Exploring Types of Degrees & Academic Credentials

Choosing between degree typesOne of the most important parts of figuring out the best educational path for you is picking which academic credentials to pursue.

First, you need to understand the basics of the types of degrees available to you. What's the difference between a bachelor's and an associate degree, or between a master's and doctorate? And what's a certificate or diploma good for? Read on to learn what each education level entails, and what it can mean for your future.


Undergraduate Education


Most people consider only associate and bachelor's degrees to be part of undergraduate studies. But it can make sense to include certificates and diplomas under this heading since many post-secondary students find it useful to have an introduction to a particular field of study by way of one of these programs before investing in higher degrees.


Certificates and Diplomas

In the world of higher learning, the terms "certificate" and "diploma" are essentially interchangeable. One school's certificate in auto mechanics is another school's diploma for the same. There is no generally accepted standard that distinguishes between them.

Certificates and diplomas represent the least expensive post-secondary credentials and the shortest, most narrow courses of study. Program lengths vary significantly—from just a few weeks to a year and a half. They tend to focus more on very specific practical skills and knowledge versus broad theoretical concepts. They are designed to give you entry-level, ready-to-use skills for a single occupation. For example, you could train for an entry-level position as a nail technician or esthetician at a cosmetology school in a relatively short period of time, depending on the program you choose.

The biggest upside to certificates and diplomas is that, depending on the job you wish to land, they can qualify you for work much more quickly than other options. And with the right networking strategies and career preparation skills, you could get into a career a lot faster than you might have thought possible. The programs tend to offer tremendous convenience and scheduling flexibility. There are also programs that offer an introduction to many related areas within a particular field—useful to have when you're still trying to decide on a career to pursue.

Certificate and diploma programs are usually open-admission; just about anyone can enroll. For working professionals who already hold a more advanced degree, earning a certificate or diploma can enable them to break into a new field quickly or just update their skills as part of their continuing education. For some occupations, a certificate is needed in order to meet state or provincial licensing requirements, so there are programs designed specifically to prepare you for the necessary exams.

In a few instances, a school may choose to distinguish between certificates and diplomas by giving its diploma programs more breadth, more instruction hours and longer duration. But, for the most part, the difference between a certificate and a diploma is in name only.

One of the main factors to consider in making a certificate or diploma your only credential is that the credits you earn may not be transferable to a more advanced program of study. These programs exist primarily to give you highly targeted skills training.


Associate Degree

This is perhaps one of the most overlooked post-secondary degree types available. While the bachelor's degree has long been considered the minimum, default choice in higher learning, associate degree programs have, for many students, quietly provided advantages over their more celebrated undergraduate counterparts. In the right circumstances, pursuing an associate degree provides significant cost savings, greater flexibility and the chance to start your career sooner. In fact, many of North America's well-paying jobs require only an associate degree to get started.

Associate degrees generally require about two years of full-time study, but most schools offering them provide the option of attending part-time and in the evenings. And many programs are open-admission, meaning that if you didn't excel in high school, you still have a chance to earn a respected college degree.

However, it's important to note that there are two fundamental types of associate degrees: those which prepare you to enter a trade or other occupation immediately after graduation (without the ability to transfer your credits to pursue a more advanced degree later on); and those which exist primarily as the first two years of a bachelor's degree—a "pre-bachelor's" if you will.

For example, an Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree will qualify you to enter a particular field upon successful program completion because the courses will have been more tailored for that purpose. But even though you will have taken a few general courses like English and Math, the credits you earned will, in many circumstances, not be transferable to a higher program of study later on. If you should choose to pursue a bachelor's degree in the same—or different—field of study, you might have to start from the beginning.

In contrast, an Associate of Science (AS) or Associate of Art (AA) degree will provide you the option of continuing your studies. If you should choose to stop attending school after graduation, you'll still have a college degree. And if you want to get a bachelor's degree, you'll be halfway there—likely for a lot less financial investment than students who went right into a bachelor's degree program from the start. This type of associate degree program consists mostly of general liberal arts courses, with fewer credits targeted at your major.

There are exceptions to everything. But it's important to do your homework. Since every institution will have its own standards for admission and credit transfers, it's best to inquire about them ahead of time.


Bachelor's Degree

For many students who've chosen to attend college, getting a bachelor's degree is what it's all about. They believe that having at least a bachelor's is required before landing the kind of job that provides a good salary and solid benefits. In many instances, they are correct. Some professional fields like accounting and mechanical engineering do typically pose such a minimum standard for entry. But in other cases, such as people majoring in one of the liberal arts like philosophy, holding a bachelor's degree may be worth more as a stepping stone to graduate school than as a ticket to a great job.

