It is an official credential. The length of courses, and the number of courses vary depending on which university is attended. In the United States, high schools give out diplomas to graduating students. These are not degrees.
There are hundreds of different academic degrees, but they are often grouped into a few categories:
- Associate degree: this is typically a 2-year degree, often obtained at a community college in the United States and Canada or junior college in some other countries.
- Bachelor's degree: this is typically a 3 or 4-year degree.
All other degrees are known as "higher degrees".
- Master's degree: this is typically a 1 or 2 year degree, earned by attending advanced courses and doing projects.
- Doctoral degree: this is typically a 4-to-6-year degree, where a person must write a thesis based on new research in their field of study.
Some countries reward a licentiate degree which gives the degree holder the permission (licence) to teach and practice in the area concerned. Its level varies according to the country, mostly at bachelor's level or above.
In medicine, membership of specialist societies are also degrees, and Fellowships are higher degrees. Examples: MRCP = Member of the Royal College of Physicians. These degrees require postgraduate training and practical experience.
The university courses needed for a master's degree, or for a doctorate, are often highly advanced, difficult subjects, and they would be extremely difficult to understand unless a person had already attended the undergraduate courses. The reason the upper-level courses are so difficult, so hard to understand, is that they assume the person already knows, perhaps, 1,000 technical terms learned in earlier college courses. This is similar to having to know the Latin names of all 206 bones in the human body, as just part of those technical terms.
In many countries these degrees are shown by letters which the person is allowed to put after their name, e.g. John Smith, BA. A bachelor's degree is usually the degree received at the end of a first degree. While the student is studying for a degree he or she is an "undergraduate". When he graduates he is a "graduate". He may continue with his studies and receive a master's degree or do some original work and write a thesis to get a doctor's degree (which does not mean a Doctor of Medicine).
United States and Canada change
In the United States and Canada, college degrees are either Undergraduate or Graduate level.
An "undergraduate" degree is for all students who do not have a bachelor's degree. It requires four years of study including General Education, Electives, and Major courses that prepare students to work in their specialized program. The undergraduate degrees are as follows:
- Associate degree: This degree is usually obtained by students who attend a community college and only requires two years of college. However, the student will still be considered an undergraduate until they achieve their bachelor's degrees.
- Bachelor's Degree: This degree is obtained by completing all four years of college and having enough credits to graduate. Students earn their bachelor's degree as proof of not only studying their major (a specific subject area that students specialize in, for example English, Journalism, or Psychology), but having the sufficient reading, critical thinking, or writing skills preferred for the employers. Examples are Bachelor of Arts (BA), Bachelor of Science (BSc), or Bachelor of Music (BMus).
A "graduate" degree requires the person to already have a bachelor's degree. It includes:
- Master's Degree: This degree is rewarded to students who complete an additional two years of studies in their major. The difference between a Bachelor's and a Master's is a master's degree goes very deep into the subject that makes students experts in that field. They can become college professors, expert witnesses in court, or help someone be promoted to a job that usually leads to more responsibilities, better benefits, and higher pay. Examples are Master of Arts (MA), Master of Science (MS or MSc), Master of Music (MMus), Master of Business Administration (MBA), or Master of Public Administration (MPA).
- Doctor of Philosophy Degree: This is the highest degree that a student can earn, it is usually called a Ph.D. degree. It usually requires more than four years of college to earn, even more than obtaining a master's degree. The vast majority of colleges require professors to have a Ph.D. as it means the person is a master of that field to teach students.
A "professional degree" is also a graduate degree and requires the person already have a bachelor's degree. It is required by law to be licensed to work in a particular profession. It includes:
- Juris Doctor (JD): This degree is required to become a lawyer, and can be earned by completing three years of law school.
- Doctor of Medicine (MD): This degree is required to become a medical doctor, and can be earned by completing four years of medical school.
- Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO): This degree is only offered in the United States, and allows people to also become medical doctors. It also requires four years of medical school that offers this program. Typically, students learn osteopathy medicine, and it is easier to be admitted to a DO program than an MD.
- Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM): This degree is required to become a veterinarian and can be earned by completing four years of veterinary school.
- Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS): This degree is required to become a dentist and can be earned by completing four years of dental school.
- Doctor of Podiatry Medicine (DPM): This degree is required to become a podiatrist (doctors who take care of feet), and can be earned by completing four years of podiatry school.
- Doctor of Optometry (OD): This degree is required to become an optometrist and can be earned by completing four years of optometry school.
- Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.): This degree is required to become a clinical psychologist (who helps people manage their mental disorders) and can be earned by completing four years of study at a university that offers the program.