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What is the Difference Between College Degrees?

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Welcome to the world of higher education! There are so many options and so much terminology in this place, where do you begin? For those starting their college search, you are going to have to answer a lot of questions about yourself—not just about the type of school you want, but also about what degree you hope to have.

In this article, we focus on degrees—divided by discipline and level of study. We want you leaving with more knowledge about the degrees available to you, what they mean and how to go about choosing and getting what you want. As most of you will choose to pursue a bachelor’s degree directly following high school, we will focus mostly on this degree level, but will also touch on associate, master’s and doctoral degrees.

Bachelor’s Degree vs. Major

Let’s clear up any confusion about these terms before we jump into this topic. Though they are very related, degree and major refer to two different things.

Your major is your specific focus of study. Perhaps you are interested in poetry, so you become an English major. Or, are you interested in the changing climate? Maybe you’ll major in environmental science. This, as you might have already surmised, is a big choice you make some time in your college career. Most schools don’t require that you pick a major until after your freshman year, though you may find scholarships and other benefits available to you by choosing a major before you apply to school.

You do not pick your degree like you pick a major. All majors fall into degree categories, which are divided by discipline. There are three types of bachelor degrees: arts, science and fine arts. Let’s review them.

Bachelor of Arts

A Bachelor of Arts degree—commonly abbreviated as B.A.—is one degree awarded to those who complete their bachelor credits. One who receives a B.A. likely passed a set amount of courses within the humanities, social sciences and liberal arts. What sets a B.A. degree apart from the other bachelor degrees is the diversity of the education. Though you will of course have to complete a certain amount of credits in your given major, you will also be expected and encouraged to take a wide range of courses in other fields of study. B.A. degrees promise to offer well-rounded educations.

You will likely receive a B.A. if you choose to major in subjects such as history, economics or a foreign language. That said, majors available within a B.A. degree vary by school. For example, you might be able to major in biology—a science—within a B.A. program if you are particularly interested in biology, but also want to get a degree that allows you to take courses in many disciplines, not just having to spend all of your time in biology labs. (More on that in the Bachelor of Science section below.)

Curious what other majors are available to you in a B.A. program? Check out this list of majors available to B.A. students at Indiana University as an example. Most colleges and universities will have a list of their majors divided by bachelor type on their websites.

Bachelor of Science

A Bachelor of Science degree—commonly abbreviated as B.S. or B.Sc.—is another degree awarded to those who complete their bachelor credits. One who receives a B.S. has likely done the majority of their coursework in the sciences with a particular focus on one specific science. That said, the largest differentiator in in a B.S. from a B.A. is the intensity of focus and exclusivity of coursework in a specific topic.

Yes, the majority of Bachelor of Science degrees are in sciences and technologies, such as chemistry, neuroscience and environmental science, but not all. For example, Northeastern University offers a B.S. in Music, which requires the students to also have a concentration within the music department. If a student wants to major in music with a minor or double major in some other category, they will receive a B.A. in Music. This B.S. is available to those who spend the majority of their undergraduate degree focused within the music department.

For a deeper dive into the breakdown of majors offered under a B.S., check out this other Boston school’s list of available undergraduate majors and the degrees available for each of them.

Bachelor of Fine Arts

Not to be confused with a B.A., a Bachelor of Fine Arts—B.F.A.—is for undergraduates seeking a degree in the visual or performing arts. Unlike with B.A. or B.S. degrees, the B.F.A. focuses less on lectures and traditional classroom discussions and more on action within a studio.

You will receive a B.F.A. if you major in acting, graphic design or drawing, among many others. Check out more comprehensive lists of majors within B.F.A. programs at schools such as the Maine College of Art in Portland and Pratt University in New York City.

Final Notes on Bachelor Degrees

There is no bachelor’s degree that is better than the other—they are equal levels of education. It is all about preference: Do you want to be a specialist or a generalist? A specialist will focus intensively on one topic and therefore likely get a Bachelor of Science. A generalist will want to take classes of all varieties while still majoring in a discipline that interests them the most and therefore will probably end up receiving a Bachelor of Arts.

If you’re interested in being a double major, many schools allow you to get a B.A. for one major and a B.S (or two B.A.s or B.S.s). for another major. You just can’t get a B.A. and B.S. for the same major. Take Brown University for example: If you would like a B.A. in history and a B.S. in conceptual biology, the school has a five-year program of study for which you can enroll if you inform the school of your intentions by the middle of your third year.

As discussed above, getting a B.A. or B.S. is more about the intensity of focus on a subject matter rather than the subject matter itself. Every school will have a determined list of what majors are offered in their B.A. and B.S. programs.

