What Is Graduate School?

by Genevieve Carlton

Updated September 9, 2022


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Graduate school can bring career benefits, but for many students, it's also a financial burden.

In many professions, a graduate degree pays off. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), earning a master's degree increases median earnings by nearly $13,000 per year over a bachelor's degree — and a doctorate or first-professional degree increases earning potential even more. Some careers even require a graduate degree, especially in fields like healthcare or legal services.

But what is graduate school? And should you go to graduate school? This article walks through different graduate degrees, helping prospective grad students make informed decisions about their educational futures.

What Is Graduate School?

Graduate school provides focused, academic training in specialized fields, resulting in master's degrees, doctorates, or first-professional degrees. Most master's and doctoral programs emphasize research and academic skills, while first-professional degrees train graduates for specific careers. Typically, graduate students have already earned bachelor's degrees.

What Is a Master's Degree?

A master's degree introduces students to graduate-level coursework, which often includes a dissertation requirement. Several career paths require a master's degree for entry-level roles, including school principal, economist, and managerial roles in business.

Many master's programs require bachelor's degrees or experience for admission. For example, applicants may need specific prerequisite courses or a certain number of years of professional work in the field. Earning a master's degree typically takes two years for full-time students.

What Is a Doctorate?

A doctoral degree offers advanced, specialized study in an academic area. As a terminal degree, a doctorate is the highest level of training available in most fields. Doctoral degree-holders typically hold research, academic, or leadership positions; for example, college professors and psychologists typically need doctorates.

Most doctoral programs require a master's degree for admission. Completing a doctorate can take 3-5 years, depending on the program.

What Is a First-Professional Degree?

A first-professional degree provides graduate-level training in a professional field. Unlike master's programs, first-professional degrees typically do not require undergraduate degrees in the discipline, though they often require applicants to have a bachelor's degree of some variety.

Examples of first-professional degrees include Juris Doctor (JD) — which lawyers usually need before they can take the bar exam — and doctor of medicine degrees, which medical doctors need to practice medicine. Other fields that offer first-professional degrees include dental medicine, optometry, pharmacy, and physical therapy. Completing a first-professional degree generally takes 3-6 years.

Which Careers Require Graduate School?

While a graduate degree is an advantage in most fields, there are some careers that require it, usually as part of the licensure process. This is most common in education or healthcare fields. For example, a school counselor must hold a master's degree, while lawyers need first-professional degrees. Librarians generally need master's degrees, as do clinical social workers. Medical scientists typically hold doctorates, as do many college professors.

Pursuing Graduate Study in the Humanities

A graduate degree in the humanities or social sciences prepares students for careers in academia or advancement within their fields. For instance, a master's degree in English can lead to employment as a high school teacher, while doctoral degrees in history train graduates to become history professors. With a master's degree in theater, a graduate can find employment as a director, playwright, or actor.

Most graduate students in the humanities already hold bachelor's degrees in their fields, though they can also major in an unrelated subject. Humanities graduate programs often require exams and a thesis or dissertation, depending on the degree level.

Pursuing Graduate Study in STEM

STEM fields include the natural sciences, computer science, information technology, mathematics, and engineering. A doctorate in science or mathematics prepares graduates for careers as professors or research scientists, while a master's degree in information technology can lead to employment as a data scientist, computer and information research scientist, or IT manager. Some programs combine STEM fields with business or management classes.

Most STEM graduate programs require applicants to have completed undergraduate math courses, and many programs prefer STEM-related undergraduate majors. Graduate students in STEM typically complete thesis projects to earn their degrees.

Pursuing Graduate Study in Business

A graduate degree in business emphasizes practical skills for executives and those pursuing careers in management. The most popular graduate degree is the master of business administration (MBA), which trains learners for supervisory positions in marketing, finance, healthcare administration, and human resources. A business graduate student can also earn a doctor of business administration (DBA) or a Ph.D. in business. While the DBA focuses on professional skills, the Ph.D. emphasizes research and academic career prospects.

During a business graduate program, degree-seekers take classes in management, organizational behavior, and leadership. Most programs offer concentrations in supply chain management, information systems management, or international business. In addition to coursework, graduate students often complete internships and capstone projects.

Business graduate programs typically do not require undergraduate degrees in business, though many require introductory courses in business administration, marketing, finance, or statistics. A doctoral program may require a master's degree for admission.

Pursuing First-Professional Degrees

A first-professional degree offers career-focused training for jobs that require graduate-level education. Prospective lawyers, doctors, pharmacists, dentists, and veterinarians must earn first-professional degrees to qualify for examinations or earn licensure. For example, lawyers who want to practice law must sit for the bar exam, and medical students take medical licensing exams to become physicians and surgeons.

