Your Guide to Types of College Degrees

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published June 1, 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Many high-paying and desirable jobs require some level of college education. However, there's a great variety of degrees to consider when preparing for your career. If you're interested in attending college or furthering your education but aren't sure which credential would be most beneficial, you might benefit from learning about your options. In this article, we review the importance of different degree types and provide a comprehensive list of them.

Related: College Degree vs. No College Degree: Advantages and Disadvantages of Each

What's the importance of different college degree types?

The array of degrees that institutions of higher education offer serve several purposes. Some prepare students for specific jobs by equipping them with skills and knowledge. Others provide students technical and reasoning skills they can use in a variety of professions. Some students pursue a degree to explore a subject they're passionate about, treating career readiness as a secondary consideration.

Different types of degrees also represent substantially different investments of time, money and effort. Students can compare their options to find the best fit for their schedule, budget and ability. While some professions require intensive study and multiple degrees, others require a minimal college education, making cheaper and quicker degree programs more sensible.

Types of college degrees

Here are the different college degrees that might help you advance your education and career:

Associate degrees

Associate degrees are two-year degrees that community colleges, junior colleges and vocational schools grant. These institutions charge much less than traditional four-year colleges, though some four-year colleges do offer associate degrees. The lower cost of these programs might result from state and local funding, the absence of on-campus residences and a large proportion of part-time students. Someone might earn their associate degree to prepare for further undergraduate education, or they might need one for entry-level employment in a specific field. The typical associate degree distinctions are:

  • Associate of Arts: An Associate of Arts is typically a transfer degree that helps students fulfill general education requirements while gaining some in-depth exposure to a certain subject. This degree could serve as an occupational degree at some institutions.

  • Associate of Science: An Associate of Science also prepares students for further undergraduate study. However, instead of emphasizing a broad, liberal arts-based curriculum, it typically focuses on instruction in the sciences.

  • Associate of Applied Science: An Associate of Applied Science is almost always an occupational degree that prepares students for a specific career. Upon graduation, most students with this degree begin working, rather than continuing to study elsewhere.

Related: Is an Associate Degree Worth It?

Bachelor's degrees

Bachelor's degrees are the default credential most college students pursue when attending an undergraduate institution. They take four years to complete unless a student takes college-level classes in high school or a larger course load each semester. Usually, students majoring in liberal arts subjects earn a Bachelor of Arts degree, and students studying science, technology, engineering or mathematics earn a Bachelor of Science degree. Institutions typically have students complete general education requirements, major requirements and electives before graduation. For many jobs, a bachelor's degree is a basic eligibility requirement.

Undergraduate institutions often allow students to pursue several subjects seriously, rather than just one. They often offer the following arrangements for full-time students:

  • Single major: Students pursuing a single major graduate with a bachelor's degree that reflects their only specialization.

  • Major and minor: Students can add a minor to their major by completing a sequence of courses that establishes some expertise in another subject.

  • Double major: If a student seriously pursues two related subjects, such as biology and human development, they can earn a double major bachelor's degree.

  • Dual degree: If a student seriously pursues two unrelated subjects, they can earn a dual degree. For example, a student could earn both a Bachelor of Science in chemistry and a Bachelor of Arts in art history.

Related: 20 Medical Jobs You Can Get With a Bachelor's Degree

Master's degrees

Master's degrees are specialized, graduate-level degrees that usually take two years to complete. Applicants to master's programs typically have substantial academic or professional experience in the field they want to study. Master's degree curriculums are narrowly focused on a primary subject of study and require substantial research or the writing of a thesis. Some colleges and universities offer accelerated programs where undergraduate students can earn their master's degrees by completing one additional year of study. Depending on the subject, a master's degree could be a Master of Science, Master of Fine Arts or Master of Arts.

Most students pursue a master's degree for one of the following reasons:

  • To build an academic resume: For those interested in a career in academics, a master's degree is often an essential component of their educational progression. The work they do in graduate school allows them to develop specific research interests and collaborate with experts in their field.

  • To become a more competitive candidate: For some, a master's degree simply makes them a more qualified candidate for an array of jobs. Some businesses contribute to an employee's graduate education if the employee agrees to work for the company for an agreed-upon amount of time after graduating.

  • To access creative resources: Master of Fine Arts programs often support artists with funding for living expenses, creative mentors and peers and ample time to work on projects.

  • To meet a job requirement: Some companies and industries require candidates for certain jobs to have their master's degree.

Related: Highest Paying Master's Degrees

Doctoral degrees

Doctoral degrees are another option for graduate study, usually taking between two and six years to complete. Although some doctoral programs accept applicants with bachelor's degrees, most require applicants to have their master's. At this level of study, students have well-defined questions they seek to answer with research. Before graduating, they present their findings in a thesis that they defend before a committee of academic faculty. While taking courses and conducting research, doctoral students typically also have professional responsibilities as professors or administrators. In exchange for this work, many doctoral students pay little or no tuition.

Doctoral degrees are "terminal" degrees, the highest level of education one can get in a specialization. Aspiring academics rely on their doctoral work to become respected figures in their field. Other doctoral students might want to apply their expertise in the private sector or for research organizations. For instance, if interested in developing drugs for a pharmaceutical company, you likely need the depth of knowledge and research experience a doctoral degree offers.

Related: 38 Careers That Require a Doctoral Degree

Professional degrees

Professional degrees prepare students to work in a specific profession. The degree itself might technically be a master's or doctoral degree, but its value is as a necessary credential. The most typical examples of professional degrees are Doctor of Medicine and Juris Doctor degrees, required by medical doctors and lawyers. Professional degrees introduce students to core areas of competency they must understand before working in their respective roles. Students often gain real-world experience as part of their education, performing clinical work supervised by professionals in the field. Some professions that usually require a professional degree include:

  • Social workers

  • Veterinarians

  • Lawyers

  • Physicians

  • Psychiatrists

  • Architects

  • Psychologists

  • Nurse administrators

  • Teachers

Explore more articles