The most important thing for you to do is to pick your major. Find the one that interests you the most and/or sets you up for the career you want. Once you have determined your major, if it’s important to you—and it might not be—see if it’s offered as a B.A., B.S. or both. If the major you love and want to specialize in is only offered as a B.A., talk to your department chair about turning your degree into a B.S. Many schools let you create your own interdisciplinary major if you have a good plan. There is never any harm in asking for the degree that matches your goal of a broad or specialized education.

Thus far we have spent this article talking about bachelor degrees, because the majority of you will aim to complete a four-year education and therefore receive a bachelor’s degree. Major often matters less in the workplace than having that degree.

Other degrees are available to you, though, that you can get in place of a bachelor’s, before one and some that come after. Let’s cover the degrees available to you outside of bachelor’s in a little less detail.

Associates Degree

An associate degree is a postsecondary degree that is completed with two years of full-time enrollment. Like the bachelor’s degree, the associates degree is higher education you can receive directly following high school. This can be a good alternative to students who need at least some education for their career path, but are looking for a less expensive and shorter-term experience. Associate degrees are most often available at only community, technical and junior colleges.

There are four types of associate degrees: Associate of Arts (AA), Associate of Science (AS), Associate of Applied Art (AAA), and Associate of Applied Science (AAS). Most students get an associate degree for a purpose. Those with an AA or AS tend to use their degrees to transfer into bachelor programs. Those with an AAA or AAS tend to be working towards a specific vocational skill and career. For example, at South Texas College you can earn an AA in philosophy or an AS in mathematics, both general and easily transferable as a base into a bachelor’s program. Alternatively, you can earn an AAA in automotive technology or construction supervision—very specific majors for very specific jobs.

Master’s Degree

Bachelor and associate degrees are undergraduate degrees—higher education you can begin directly out of high school. A master’s degree is the first level of graduate study available after a bachelor’s. Really know what you like and what you want your career to become? A master’s degree may be right for you. Master’s degrees are available for probably any course of study you can imagine and are good for students interested in specializing their skills and focusing more deeply in a subject.

There are two types of master programs: course based and research based. As with bachelor degrees, one is no better than the other. It’s all about preference and goals. Course-based, or taught master, programs are very similar to an undergraduate experience. You will take courses, sit in lectures and participate in labs. A research-based program is much more independent. Instead of being directed on how to manage your time, you will be expected to complete a certain number of research projects and papers before the end of your schooling. These styles may overlap in your particular school.

A master’s degree takes one to two years to complete. The timing will be dependent on the requirements of the program, school and number of credit hours you are able to complete (you can often be enrolled full time or part time).

A master’s degree commonly known is the MBA—Master’s in Business Administration. This is what people get when they say they are going to business school.

Doctorate Degree

A doctorate degree is sometimes called a terminal degree, because is the highest academic accomplishment that can be received in any field. You may apply to a doctorate degree program directly out of a bachelor’s or master’s degree. It can often be much more difficult for a student to be accepted with only a bachelor’s degree, so many students choose to obtain their master’s and then apply. Doctorate degrees are for those who are truly excited and devoted to a specific area of study and aim to work in that field for a very long time. A doctorate education is a long and intensive commitment, taking anywhere from two to eight years after a bachelor’s or master’s to complete.

There are two types of doctorate programs: research and professional. A research doctorate—or PhD—requires candidates to develop their own original research, analysis and theory evaluation for graduation. This is formalized in papers written, presented and published throughout your doctorate years. Research doctorates are hyper specified in that you often have to apply to work with a specific professor on a subject related to or replicating their research or expertise. You can get a doctorate in almost any subject matter. For example, you may aim to be a Doctor of Philosophy, Doctor of Music or Doctor of Nursing Science. Most undergraduate colleges and universities require their professors to have a PhD. Getting a research doctorate is about becoming an expert in a very specific topic through research and analysis.

If you enroll in a professional doctorate, you will apply already existing research to the problems of your field, learning the solutions and processes accepted within your focus. Examples of those with professional doctorates that you encounter on a regular basis are your medical doctors (Doctor of Medicine, M.D.), lawyers (Juris Doctor, J.D.) and pharmacists (Doctor of Pharmacy, Pharm.D). You could also become a Doctor of Computer Science, Doctor of Management or Doctor of Ministry, among many others.

A Degree of Caution

If you are in high school and at the beginning of your college process, focus on what you want your major to be. Don’t worry about the long-term educational path you might take just yet. When you’re in school and realize you love the major you choose, then start thinking about if you would like to take your studies further. A master’s degree is good for practical career growth, but might not be worth attending until you are sure what you want to do for work and how this degree will support you. A doctorate is a degree to obtain only if you want your major to become your career. In short, no need to rush to make these decisions. It is also appropriate to take years off between degree programs and get work experience if that suits you best.

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