavor—it’s a transformative experience that shapes minds, careers, and futures. 

As Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

With a graduate degree in hand, you’re not just changing your world—you’re equipped to make a mark on the world at large.

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The College Compass is reader-supported and committed to maintaining complete editorial independence. All views expressed are solely ours and are not influenced by any external party. We may include affiliate links in the article, which helps us earn a small commission to support our work. We always have a link to the source for any data or information we include. Learn more about our editorial practices.

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