What Is a Graduate Degree? Your 2024 Guide

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

There's more than one type of graduate degree. Which could be right for you? Learn more about the three types of graduate degrees and the benefits of earning one.

[Featured image] A woman studying for a graduate degree holds a folder and stands outside on a university campus.

A graduate degree is an academic program that you can pursue after getting your bachelor’s degree. A graduate degree—which includes master's degrees, professional degrees, and doctorate degrees—allows you to further specialize in an area of interest or choose a course that directly relates to or is accredited by the profession you want to enter. 

Students often pursue a graduate degree to gain access to more jobs, higher salaries, or as a stepping stone for further study. For specific careers, graduate qualifications will be essential, while for others, they may be a career boost, but you may be able to be more flexible on your choice of program. By earning a graduate degree, you can establish yourself as an expert in your field and potentially gain a competitive edge as a job candidate. 

3 types of graduate degrees

While researching graduate programs, you'll typically come across three types of degrees. The most commonly known is a master's degree, but it isn’t the only option. The term 'graduate degree' also includes PhDs and professional degrees, such as a Juris Doctor or Doctor of Medicine. Let's take a closer look at each:

1. Master's degree 

A master’s degree takes one to two years of full-time study, depending on the program and your schedule. Depending on the subject you choose, you may pursue a Master of Arts (MA), Master of Science (MS), or something more specialized. A master's degree incorporates coursework and independent study and usually requires the submission of a thesis or the completion of a capstone project. 

Specialized options include the Master of Business Administration (MBA), among the most popular master’s programs, focusing on business management, including marketing, finance, sales, and accounting. You may also consider a Master of Fine Arts (MFA), which is designed specifically for artists focusing on subjects like music, art, theater, and graphic design.

Read more: Is a Master's Degree Worth It?

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2. Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Another popular graduate program is the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), which takes between four and seven years. Courses at this level tend to be research-based, allowing you to test theories and hypotheses in your chosen field. Options for what to study are vast and can include areas relating to psychology, social science, humanities, and technology, among others. A PhD can take anywhere from three to eight years to complete. 

3. Professional doctorate

A professional doctorate is often the highest academic credential in a specific career. In this advanced degree, you'll apply research to solve practical problems within the field. Professional doctorates have many titles, including Juris Doctor (JD) and Doctor of Medicine (MD). While these degrees vary in length, they typically take between three and six years to complete. 

Skills acquired in graduate degree programs

A graduate degree allows you to develop skills in particular areas related to your specialization, but it also helps you to command general skills that are transferable to any career path. These include:

  • Verbal and written communication skills

  • Critical thinking

  • Problem-solving

  • Research skills

  • Ability to work independently and as part of a team

  • Time management

  • Leadership and coordination

Next steps

Explore what it's like to earn a graduate degree online by enrolling in an open course from a top university on Coursera. Depending on the course, you could earn credit toward a master's degree:

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Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

Article sources

1. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Education Pays, 2020,  https://www.bls.gov/careeroutlook/2021/data-on-display/education-pays.htm.” Accessed August 24, 2022.

2. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Employment Projections,  https://www.bls.gov/emp/tables/education-summary.htm.” Accessed August 24, 2022.

3. CareerBuilder. “Not Enough Educated Workers-Why This Matters To You, https://www.careerbuilder.com/advice/employers-looking-for-more-educated-workers.” Accessed August 24, 2022.

4. Education Data Initiative. “Average Cost of a Master’s Degree, https://educationdata.org/average-cost-of-a-masters-degree.” Accessed August 24, 2022.

5. Education Data Initiative. “Average Cost of a Doctorate Degree, https://educationdata.org/average-cost-of-a-doctorate-degree.” Accessed August 24, 2022.

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This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.