What Is a Postgraduate Degree? Your 2023 Guide

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Any degree beyond a bachelor's is typically referred to as a postgraduate (or simply graduate) degree. Learn more about types of postgraduate degrees and whether earning one could impact your career.

[Featured image] A student working on her postgraduate degree stands in front of a window with her backpack, carrying a stack of books and folders.

Postgraduate degrees are also often simply called “graduate degrees,” a term used to describe master’s, professional, and doctoral degrees. According to some of the most recent information from the US Census Bureau, the number of people with postgraduate degrees has more than doubled since 2000, with more than 21 million Americans having a master's degree, and another 4.5 million or more having a doctoral degree [1]. 

While getting a postgraduate degree may open new career opportunities or increase your earning potential, that’s not always the case. . To help you make the best decision based on your goals and interests, we’ve gathered some key information to help answer some of the most important questions you may have.

What is a postgraduate degree?

The term “postgraduate degree” covers everything from postgraduate diplomas to master's degrees to doctoral degrees. Essentially, any degree that requires an undergraduate (bachelor's) degree as an admissions prerequisite can be considered a postgraduate degree. You might choose to pursue a postgraduate degree for a variety of reasons, including to change career paths, specialize in a highly-technical field, or move into a career in research or education. 

Postgraduate vs. graduate degrees: What’s the difference?

While these can sound like two entirely different terms, they can in fact be used interchangeably. Both refer to degrees that come after a bachelor’s degree, including master’s and PhDs. 


3 types of postgraduate degrees

Pursuing a postgraduate degree can help you gain specialized knowledge, demonstrate your dedication to your field, and even boost your networking capabilities. Postgraduate degrees fall into three main categories: Master’s, professional, and doctoral. Let’s take a closer look at each:

1. Master’s degree

For many students, a master’s degree is typically the next degree pursued after earning a bachelor’s degree. Depending on the university and field of study, you might earn a Master of Arts (MA) or a Master of Science (MS). You might also find more specialized master’s degrees. Popular options include: 

  • Master of Business Administration (MBA): Business was the most common field of study for master’s degrees conferred in the 2018-2019 school year, according to the latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics [2]. Earning an MBA could be useful if you want to work in sales, finance, marketing, accounting, or supply chain management.

  • Master of Public Health (MPH): Many MPH programs focus on approaches to building healthier communities through public policy. Depending on the program you choose, you may be able to specialize in areas like epidemiology, occupational health, global health, health data analysis, or nutrition. 

  • Master of Social Work (MSW): If you’re interested in a career as a licensed social worker, you’ll first need to earn an MSW degree from an accredited program. Some programs focus on clinical social work—working directly with clients—while others focus on social work as it relates to community organizing or advocacy. 

  • Master of Fine Arts (MFA): Many artistic mediafall into this category. Earning an MFA might mean undergoing an in-depth study of creative writing, painting, sculpture, photography, or theater. 

Read more: MA vs. MS Degree

What is a professional degree?

Professional degrees are master’s or doctoral programs designed to prepare you for specific career fields. Common examples include master’s degrees (like the Master of Architecture, or MArch), as well as doctorate degrees, like the Doctor of Medicine (MD), Juris Doctor (JD), Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD), or Doctor of Dental Science (DDS).


2. Doctoral degrees

Doctoral degree programs are the highest academic degree you can earn. Common examples include PhDs and professional doctorates like Doctor of Education or Doctor of Nursing.

3. Postgraduate diploma or certificate

Universities sometimes award postgraduate diplomas or certificates (sometimes called graduate certificates) as a shorter alternative to master’s degrees. Both can demonstrate to potential employers that you’ve gained advanced skills in a specific area of study, which could make you a more competitive job candidate.

Admissions requirements for postgraduate degree programs

One of the biggest requirements for admission to a postgraduate degree program is already having a bachelor’s degree. There are a few exceptions. For example, a bachelor’s degree/Juris doctorate (law degree) accelerated program may allow you to apply and enroll in law school before completing your undergraduate requirements. 

The typical prerequisites for advanced degree program admissions vary depending on the type of degree you’re seeking. Consider the following: 

  • For a master’s degree, you'll need to graduate from an accredited college or university. You may also need to take the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) or the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT), provide letters of recommendation, write a personal statement, and provide an academic writing sample.

