An academic degree is the most widely recognized evidence of academic accomplishment. Degrees are divided into two categories or levels: undergraduate and graduate. Undergraduate programs lead to either an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree. Graduate programs lead to a master’s, professional, or doctoral degree.
Associate's degrees usually take two years of full-time study to complete, something like about 20 courses. You do not need to have an associate's degree before you get a bachelor's degree.
Bachelor's degrees usually take four years of full-time study to complete: 40 or so courses. It’s also called a baccalaureate degree. An associate's degree is not a prerequisite for a bachelor's degree.
Undergraduate degrees are further divided into arts, sciences, and (recently) applied sciences: e.g., Associate of Arts, Associate of Science, Associate of Applied Sciences; Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science, Bachelor of Applied Sciences.
Graduate (also called post-graduate) programs
require applicants to have an undergraduate degree,
vary in length, and
may entail a combination of course work and individual research/study under a faculty advisor.
There are academic and professional graduate degrees. Examples of academic degrees include Master of Science in Biology, Master of Arts in History, and Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in a particular field. Examples of professional degrees include J.D. (Juris Doctor or a law degree), M.D. (Medical Doctor), Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.), and many others.
Master's degrees usually take a year or two to complete and require applicants to have completed a bachelor's degree.
These are the highest academic degrees students can earn. They usually result in a Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) in a particular academic field. A student can start a doctoral program immediately after completing a bachelor's degree or may get a master's degree first.
Professional degrees are usually necessary to work in certain professions, such as medicine, law, pharmacy, optometry, and veterinary medicine.
Colleges specify degree requirements in terms of “credits” and type of course. Credits roughly equate to the number of in-class hours the course requires. An associate’s degree requires completion of approximately 60 semester credits; a bachelor’s degree about 120 semester credits. If your school uses a quarter, rather than a semester, academic calendar the number of credits required is higher.
Undergraduate degrees generally have three components:
general education requirements,
major and minor requirements, and
These are courses everyone who wants to earn a degree must pass. They fall into five general categories: English Composition, Natural Sciences, Mathematics, Social Sciences and History, and Humanities. Courses in many different subjects fall into these categories. These courses typically add up to between 20 and 45 credits.
These are courses specifically related to the subject you want to get your degree in. For example, a Bachelor of Arts degree in history may require you to have a certain number of credits in history, economics, government, anthropology, etc. A Bachelor of Science in civil engineering may require you to have a certain number of credits in calculus, physics, chemistry, materials science, etc.
Your major is simply the field of study you most want to emphasize. A minor (if you want to have one) is a field which compliments your major. So if you’re majoring in computer science, you might minor in electronics engineering. These courses typically make up about 50% of the credits required for a bachelor’s degree and about 30% for an associate’s degree.
These are courses in any subject you choose. You may want to take more courses in your major (or minor) or courses completely unrelated to either. It’s your choice. Students working toward a bachelor’s degree typically have electives totaling around 30 credits. Associate’s degree students may have between 10 and 20 elective credits.
Master's programs typically require completion of 30 to 60 credits beyond the bachelor’s degree. These degrees may or may not require a thesis.
Doctoral degree programs typically require three or more years of study (60-100 semester hours) beyond a master’s degree and completion of a dissertation approved by faculty committee.
Professional degrees generally require
completion of various academic requirements to begin practice in the profession,
at least two years of undergraduate study before you enter the program, and
a total of at least six years of college work to complete the degree program (four years as an undergraduate plus the length of the professional program itself).
One thing to consider before jumping into a college-level course is whether to get a degree or a certificate.
You can earn an undergraduate or graduate certificate in a specific field (e.g., Homeland Security – Natural Disasters) by taking a set number and type of academic courses. A certificate program is less extensive than a degree program (9-18 credits). Paraphrased from the University of Kentucky’s web site, a certificate is "an integrated group of courses that is designed to have a very clear and focused academic topic or competency as its subject area.”
Certificates often “meet a clearly defined educational need of a constituency group (such as continuing education or accreditation for a particular profession), respond to a specific state mandate, or provide a basic competency in an emerging, usually interdisciplinary, area.” A certificate provides “the student formal recognition of the mastery of a clearly defined academic topic.”
Why earn a certificate rather than a degree? An academic certificate can add a new area of expertise to a degree you already hold or allow you to create a specialty in a field related to your undergraduate major or graduate specialty. Or you can use it to explore a whole new academic field to find out whether you want to get a degree in that field. The courses you’ll take to get a certificate would count toward your major courses or electives if you’re getting an undergrad degree or might count toward your graduate degree, depending on its requirements.
For example, say you’re interested in possibly working toward a undergrad degree in homeland security. But you’re not sure it’s exactly right for you. So you decide to get an undergraduate certificate in Weapons of Mass Destruction Preparedness (18 credits). When you’re done, you’ll have the certificate (the courses for which you can apply toward an associate’s or bachelor’s degree) and quite a bit of knowledge about a specialized field. That should be enough to give you an idea whether you want to take all the rest of the courses necessary to get the homeland security degree or if you’d rather move in another direction.
In both the civilian world and the military, degrees and certificates are proof of what you’ve accomplished and, by demonstrating your initiative, set you apart from your peers.