Learn about the four-degree levels, including associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. Read about the different types of degrees, including award titles and program lengths and requirements.
There are four major categories of degrees available for postsecondary students. These university degrees are associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in order of complexity. Earning one of these degrees can take 2-8 years, depending on the level of the degree and field of study.
Graduate-level university degrees may require students to complete one or more undergraduate programs before enrollment. When comparing different degrees, students can consider which program best fits their career goals and academic interests. Keep in mind that all college degrees require the completion of a high school diploma first.
|Degree Level||Average Completion Time (full-time)||Common Prerequisite
|Associate degree||2 Years||High school degree (diploma) or equivalent
|Bachelor's degree||4 Years||High school degree (diploma) or equivalent
|Master's degree||1-2 Years||Bachelor's degree
|Doctoral degree||2+ Years||Master's degree (sometimes bachelor degrees are acceptable)
Types of Degrees
Of the four major types of college degrees, an associate’s degree is generally the easiest to obtain. Associate-level programs offer different degrees for a variety of careers. These 2-year programs may provide the necessary training to prepare students for entry-level nursing, graphic design, and other vocational areas. Associate degree programs are most commonly available from community colleges and technical schools.
Completing an associate degree program may qualify graduates to enter the workforce. Transferable associate degree programs cover the general education requirements needed to continue a student’s education at a 4-year university. The most common degrees available at the associate level include the following:
- Associate of Arts (AA)
- Associate of Science (AS)
- Associate of Applied Science (AAS)
What is a bachelor’s degree? A bachelor’s degree program is an undergraduate program that usually takes four years to complete. Enrolling in a bachelor’s degree program requires that students choose a major area of studies, such as finance, history, communications, or biology. Graduates from a bachelor’s degree program are qualified to work in entry- or management-level positions, depending on the field.
A bachelor’s degree is also usually required for admittance into a graduate program. The different types of degrees available in a bachelor’s degree program include the following:
- Bachelor of Arts (BA) – teachers; writers, counsellors, lawyers, researchers, curators
- Bachelor of Science (BSc) – chemists, physicists, biologists, mathematicians
- Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) – actors, dancers, artists, authors
- Bachelor of Applied Science (BAS) – engineers, software developers, project managers
- Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) – entrepreneurs, managers, business executives
- Bachelor of Architecture (BArch) – architects, interior designers, industrial designers, city planners
The next education level in the degree hierarchy is the master’s degree. Master’s degree programs are graduate programs that let students specialize in an area of study. They typically take 1-2 years to complete. Along with an undergraduate degree, enrolling in a master’s degree program usually requires a minimum GPA and an acceptable score on a graduate entrance exam, such as the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). Many master’s degree programs require a thesis or capstone project for graduation.
Earning a master’s degree may qualify graduates to work in advanced or executive-level positions. A master’s degree is also required for entrance into some doctoral programs. Different degree programs available at the master’s degree level include the following:
- Master of Arts (MA) – academics; authors, therapists, professors, researchers
- Master of Science (MS) – data scientists, software engineers, mechanical engineers
- Master of Business Administration (MBA) – executives, CEOs, professors, business consultants
- Master of Fine Arts (MFA) – authors, poets, creative directors, professors
- Master of Laws (LLM) – judges; law firm partners, lawyers, politicians
- Master of Publishing (MPub) – graphic designers, typographers, publishers
The highest University degrees are doctoral degree programs, also known as Ph.D. programs. Because they are the most advanced type of degree program available, admittance into a doctoral degree program may require individuals to hold a master’s degree. However, several programs accept candidates who only hold bachelor’s degrees. Additional requirements to be accepted into these programs may include submitting standardized test scores and sending letters of recommendation.
Completing a Ph.D. program usually takes several years and often involves completing a dissertation and a major research project. Medical-related doctoral programs may have students complete hands-on clinical hours with real patients during the program’s final years. When obtaining a doctoral degree, college choice can be critical as funding and requirements can vary significantly.
Ph.D. graduates are qualified to work as experts in business or research and professors at the postsecondary level. Common types of doctoral degrees include those listed below:
- Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) – academics, professors, specialists in a field, writers, scientists
- Juris Doctor (JD) – lawyers; legal librarians, law firm partners, legal scholars
- Doctor of Medicine (MD) – doctors; surgeons, medical scientists, instructors
- Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) – dentists, dental surgeons, orthodontists
- Doctor of Education (EdD) – University presidents, high-level educational administrators, provosts
While there are many different college degrees, the four main degree levels include associate, bachelors, masters, and doctorate.
Online Degree Programs
Do you need more flexibility to get the degree you’ve wanted to go after? More and more universities provide distance learning opportunities that allow students to manage their own schedules to fit better studying around other time commitments. Over 1,600 accredited public and private colleges offer online degree programs that grant students at all levels degrees in a wide variety of subjects.