Often times people talk about graduate school and assume that it’s the same for everyone everywhere. I’m as guilty of this as anyone, as I usually assume a STEM subject and a thesis-based Masters degree followed by a Ph.D. when I refer to graduate school. In this post, I want to identify a few of the different types of graduate degrees. These are FAR from exhaustive!
Masters (Thesis option)
A Masters with a thesis option often entails coursework, perhaps 4 graduate courses, and the submission and PRESENTATION (not defense) of a thesis. The thesis is expected to be original, novel work that extends the understanding of the field in a minor way. This could be a replication of previous results or applying a known technique to a novel domain.
Initially, the Masters designation was interchangeable with professor or doctor and was viewed as the highest possible designation. Over time, doctor came to be viewed as a higher-level designation. During periods in the past, and continuing in some fields to today, a Masters degree was a “booby prize” given to students who were unable to complete a Ph.D., and the intention was to provide them with something for their time and effort investment. Some countries, notably Germany, have combined their bachelors and Masters degrees and students get a combination of these degrees from their undergraduate.
Masters have also been viewed as stepping-stones to a Ph.D.: you do your Masters, then you do your Ph.D. This isn’t always required, so if someone is confident that they want to do a Ph.D., they CAN sometimes go straight into it. I had a friend who had a meaty Masters project and his supervisor suggested turning it into a Ph.D. and leaving the Masters incomplete. I was very glad that I did a Masters, as I lost interest in the area I did my Masters in and moved to another area for my Ph.D.
Masters (Coursework Option)
The coursework option for a Masters is usually considered a terminal degree – you won’t be able to continue to a Ph.D. easily. This is sometimes offered to students as a “partial acceptance” if they apply to a school for graduate studies but none of the faculty are interested in supervising them. It will sometimes be pitched to them as “come do a coursework option masters here, meet the faculty, and find someone who will be willing to supervise you for your Ph.D. afterward”.
A coursework option Masters usually isn’t supported – you won’t be getting as much of a graduate stipend as you would with a thesis option. This means students can go into debt getting a Masters, which I think anyone should very carefully think about before doing.
A professional degree is usually intended to prepare you for a specific job, such as a lawyer, medical doctor, or psychologist. Some jobs have slightly more unusual setups. For example, school teachers will often have a bachelors in some subject, a bachelors in education, then a Masters in education, or another subject as well. Many school boards give salary incentives to teachers who have a Masters, but they will hire teachers without one. Academic librarians often have a library science Masters (MLS) plus a subject specialist Masters – in addition to a bachelors. Other types of librarians often will have a bachelors and the library Masters. Law librarians will often have a JD (professional degree in law) as well as the MLS.
I’ve had medical doctors and lawyers claim that their education included everything an academic Ph.D. would include, as well as all the practical training they received – which stretched incredulity beyond the breaking point for me. I think it *IS* fair to acknowledge that there’s often a (small) research component to these professional degrees.
A Ph.D. is the union card of academia and is usually awarded after completing multiple milestones. These are different between schools, but they can be broken down as a breadth requirement, a depth requirement, and a defense.
The breadth and depth requirement is usually a certain number of graduate courses that demonstrates, via the grades obtained, that the candidate has both a general understanding of the field as a whole and a focused interest in a specialty. This will often be published as a formula, where courses need to be taken to fulfill a variety of requirements. Some schools have a comprehensive exam in place of a breadth requirement. This is a high-stakes exam that a student must pass in order to officially be considered a doctoral candidate. Often there is a limited number of attempts, at which point a student will be removed from the program or transferred to a Masters.
A thesis defense will usually have a proposal and a defense, along with your actual dissertation. The proposal can be thought of as a bit of a negotiation, where your committee tries to push you to accomplish as much as possible, and you try to manage their expectations. You should have a clear understanding of what your committee expects from you after your proposal is accepted (it can be considered a “contract”). There is both a formative (help the student clarify their research and approach it in the best way) and summative (determine whether the student’s plan is worth pursuing) element to the proposal, which is a bit of a bummer. The candidate might like to get advice on something (formative), but doesn’t want to draw the committee’s attention to a possible problem (summative). Some schools actually break the proposal into 2 meetings, each with one of these purposes.
The defense entails a high-stakes gathering of your committee members, often with an external member who is a professor from another department at your university and an external who is a member of your research committee from outside your university. The objective of the committee is to evaluate if you have made a substantial contribution to the research community you’re working in.
What other types of graduate degrees have you encountered?