  • For a professional degree, you typically need to provide your transcripts, take a standardized admissions test like the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), provide letters of recommendation, and write a personal statement. 

  • For a doctoral degree, you'll need a bachelor's degree and a master's degree from an accredited educational institution. You'll also need to submit references and a personal essay in addition to meeting minimum GPA requirements.

How long does a postgraduate degree take?

The amount of time it might take you to earn your postgraduate degree can vary widely depending on a variety of factors. The first consideration is the type of degree you’re pursuing. The average amount of time for earning a master’s degree is 1.5 to two years while the average time it takes to earn a doctoral degree is anywhere from four to six years. Postgraduate diplomas and certificates can take as little as a year to complete.  

The type of advanced degree isn’t the only factor that can affect how long it takes to earn a postgraduate degree. Other notable factors include: 

  • Whether you attend full-time or part-time

  • Whether you decide to take time off to gain professional experience or to earn additional money to continue your schooling

  • Whether you pursue online courses or additional courses between semesters, which may help you graduate faster

  • Whether you have access to an accelerated degree program or an opportunity to earn micro-credentials, which allow you to earn certificates that you can stack toward your advanced degree

  • Whether you’ve got ample support from academic advisors and mentors, which can help you complete your schooling faster, particularly in PhD programs

Is earning a postgraduate degree worth it?

If you're wondering if getting a postgraduate degree is right for you, it helps to ask yourself a few questions. 

There’s no one right answer to this question because it depends on so many factors, most of which are personal to your specific situation. Pursuing a postgraduate degree requires you to make a significant investment of time and money. To evaluate if it might be worth it for you, consider these four questions:

  • Does it fit your career goals? Not every job and role requires an advanced degree. More importantly, if you're considering a career that does require one, will you be happy with the day-to-day activities, responsibilities, and hours? Take some time to shadow professionals or conduct an informational interview to get a solid feeling for the role you're considering, and to make sure you're choosing a career that will be fulfilling.

  • What's the earning potential? Graduate school may require you to take out significant loans. To decide if it's worth it, consider whether you'll be ultimately earning enough once you're working to make that debt worth it. Research average starting salaries and job opportunities to inform your choice.

  • Will it increase your networking opportunities? By enrolling in a postgraduate program, you can sharpen the necessary skills in your field of study with hands-on experience. Additionally, the relationships you create with key industry professionals could help you throughout the rest of your career.

  • Are there alternatives that might be a better fit? While a postgraduate degree might be the right choice for one person, a professional certification or online course might be a better option for someone else. Look at some job descriptions on sites like LinkedIn to see what common requirements are for the jobs you’re interested in, and let that guide your decision on where to invest your time and effort.

How a postgraduate degree may impact earning potential

Many advanced degrees open the door to possibly earning higher salaries, but just as the job outlook varies from job to job, so does your earning potential. Research from the BLS 2020 Current Population Survey reveals that earnings are highest among people with a master's degree, professional degree, or doctoral degree [3]. 

According to that data, if you have a bachelor's degree you can expect to earn a median weekly salary of $1,305. With a master's degree, that increases to $1,545. Doctoral degrees and professional degrees are close in earnings potential. If you have a doctoral degree, the median weekly earnings is $1,885, while the median weekly earnings, if you have a professional degree, is $1,893.

[Infographic] Bar chart highlighting median weekly earnings based on educational attainment

*Data adapted from the BLS Current Population Survey [3]

Next steps

As you consider the types of postgraduate degrees you might pursue, browse degrees from top universities available on Coursera, including bachelor's and master's degrees, as well as graduate certificates and diplomas in fields like computer science, machine learning, data analytics, and strategic leadership and management.

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Article sources

1. United States Census Bureau. “Number of People With Master’s and Doctoral Degrees Doubles Since 2000, https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2019/02/number-of-people-with-masters-and-phd-degrees-double-since-2000.html.” Accessed April 11, 2022.

2. National Center for Education Statistics. “Master's degrees conferred by postsecondary institutions, by field of study: Selected years, 1970-71 through 2018-19, https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d20/tables/dt20_323.10.asp.” Accessed April 11, 2022.

3. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Education pays, 2020, https://www.bls.gov/careeroutlook/2021/data-on-display/education-pays.htm.” Accessed April 11, 2022.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

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.

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