Education on the graduate level involves an in-depth engagement of a particular field of interest, beyond just an extension of undergraduate study in that discipline. In most cases, graduate study is undertaken with an eye toward future professional goals.
There are two main types of graduate programs: master’s and doctoral programs. Typically, completing a master’s degree takes from 1 to 2 years. Master’s programs include substantial coursework designed to provide a solid knowledge base of the discipline and sometimes have a research thesis project as a capstone. Some typical master’s degrees include the Master of Arts (MA), Master of Science (MS), and Master of Education (MEd). Certain master’s programs provide necessary training for a particular profession (e.g., the MPH, or Master of Public Health or the MEd for a high school teacher). Other master’s degree programs are not considered to provide a credential to obtain a particular kind of job, but rather the opportunity to gain intellectual enrichment, obtain useful academic skills, and even discern whether further graduate study is desirable (a Master of Arts in Religion Studies is an example). Doctoral programs, on the other hand, take generally from 4 to 7 years to complete. The first few years are spent in coursework providing an expansive foundational knowledge for the academic area; the doctoral dissertation is the capstone of the program and is based on the performance of substantial original research. Typical doctoral degrees are the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) and Doctor of Education (EdD). The doctorate can facilitate a research career in academia (think of your professors), a position of responsibility in industry (say, a PhD in chemical engineering or biochemistry), private practice (a PsyD in counseling), or some combination of these.
Whereas an individual pursuing a doctorate in philosophy, one studying for a doctoral degree in clinical psychology, and another aiming for a master’s degree in elementary education are all “going to graduate school,” in reality the structure of their graduate programs, their experiences there, and their professional goals are all quite different . Moreover, the undergraduate preparations for each of these professional paths differ. So, it is important for you to explore carefully the possibility of applying to graduate school and to prepare thoroughly. As you consider your options, recognize that it is not necessary to apply to graduate programs directly out of undergraduate school. Many graduate programs suggest (and some require) that students obtain work experience before applying. Even if the program in which you’re interested does not require this, taking a break from academics for a year or two can be refreshing, can help you clarify your goals and your decision to apply to grad school, and may even result in a more substantial resume and application.