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Understanding Graduate & Professional School

Undergrad vs. Grad School

  • Graduate school provides an advanced education after completion of a bachelor’s (i.e., undergraduate) degree. The focus is typically on a concentrated course of study in preparation for a career in a particular field of research or professional practice.
  • Undergraduate students declare a major, but also are required to take a number of general education classes and may be allowed electives and options to meet graduation requirements.
  • Graduate classes tend to be smaller and limited to students in the program. These students typically complete classes together in cohorts based on the year they entered the program.
  • Graduate students are expected to conduct and defend independent research, complete internships, or fieldwork.
Degree Programs and Levels

Graduate degrees are available in almost any subject and come in three levels and two types. You may have the option of choosing programs outside of your undergraduate degree though some prerequisites may be required.

Two types of graduate degrees, professional and research, can be earned at the master’s, specialist, and doctoral levels, as well as a number of combinations of these types and levels. You are encouraged to research your desired career path well before selecting the discipline or program you will pursue in graduate school. Depending on the graduate school program and degree level you desire, your program requirements, length, and career outcomes will vary.

Types of Degrees

  • Professional degree programs: A professional program is designed to prepare those who intend to enter a specific profession like law, medicine, college student personnel, education, and many others.
  • Research degree programs: A research program is designed to contribute original research and a body of knowledge to a particular discipline like those that compose the humanities, the social sciences, the natural sciences, engineering, or communications and information, for example.

Level of Degrees

  • Specialist degrees are usually earned in addition to a master’s degree and will require additional coursework, training, or internship experience. This type of degree usually prepares students for professional certification or licensing requirements (e.g., Ed.S. for school principal or credential for becoming a teacher).
  • Master’s degrees are offered in many fields of study. Some are designed to lead to a doctoral degree while others are the “terminal” degree for a profession (e.g., Master of Library Science; Master of Business Administration). For full-time students, completing a master’s degree usually takes two years.
  • Doctoral degrees are the highest degrees possible. They usually require the creation of new knowledge via independent research–be it basic or applied. Including the time it takes to write and defend a dissertation, this degree may take anywhere from 5-7 years to complete.
Graduate School Lingo and Miscellaneous Tips

  • TA – Teaching Assistant
  • RA – Research Assistant or Residence Assistant
  • GA – Graduate Assistant
  • Thesis – Research paper completed after course work for master’s degree; the length varies but could reach up 75 pages
  • Dissertation – Extensive research paper completed after course work for a doctorate; usually more in-depth than a thesis and may reach over 100 pages
  • Non-thesis option – taking additional hours or completion of “problems in lieu of thesis” project as a substitute
  • Comps – written and/or oral exams administered at the end of course work for graduate programs. Oral exams are administered by a committee of faculty members from your program. You may or may not be allowed to contribute to the composition of the committee.
  • Full load – nine hours (nine hours is a heavy load)
  • Residency requirement – required on-campus full-time residence at the university (varies by institution)
  • Reading list – materials to be read in preparation for comps
  • GSA – Graduate Student Association
  • Thesis or Dissertation Committee – faculty who “guide” the development of your thesis or dissertation
  • Major Professor or Advisor – faculty member who most closely guides your work
  • Failing grade – a C may be considered failing; most graduate programs require students to earn As and Bs


Adapted from Graduate Admissions Essays by Donald Asher (Ten Speed Press, 2000), 1-800-841-BOOK or Donald Asher, Asher Associates, San Francisco, 415-543-7130,