After graduating from college with a bachelor's degree, students have many options as to what they can do thereafter. Some students may decide to go directly into the workforce and gain experience with their undergraduate degree. Others may decide to stay in school longer and pursue an even higher level of education in order to earn their graduate degree. Some students may decide to do both and work for a while in between earning their bachelor's degree and going back to school to earn their graduate degree.

Whatever you decide to do is your choice, but it's important to understand why a graduate degree can be beneficial to your future.

Tip

The graduate degree definition is any type of degree that you earn after your bachelor's degree through a graduate program.

What's a Graduate Program?

A graduate program is any higher-education program that you can pursue after earning your bachelor's degree. Through a graduate program, students can earn a master's degree or similar degrees in law, medicine or academia, such as a J.D., M.D., D.D.S or Ph.D.

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Most students who pursue a graduate degree go this route because they want to move up in their field and stand out from the competition, or they want to continue their learning just for the sake of it. Sometimes, students decide to pursue a graduate degree for both of these reasons.

What Is Graduate School?

Graduate school is a school you can attend in order to earn your graduate degree. Most four-year colleges that are popular choices for undergraduate students also offer graduate programs.

Therefore, many students may decide to stick around their alma mater after graduating with their bachelor's and continue straight on to a graduate program. Other students may decide to apply to graduate school at another college that has their specific program. Some may decide to go to graduate school online.

The Difference Between Undergraduate and Graduate School

There are many differences between undergraduate and graduate school. Undergraduate school, while certainly more difficult than high school, tends to have much easier classes than those at the graduate level.

While undergraduate school is an opportunity for students to try out different classes, see what they like and perhaps switch majors from time to time, graduate school is a lot more structured in the sense that students already know what they want. Undergraduate students may also use their college program as a chance to socialize and have fun, while graduate students tend to be a lot more serious.

What's a Graduate Degree?

A graduate degree is any type of degree that you earn post-bachelor's degree through a graduate program. It's what you earn when you complete graduate school, and this can be different for each student.

For instance, some students may go to graduate school just to earn a master's degree, and at that point, they may stop attending graduate school altogether. Others may first pursue a master's and then go on to earn their Ph.D., which is also a graduate degree. There are many types of graduate degrees you can earn after undergraduate school depending on what you study and how long you plan on attending school.

Examples of Graduate Degrees

Some of the many different types of graduate degrees a person can pursue after earning a bachelor's degree include:

  • M.A.
  • M.S.
  • M.F.A.
  • MBA
  • Ph.D.
  • J.D. 
  • M.D.
  • D.D.S.

Requirements to Apply for Graduate School

The requirements that you need in order to get into graduate school depend on the program and the school and are therefore not the same from one graduate school to the next. However, the one requirement that all graduate programs require at the absolute minimum is a bachelor's degree from an accredited four-year college.

After that, there are further requirements. Certain graduate programs may want to see that what you studied in your undergraduate program can translate well to your graduate program. For example, while it's not always necessary, students applying to medical school in hope of earning their M.D. may be required to have taken some classes in the sciences while they were in undergraduate school.

Students can usually enter a J.D., M.D. or master's program immediately after completing undergraduate school. Keep in mind, though, that it's not always so easy to plunge directly into a Ph.D. program, as many schools require that their applicants have their master's degree in a related field first. The more education and experience you have before pursuing a higher-level graduate degree, the easier it will be to get into the program of your choice.

Why Get a Graduate Degree?

There are many reasons someone would want to get a graduate degree. For some students, it's merely for personal reasons. They like learning, and they see it as a very big achievement to earn a graduate degree. Other students might decide to earn a graduate degree because it will lead to better job opportunities and higher pay. Sometimes, it's both.

Additionally, there are many careers in which it is strongly recommended to get a graduate degree even if it wasn't something you really considered pursuing. For instance, teachers who earn their bachelor's degree and teaching certificate can usually begin working as a teacher right away. However, in some states, teachers are required to earn their master's degree.

How Many Years Does it Take to Get a Graduate Degree?

The length of time it takes to earn a graduate degree depends on several factors. First and foremost, it depends on how long your specific program is. For example, a master's degree can take about two years to earn if you are attending school full time. However, for students who are working and going to school part time, it may take longer.

Other graduate degrees, such as those in the law and medical fields, will take longer. An M.D. (Doctor of Medicine), for instance, takes four years of medical school plus three years in residency. A J.D., a Juris Doctor or law degree, usually takes up to three years to earn. These programs usually aren't as flexible with scheduling as are master's programs.

Then, a Ph.D. program can take between four and eight years to complete depending on whether or not you went straight into the Ph.D. program or did a master's first. Students should keep this all in mind when considering a career path that requires a graduate degree, seeing as many students are not able to earn an income during the time they are in school.

The Pros and Cons of Earning a Graduate Degree

There are many pros and cons of earning a graduate degree. The major benefits are that you will be a more competitive candidate in the job market. You will likely earn a higher salary because of your experience and credentials, meaning you can live a comfortable life. You will have had many meaningful and enriching experiences to get you to this point, which is something money can't buy.

However, speaking of money, one of the biggest downsides of pursuing a graduate degree is the cost, especially in the United States. Many students need to take out loans, usually with high-interest rates, in order to pay for school. For students who are unable to work while in graduate school, that burden can hang over you like a dark cloud.

Many students need to put off other things, like traveling, hobbies, relationships or settling down and having a family, until after they receive their degree. That being said, as long as you land a job in your field, you will likely be able to pay off what you borrowed in loans after several years.

About the Author

Hana LaRock is a freelance content writer from New York, currently living in Mexico. She has spent the last 5 years traveling the world and living abroad and has lived in South Korea and Israel. Before becoming a writer, Hana worked as a teacher for several years in the U.S. and around the world. She has her teaching certification in Elementary Education and Special Education, as well as a TESOL certification. Hana spent a semester studying abroad at Tel Aviv University during her undergraduate years at the University of Hartford. She hopes to use her experience to help inform others. Please visit her website, www.hanalarockwriting.com, to learn more.