The length of first-professional degrees varies by field. Law students complete three years of coursework to earn their degrees, while a doctor of pharmacy program typically requires four years. Medical students spend four years completing classes in medical school before earning their degrees and then furthering their training with residencies.

Incoming first-professional degree students often must meet prerequisite requirements. Medical schools and physical therapy programs, for instance, require coursework in the natural sciences, anatomy, and mathematics to gain admission.

Career Benefits

Even in fields where a graduate degree is not required for license qualifications, earning one can still help professionals advance in their current field or move into a new career.

A graduate degree can yield a higher earning potential in nearly every field. In 2018, men with master's degrees reported a median annual income of $99,620, compared to $75,150 with a bachelor's degree. Meanwhile, women with master's degrees earned $66,740, compared to only $56,680 with a bachelor's. Doctorates similarly increase earning potential: Men with doctoral degrees earned $115,790, while women with doctorates earned $95,170.

In addition to higher salaries, a graduate education often leads to a lower unemployment rate. In 2019, the BLS reported an unemployment rate of 2.0% for professionals with master's degrees and 1.1% for those with doctorates. Both figures fall well below the average rate of 3.0%.

Highest-Earning Careers With a Master's Degree
Career 2019 Median Salary Projected Career Growth (2019-2029)
Computer and Information Research Scientists $122,840 15%
Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners $115,800 45%
School Principals $96,400 4%
Mathematicians and Statisticians $92,030 33%
Source: BLS
Highest-Earning Careers With a Doctorate Degree
Career 2019 Median Salary Projected Career Growth (2019-2029)
Lawyers $122,960 4%
Physicists & Astronomers $122,220 7%
Optometrists $115,250 4%
Postsecondary Economics Teacher $104,370 9%
Source: BLS

Financial Considerations

For many students, financial factors are the biggest question when it comes to attending graduate school. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average tuition and fees for graduate school exceeds $19,000 per year. Many private schools charge even higher rates.

As a result, many graduate learners carry student loan debt. In 2016, 52.8% of master's enrollees had student debt, with an average of $50,300 to repay. Among doctoral-level learners, 43.6% reported student debt, with an average of $105,700 in loans. Similarly, 73.5% of first-professional degree students took out loans, adding up to an average of $178,800 in related debt.

In some schools — particularly online, hybrid, and part-time programs — graduate students can continue to work while earning their degrees, reducing the need to take out loans. Full-time or accelerated programs are often too time-consuming for degree-seekers to maintain employment.

Who Should Go to Graduate School?

The decision to go to grad school depends on your interests and career goals. Some career paths require graduate degrees: If you're set on a career as a dentist or a college professor, you'll need to attend graduate school. However, you can also consider alternatives that do not require graduate degrees, like becoming a dental hygienist or high school teacher.

Prospective grad students also need to balance the professional benefits of advanced degrees against the associated costs. It's worth considering the opportunity cost of graduate study. Can you work while earning a degree or will you need to leave the workforce for several years? How will that impact your career goals? The answer is different for everyone, so it's important to do your own research.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Is Graduate School Like?

In graduate school, degree-seekers take advanced courses in their fields. Many graduate programs allow students to specialize in a focus area within the discipline. Depending on the program, grad students might analyze data, evaluate arguments, complete projects, and write papers. Some graduate programs require comprehensive examinations or dissertations.

Is Graduate School Difficult?

The difficulty of graduate school depends on the student and the program. Grad schools expect solid foundational knowledge in the discipline, with many programs setting high expectations. However, some students find grad school engaging and exciting, despite the difficulty.

Is Graduate School Worth It?

In many fields, a graduate degree pays off. While grad school tuition can add up, professionals with master's or doctoral degrees consistently out-earn those with only bachelor's degrees, so the long-term financial rewards may outweigh the cost of student loans.

How Many Years Is Graduate School?

The length of a graduate program depends on the degree and field. Some programs offer accelerated one-year master's degrees, while a doctorate can take five years or longer. When researching graduate school timelines, pay attention to the type of program. An accelerated program is more intensive, but finishes sooner, while a part-time program takes longer, but allows for more schedule flexibility.

What Do You Do in Graduate School?

In many graduate programs, learners take courses, seminars, and workshops to strengthen their knowledge and skills. Grad students may also complete internships, work on capstone projects, or research and write theses.

Should You Go to Graduate School?

If you're considering a graduate-level education, take the time to research the total cost of the degree, the placement record for each prospective program, and whether you need a graduate degree for advancement in your chosen career. In the end, only you can decide whether a graduate degree is right for you.

Header Image Credit: SDI Productions | Getty Images

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