With all the abbreviations out there denoting different college and university degrees--A.S., B.A., B.S., M.A., Ph.D.--it can be hard to figure out what degree you might want to work toward or what someone else's degree means. To make things even more confusing, the same degree might involve slightly different requirements at different universities. However, for the most part, each acronym implies the same level of study for graduates of U.S. schools.
The associate degree usually takes two years of study to attain. It is commonly offered by community colleges and vocational institutes, though some four-year schools will grant an associate degree after the first two years of study.
Most associate degrees are in professional studies such as nursing, dental hygiene, or office management, such that finishing the degree allows students to seek entry-level positions in their fields right away. However, it is also possible to earn an associate degree in liberal arts (humanities and social sciences); students at community colleges who seek to transfer to four-year schools often earn this type of degree, so their credits will transfer more easily.
Depending on the college and the focus of studies, an associate degree might be denoted by the acronym A.S. (associate of science), A.A.S. (associate of applied science) or A.A. (associate of arts).
The Bachelor's degree is a four-year undergraduate degree offered by virtually all universities. If the focus of study is in the arts or humanities (for example, sociology, history or English) the degree is usually called a B.A. (bachelor of arts), while a focus in a science (chemistry or computer engineering) leads to a B.S. (bachelor of science).
Some universities, give special names to degrees in particular subjects, even if they fall under the category of "arts" or "sciences." For example, a design school might grant the B.Arch. (bachelor of architecture), even though an architecture major at another school with a similar educational background might get a B.A. Many teacher-training colleges grant the B.Ed. (bachelor of education). There is also the B.Comp.Sc. (bachelor of computer science), B.B.A. (bachelor of business administration, B.F.A. (bachelor of fine arts) and B. Eng. (bachelor of engineering).
Those who already hold a bachelor degree might decide to return to university for graduate study and earn a master's degree. Depending on the university and the area of study, it might take one to three years of full-time study to earn a master's.
Like the bachelor's, the master's degree might be a master of arts (M.A.) or master of science (M.S.) degree, and once again different universities sometimes offer more specific names for their degrees, such as the M.Ed. (master of education), M.F.A. (master of fine arts), M.B.A. (master of business administration) and M.P.H. (master of public health).
Doctoral degrees are the highest-level and most prestigious degrees offered by universities. They usually take four to seven years of post-graduate studies to finish.
There are basically two types of doctoral degrees: academic degrees and professional degrees.
Academic doctorates are usually denoted by the letters Ph.D., which stands for doctor of philosophy, but applies to degrees in any of the arts or sciences; D.Eng. (doctor of engineering) or Ed.D. (doctor of education). These degrees require not only extensive coursework, but also a dissertation, a long project of independent research and writing.
Professional degrees include the M.D. for medical doctors, J.D. for lawyers and C.D. for chiropractors.
Many universities grant doctorates with other initials, such as the D.Div. (doctor of divinity), Psy.D. (for clinical psychologists) and D.O. (doctor of osteopathy).
Abbreviation Cheat Sheet
Let's say you are reading people's resume and you are trying to figure out how many years they have attended college. Here's an almost sure-fire way to figure it out based on the abbreviations of their degrees. If it starts with an "A," they went to college for two years; if it starts with a "B," they went to college for four years; if it starts with an "M" they did four years of college, plus one to three years afterward; if it starts or ends with a "D" they went to college for four years, plus at least three to seven years afterward.