Certainly, a large proportion of employers today still prefer job applicants with at least this level of education. So, depending on your major, a bachelor's degree may get you into more interviews. And some organizations make it a requirement that you hold at least a bachelor's degree before you can take advantage of advancement opportunities.

If you choose to pursue a bachelor's degree right out of high school, without consideration of an associate degree along the way, then you will generally need to meet more demanding admission requirements set by the college or university you wish to attend. This usually means having a minimum high school grade point average (GPA) and minimum scores from standardized tests such as the SAT Reasoning Test or the ACT. Some schools will also require you to write a personal essay as part of your application and may even give a lot of weight to your participation in extracurricular activities. Generally speaking, the more prestigious the school, the higher the standards will be for admission (and the tougher the competition for the limited seats available).

Of course, there are plenty of schools with lower admission standards that offer bachelor's degree programs. These schools are geared at providing opportunities to students who might not otherwise have them as well as working professionals who need more flexibility. But regardless of the type of school you opt for, it's crucial that you make sure that the institution and program you want to enroll in is properly accredited.

Most bachelor's degree programs are designed to take four or five years to complete. However, depending on personal circumstances, some students may take longer to complete their programs.


Graduate Education


Many people who've been through graduate school to earn a master's degree or doctorate will tell you to get some non-academic work experience before going. They say taking a year or more after earning your bachelor's to get some real-world perspective can make all the difference in what you're able to take away from your graduate studies, should you decide to pursue them.

Whether or not you choose to take time to acquire work experience before grad school, you can still make the most of your studies with the right education.


Master's Degree

There are those who now believe that the master's degree is the new bachelor's. Having a master's degree makes it more likely that you'll be able to command a high salary. The salary you can earn may or may not offset the extra costs of your advanced education, however, managing your money effectively while you are in school can help to lessen the potential financial burden once you've graduated.

Admission standards for most master's degree programs at traditional graduate schools are very steep. Many require that you take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), a test that measures your analytical writing skills, critical thinking and verbal and quantitative reasoning. Along with your scores from the GRE, graduate schools are likely to consider factors such as the quality of your bachelor's degree, transcripts from all of your college-level studies, a written statement of purpose, relevant work experience and academic and professional references. Depending on your field of study, you may also be required to take an additional standardized test such as the GMAT (for business and management school) or LSAT (for law school).

If your undergraduate major was in the same field of study as the master's program you plan on going through, then expect to spend about two to three years earning your new degree. A few programs are set up to enable very ambitious students to complete their courses of study in just one year. If, on the other hand, you majored in something unrelated to your master's program, then you will most likely have to take supplementary coursework—adding one or more extra years to the process.

Master's degrees are also sometimes awarded as an intermediate milestone to people who've chosen to pursue a doctorate degree directly after their bachelor's.


Doctorate

The most well-known type of doctorate is the Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy). Contrary to its name, a Ph.D. can actually be granted for several disciplines within the arts, sciences and humanities. Other than the research, academic and government sectors, job market demand for people with Ph.D.s is relatively low. However, there are professions like psychology in which state or provincial licensing requirements may call for a doctorate. And the highest paid positions within some companies also require a Ph.D.

Admission into a traditional graduate school for a doctorate is much like that for a master's degree—but even more competitive. You'll still need at least a bachelor's degree from a well-respected institution, all the transcripts from your college years, good test scores and references. But you'll also have to make the case that your research interests line up well with those of the department to which you're applying. Research professors don't care to take on grad students who won't have the interest, knowledge or motivation to assist them.

The time it takes to achieve a doctorate varies significantly from student to student and program to program. If you already hold a master's degree, it should take less time than if you're starting out with a bachelor's. Most graduate schools will give you a time limit to complete the necessary work—usually no more than seven to 10 years. But you can realistically expect to spend about three to six years working towards a doctorate.

No matter where you get it from, earning a legitimate doctorate requires extreme commitment and passion for the subject matter you intend to study. So do your homework, talk to current and former grad students and speak with potential employers to make sure that pursuing a doctorate really makes sense for you.


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Now it's time to walk forward into your future, armed with the knowledge and understanding you need to find exactly what you're looking for. Use the simple zip code search tool here to find schools near you offering the types of degrees and certifications you're looking for!