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Choosing the Right Graduate Degree for Your Goals

Know you want to continue your studies postgrad, but not sure what program is the right choice? Learn about the advantages of each type of graduate degree.

There are plenty of benefits (personal and professional) to earning a graduate degree, from higher pay to the ability to join a specific career track. According to Fast Company, a graduate degree is increasingly necessary in the workforce as many companies continue to raise educational requirements for employment. But if cash is tight post-grad and you need an advanced degree for your dream job, what are your options? And what’s the difference between various graduate degrees—is one really any better than the other?

Unfortunately, there isn’t a cut-and-dried answer. Each degree has its own benefits, and the “right” degree is entirely dependent on an individual student’s goals. There are three main levels of graduate study: graduate certificates, master’s degrees, and doctoral degrees. Before you decide which path is right for you, be sure to research your desired career. Know that you’ll never be an attorney without a JD, but you might still make it in business without an MBA.

Graduate certificates

Graduate certificates technically aren’t graduate degrees, but many require a bachelor’s degree to pursue. Programs are short term, usually under 20 credit hours. According to, graduate certificates are helpful if you’re looking to acquire new skills for a specific field quickly. They’re also beneficial for meeting minimum licensing standards for certain positions, such as teachers earning certificates in Special Education. Many students will use a graduate certificate as a stepping stone to a master’s or doctoral degree, but others earn certificates on top of these degrees or their bachelor’s for further specialization in their field. If you plan to use your graduate certificate as a gateway to a higher degree, just be sure to do your research and make sure the certificate program is for credit. Non-credit programs are popular for professional development and specialization but cannot be applied as credit toward a master’s program, whereas for-credit programs can.

But be aware: According to the University of Florida, graduate certificates don’t qualify for federal student aid, so be prepared to pay out of pocket, use any education benefits your company offers, or apply for private loans. On the bright side, these programs tend to be less expensive than other degrees because they’re built on so few credits. Certificates also typically have a less comprehensive application process and don’t require standardized test scores.

Related: How to Find the Right Graduate Program for You

Master’s degrees

A master’s degree typically requires up to three years of study, in which you become a “master” of your field. In the US, a bachelor’s is mandatory to receive a master’s, and a thesis is typically required to graduate from the program. You may need to submit standardized test scores, but many programs don’t require scores or waive them with sufficient work experience. Students studying for a master’s can apply for federal student aid. According to Fast Company, many entry-level positions that previously required only a bachelor’s degree now require a master’s. So even if it’s not required in your field, it could boost your job prospects.

If you’ve earned a graduate certificate and later decide you want a master’s, be sure to do your research: some master’s programs will accept graduate certificate courses as essentially transfer credits, so you won’t need to retake similar courses. Some programs also allow you to complete a graduate certificate and continue to a master’s at a later date. This is great if money is tight and the program provides limited or no financial aid. Some master’s programs are considered terminal degrees, or the highest degree you can earn in a field. According to The Best Master’s Degrees, the Master of Fine Arts (MFA), Master of Landscape Architecture (MLArch), and Master of Architecture (MArch) are all considered terminal degrees because those fields typically don’t offer doctorates.

Related: What Can You Do With a Master’s Degree?

Doctoral degrees

Doctoral degrees are the highest level of study in academia. All doctorates are considered terminal degrees. They typically require a minimum of four years of study, but it depends on the program. A doctorate will consist of intense research in your desired field. Doctorates tend to be the most expensive graduate degree because there are so many courses required. However, many fully funded programs don’t require students to pay tuition. In many programs, a completed master’s may even count toward credits for a doctoral degree. Also, some programs may award a master’s after completion of a certain number of credits in a doctoral program. Careers requiring this level of degree include attorneys, psychiatrists, and medical doctors. If you plan to work in academia, having a PhD or other terminal degree (see above) is strongly recommended. Outside these fields, however, doctoral degrees are rarely required.

Choosing the right program for you

Now that you know the difference between these advanced education options, you have the pleasure of deciding which one is best for you. Consider your career goals: yes, a doctorate looks more prestigious, but would it really help your career more than a master’s? If you’re working in your field, does your company off educational benefits and to what extent? It might be more beneficial to earn a graduate certificate now if education reimbursement benefits will cover it fully. Then you can work toward your master’s a few years down the road when you’ve had a chance to earn and save a bit more.

Related: Should You Consider Graduate School? Advice From Real Students

Graduate study will certainly advance your career. How strongly each degree affects you is completely dependent on your industry and prior experience. Do your research, talk to others in your field who have been through a graduate experience, and take time to make your decision. And good luck!

Start searching for graduate programs with our Grad School Search tool.

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About Kara E. Joyce

Kara E. Joyce is an editor and writer who frequently contributes to CollegeXpress. When she isn’t hunched over editing material, you can find her powerlifting in the gym, pirouetting in a dance studio, or planning her next adventure.


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