Graduate vs. Professional Degrees

Students who opt to pursue graduate study seek master or doctoral degrees in a particular discipline. A graduate program is generally more focused on a specific area of interest and on acquiring specialized skills for a profession or to do advanced research. Frequently internships and/or field experiences which offer the opportunity to practice professional skills are also a part of the curriculum.

A master's degree enables a student to gain a deeper content knowledge and/or research experience within a specific discipline. The professional master’s degree often involves an internship or fieldwork, while the research master’s degree provides experience in research and scholarship, and may be either the final degree or a step toward entry into a doctoral program.

A master’s degree usually takes 1 or 2 years of full-time study. Some students opt to study on a part-time basis because of work or family obligations. Depending on the number of hours taken and university policies on time limits to complete the degree, it may take 2-5 years to complete the degree.


  • MEd is a Master in Education
  • MA is a Master of Arts
  • MS is a Master of Science

Doctoral graduate degrees also have professional degrees and research degrees. The coursework required for a doctoral degree will differ from program to program and from discipline to discipline. The most common professional degrees are M.C for medical practice and J.D. for law. A Ph.D. is a doctorate of philosophy. These degrees are highly specialized and more information can be obtained from:

  • The Association of American Medical Colleges
  • The Association of American Law Schools

A doctoral degree typically involves both coursework and a major research project. Usually 5 to 7 years of full-time study is needed to complete a Ph.D.  or other research doctorate. The first 2 to 3 years usually involve classes, seminars, and directed reading to give you comprehensive knowledge of an academic field. This period of study is followed by a written or oral examination that tests your knowledge.

Successful completion of the exams (sometimes called “comprehensives” or “comps”) and formulation of a research project lead you to the stage of candidacy.  As a candidate for a doctoral degree, you and your institution agree that you will work on a project that involves original research and report on the research through a dissertation. Depending on the filed, this project often takes to 4 years of work to complete. In some fields, faculty members may guide students through the process of devising the research project and analyzing and evaluating the results. In other fields, students may be expected to define their own topics and conduct the necessary research with less direct supervision from faculty advisors. Because work on a dissertation is intended to give you the necessary training and skills for a career in research, independence is often encouraged at this stage of your studies.


  • M.D. is a Doctorate of Medicine
  • Pharm.D. is a Doctorate of Pharmacy
  • D.D.S. is a Doctorate of Dental Surgery

Additionally, some graduate and professional programs may offer combined degrees such as a combined master's and professional degree or M.D./Ph.D.


  • M.D./MPH  is a Master's of Public Health


Source: Graduate School and You: A Guide for Prospective Graduate Students

Additional Resources

When deciding what type of program is right for you, here are a few additional resources to inform your decision:

Masters vs PhD Degree - Which Is Right For You?

Doctoral Degree Programs

How to Choose a Graduate School

Graduate School Search


Source: PACES Professional Development Program