1. Career Advice
  2. Career Path
  3. A quick guide to different levels of college degrees
A quick guide to different levels of college degrees

A quick guide to different levels of college degrees

  • What are the different degree levels?
  • 1. Associate degree 
  • 2. Bachelor’s degree
  • 3. Master’s degree 
  • 5. Professional degree  
  • 6. Doctorate degree 
  • How to choose the right degree?
  • Key takeaways

Education boosts earnings and reduces the risk of unemployment, but with so many degree options available it can be overwhelming to decide which path to follow. Read our guide with everything you need to know about degree levels and what to take into consideration when making the right choices for your future career.

Whether you’re a fledgling student just starting out on your career path or a professional looking to enhance your career, understanding what qualifications you need to get you where you want to be is vital. 

Degree options can seem like a convoluted maze, where taking the wrong turn could lead you to a dead end. With so many education options on the table, being fully informed will help you discover and find your ideal career.

Follow our expert guide with all the information you need on degree levels, including:

  • What are the different degree levels?

  • How to choose the right degree? 

Statistical Insight

Education pays according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Research findings illustrated that workers aged 25+ who attained less than a high school diploma had the lowest median weekly earnings ($626) and the highest unemployment rate (8.3 percent). Workers with graduate degrees had the highest earnings and lowest unemployment rates.

What are the different degree levels?

When you’re considering your options, there are four core levels to take into account. Ranked in order of degree levels, these include: associate degree, bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and doctorate or professional degrees. 

Here’s a breakdown of the degree levels from lowest to highest:  

1. Associate degree 

Covering a two-year period, you can complete your associate’s degree in a community, technical, or career college as well as some select universities. Options include an Associate of Arts (AA) and Associate of Science (AS) or, if you choose to specialize in a specific career, Associate of Applied Arts (AAA) and Associate of Applied Science (AAS).  

Associate degrees provide a solid foundation in your chosen field, which can lead to entry-level positions in the job market or serve as a stepping stone to completing a bachelor’s degree. This option is also perfect if you’re looking to get a step on the career ladder but don’t want to spend too much on tuition costs and time spent in academia.

2. Bachelor’s degree

Offering a wider range of job prospects as well as a pathway to graduate studies, completing a bachelor’s degree is a great option for following a specific course of study. Most programs are four or five years, with Bachelor of Arts (BA) and Bachelor of Science (BS) being the most common. Options such as the Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) or Bachelor of Architecture (BArch) offer the opportunity to specialize even further.

Some students opt to complete a 3-2 program: a dual degree involving three years of study, usually at a liberal arts college, followed by two years of professional or technical study at a university. After five years, students receive two degrees (BA and BS). The pros of a dual degree include a broader and more diverse education, typically lower tuition costs, and a route into a prestigious university . Cons include a slightly longer period of study (around 12 months in some cases).

3. Master’s degree 

The next rung of the ladder is the master’s degree,usually a two-year program, which extends the knowledge gained in your bachelor’s degree, increasing your specialization. It’s also possible to study a different field than your bachelor’s degree, but you may need extra credits. Degree options include Master of Arts (MA) or Master of Science (MS) as well as more specialist studies via a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) or Master of Business Administration (MBA).  

Another option is to secure professional experience in the workplace following your bachelor’s degree, then complete your master’s degree at a later date. Gaining on-the-job experience can enrich your understanding of your chosen profession and help you decide whether completing advanced studies will be worthwhile. 

Expert Tip

If the job you’re targeting requires an advanced degree, there are options to fast track your studies rather than climbing the degree levels ladder rung by rung. Accelerated combined degree programs (4+1 programs) allow you to complete both your bachelor’s and master’s degrees in five years rather than six.

5. Professional degree  

Professional degrees involve an intensive program of rigorous study to prepare for a specific job. 

Professional degrees are required in professions such as medicine, law, or architecture, with some (medicine and law) also requiring a license to practice. Career options include Doctor of Medicine (MD), Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD), Juris Doctor (JD), and Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM), with degree programs ranging from three to five years. 

6. Doctorate degree 

Academic doctorates are more focused on contributions to research in a specific field

—Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) are the most common—and require students to conduct original research in their chosen field. Roles can include working as a professor or researcher in various settings. For example, someone interested in law may prefer to complete a doctorate and work in legal research and policy rather than practice law in the courtroom. 

You can jump from a bachelor’s degree to a doctorate or professional degree in some cases, however some programs require a masters degree for entry. Depending on the field of study, timescales for completion can range from four to eight years.

  • Seek advice from academic advisors, who can give insights into the labor market and appropriate degree options.
  • Consider completing an online degree. This option is perfect if you wish to continue working and studying on a part-time basis.
  • Choose a degree based on a romanticized view of the profession. Fully research the role to ensure it’s a good fit.
  • Forget to secure letters of recommendation for your degree application. Teachers, managers, or community leaders (who know you well) are great sources.

How to choose the right degree?

Selecting the right degree is all about finding the perfect balance between choosing a field that you are passionate about and one that offers a chance at a successful career. Your choice will not just impact the next two or four years but potentially your long-term career and the rest of your life. 

With so many diverse options available in terms of degree levels and courses, it’s important to research and bear the following factors in mind when making your final decision:

  • Personal interests.  What field of study excites you? Studying something you’re passionate about will motivate you to perform well and commit to your academic studies.

  • Professional goals. Where do you see yourself in the future? Does the degree align with that vision? Think about where you plan to be in five years and beyond.

  • Market demand. Is there market demand for the role you are targeting? Demand in the market will open doors to more career opportunities. 

  • Costs. Tuition fees can range from $5,000 to $50,000 per year along with accommodation and cost of living expenses. Remember that financial assistance and the future gain in terms of salary once your degree studies are completed can offset expenses.

If you’re deciding between different degree options and wondering whether you’ll enjoy the career you’re targeting, then job shadowing or informational interviews are a solution. Shadowing or interviewing an experienced professional allows you to test the waters and decide whether your prospective degree is a good fit. Reach out to target companies and your network to explore these types of opportunities.

Looking for help in career planning? Check out Career.io’s Career Pathways to explore potential career interests, identify required skills or skill gaps, and stay updated on job demand and competitive salaries.

Key takeaways

  1. The four types of degrees are: associate degree, bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and doctorate or professional degrees.

  2. Consider your personal and professional goals, market demand for the job you are targeting, and costs when making decisions about the degree you wish to pursue.

  3. Seeking advice from academic advisors or mentors, job shadowing, and informational interviews are beneficial when you're considering degree options.

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