From Associate to Doctorate: A Complete Guide to College Degree Levels

Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
Updated April 12, 2024
Edited by
Reviewed by
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The four types of degrees are associate, bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees. Each college degree level equips you with skills for a successful career.

Are you ready to discover your college program?

Considering a college degree? First, you’ll have to understand the types of degrees and college degree levels.

Different degrees prepare you for different career paths. For example, you can’t become a psychologist with just a bachelor’s degree — you’d need a master’s or doctorate in psychology. And you usually can’t become an engineer without at least a bachelor’s degree.

Typically, as your university degree level rises, your earning potential increases, and the unemployment rate decreases. That’s one more reason it’s important to understand the different types of degrees.

What Types of Degrees Are There in College?

There are many types of degrees you can earn in college. College degree levels can be broken down into two categories: undergraduate degrees and graduate degrees.

Here are the college degrees in order, from lowest ranking to highest:

  • Associate degree (undergraduate)
  • Bachelor’s degree (undergraduate)
  • Master’s degree (graduate)
  • Doctoral degree (graduate)

While a doctorate is the highest education level, some fields may stop at a master’s. The phrase “terminal degree” refers to the highest degree in a field.

A professional degree is a type of graduate degree — often a doctorate — that prepares you for a professional career in fields like law and medicine.

Popular Online Programs

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

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Associate Degree

  • Typical Program Length: 1-2 years
  • Typical Number of Credits: 60

Most associate degrees prepare you to enter the workforce immediately upon graduation. These programs can be found at community and technical colleges and typically last 1-2 years.

An associate degree can also serve as the foundation for a bachelor’s program. You may even be able to transfer some of the credits you earned for your associate degree toward a four-year degree.

Some associate degrees require you to complete an internship or practicum in addition to taking classes. This is particularly common among healthcare and tech degrees.

To apply for an associate degree program, you’ll need a high school diploma or equivalent, like a GED certificate. Some schools may require you to submit standardized test scores, such as the ACT or the SAT, as well.

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What Can You Do With an Associate Degree?

An associate degree prepares you for vocational, allied health, and support roles. For example, you can become a medical assistant, paralegal, or vet tech with an associate degree.

The highest-paying careers with an associate degree pay over $80,000 per year. See the table below for salary information on other popular associate degree jobs.

Popular Associate Degree Jobs
JobMedian Annual Salary (2023)Job Growth Rate (2022-2032)
Dental Hygienist$87,5307%
Diagnostic Medical Sonographer$84,47010%
Web Developer$84,96016%
Computer Network Support Specialist$71,5305%
Respiratory Therapist$77,96013%
Occupational Therapy Assistant$65,45025%
Physical Therapist Assistant$64,08019%
Health Information Technologist$62,99016%
Veterinary Technician$43,74021%

Source: BLS

Types of Associate Degrees

Colleges can offer three kinds of associate degrees:

  • Associate of Arts (AA)
  • Associate of Science (AS)
  • Associate of Applied Science (AAS)

Arts, humanities, and creative fields typically offer an AA, whereas social sciences and natural sciences fields often award an AS. Many applied and vocational programs offer an AAS degree.

The type of degree matters if you’re planning to transfer into a bachelor’s program. Colleges normally offer fewer transfer credits for an AAS degree.

Bachelor’s Degree

  • Typical Program Length: 4 years
  • Typical Number of Credits: 120

A bachelor’s degree prepares you for many career paths. You’ll generally spend four years earning a bachelor’s degree at a college or university. You’ll take general education classes and courses in your major. You can also choose a minor.

Some colleges offer accelerated bachelor’s programs, which take less time — often 2-3 years. Degree-completion programs can also speed up the timeline by awarding you credit for previous college coursework.

You can earn your bachelor’s degree online as well. An online degree from an accredited college meets the same standards as that of an in-person degree.

You’ll need a high school diploma for admission and may also need to submit SAT or ACT scores.

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What Can You Do With a Bachelor’s Degree?

In diverse industries like business, tech, and education, a bachelor’s degree can prepare you for many entry-level careers. Some of the highest-paying jobs with a bachelor’s degree include roles in finance, management, and tech.

Graduates with a four-year degree can also benefit from high demand in many lucrative fields, like software development and engineering. The table below introduces some popular jobs with a bachelor’s degree.

Popular Bachelor’s Degree Jobs
JobMedian Annual Salary (2023)Job Growth Rate (2022-2032)
Software Developer$132,27025%
Mechanical Engineer$99,51010%
Technical Writer$89,0506%
Registered Nurse$86,0706%
Human Resources Specialist$67,6506%
High School Teacher$65,2201%
Graphic Designer$58,9103%
Social Worker$58,3807%
Substance Use, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselor$53,71018%

Source: BLS

Types of Bachelor’s Degrees

You can earn a bachelor’s degree in many fields. Some of the most common types of bachelor’s degrees you’ll see include:

  • Bachelor of Arts (BA)
  • Bachelor of Science (BS)
  • Bachelor of Applied Arts (BAA)
  • Bachelor of Applied Science (BAS)
  • Bachelor of Architecture (B.Arch.)
  • Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA)
  • Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA)
  • Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)

The two most popular degrees are a BA and a BS. These degrees cover all arts and sciences majors and some education and engineering degrees.

Master’s Degree

  • Typical Program Length: 1-3 years
  • Typical Number of Credits: 30

A master’s degree can help you gain specialized skills and qualify for higher-paying roles. As a graduate student, you’ll work closely with experts in your field to explore advanced topics.

While a master’s degree typically takes two years, some universities offer accelerated one-year master’s programs. You can also enroll in a bachelor’s-to-master’s program to earn both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in less time.

Most master’s programs require a minimum of 30 credits. Admission and graduation requirements vary depending on the program. For example, many arts and sciences master’s programs require GRE scores, while business programs typically require GMAT scores.

Featured Master’s Programs

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What Can You Do With a Master’s Degree?

With a master’s degree, you can qualify for management-level careers and specialized roles in industries like healthcare, research, and social services. The highest-paying master’s degrees include MBAs and nurse practitioner degrees.

Learn more about the earning potential and demand for popular master’s degree jobs below.

Popular Master’s Degree Jobs
JobMedian Annual Salary (2023)Job Growth Rate (2022-2032)
Physician Assistant$130,02027%
Nurse Practitioner$126,26038%
Political Scientist$132,3507%
Industrial-Organizational Psychologist$147,4206%
Marriage and Family Therapist$58,51015%
Occupational Therapist$96,37012%
Speech-Language Pathologist$89,29019%

Source: BLS

Types of Master’s Degrees

Here are some of the most common types of master’s degrees you can earn:

  • Master of Arts (MA)
  • Master of Science (MS)
  • Master of Business Administration (MBA)
  • Master of Education (M.Ed.)
  • Master of Fine Arts (MFA)
  • Master of Laws (LL.M.)
  • Master of Public Administration (MPA)
  • Master of Public Health (MPH)
  • Master of Public Policy (MPP)
  • Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)
  • Master of Social Work (MSW)

An MA and an MS are among the most popular master’s degrees. Humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences fields typically award an MA or an MS. Other popular options include an MBA and an M.Ed.

Doctoral Degrees

  • Typical Program Length: 2-10 years
  • Typical Number of Credits: Varies

A doctorate represents the highest degree you can get in academia. There are a few types of doctoral degrees you can get.

Professional doctorates train you for a professional career. For example, law school and med school are two common professional paths. A Ph.D., on the other hand — by far one of the most common types of doctorates — emphasizes theory and research.

In a doctoral program, you’ll take graduate-level seminars and courses, take comprehensive exams, conduct original research, and defend a dissertation in front of a faculty committee.

Most applied doctorates take 3-5 years, while a Ph.D. typically requires 4-6 years of coursework. In certain fields, you can earn your doctorate online.

Some doctoral programs require a master’s degree for admission, whereas others admit applicants with just a bachelor’s degree. You may need to submit standardized test scores depending on the program.

Featured Doctoral Programs

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What Can You Do With a Doctorate?

If you want to become a physician, professor, or lawyer, you’ll need a doctorate. In many fields, a doctorate translates into higher salaries. Lawyers, pharmacists, and physicists all report median salaries of over $125,000 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

The following table shows the earning potential and demand for popular doctoral degree jobs.

Popular Doctoral Degree Jobs
JobMedian Annual Salary (2023)Job Growth Rate (2022-2032)
Physician or Surgeon>$239,2003%
Physicist or Astronomer$155,6805%
Physical Therapist$99,71015%
Postsecondary Teacher$82,27012%

Source: BLS

Types of Doctoral Degrees

A doctorate is the highest education level, but there are still several types of doctoral degrees. Here are some of the most common you can get:

  • Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
  • Doctor of Business Administration (DBA)
  • Doctor of Education (Ed.D.)
  • Doctor of Medicine (MD)
  • Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)
  • Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm.D.)
  • Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.)
  • Juris Doctor (JD)

A Ph.D. is the most popular doctorate. You can earn a Ph.D. in many arts and sciences fields. Other doctorates take their names from the career path associated with the degree.

Frequently Asked Questions About College Degree Levels