What Are the Different Levels of College Degrees?

Last updated February 7, 2024

Most careers require only an associate or bachelor’s degree. However, some positions, such as doctors, lawyers and engineers, require you to earn higher levels of degrees before serving in those roles.

It’s important to map out your goals if you are interested in exploring one of these career paths. Though you can change your major as often as you’d like, some careers have specific educational tracks you must follow to enter the industry.

As you continue your education to higher levels of degrees, additional time and tuition are required. However, as you earn higher degrees, your starting income potential increases, and unemployment decreases because of the narrower scope of specialized knowledge you’ve gained through education.

The levels of college degrees, in order, are:

  • Associate degree
  • Bachelor’s degree
  • Master’s degree
  • Doctoral degree

For a complete breakdown of each level of college degree, keep reading.

Exploring the levels of college degrees

Associate degrees (undergraduate)

An associate degree is an education level beyond a high school diploma but not yet to the level of a bachelor’s degree. Typically, associate degrees are two-year programs (or 60 course hours) offered in community colleges and technical colleges. They prepare you to go directly into the workforce, though some associate degree graduates will go on to earn their bachelor’s degree as some course credits may transfer to four-year colleges.

There are three types of associate degrees: Associate of Arts (A.A.), Associate of Science (A.S.) and Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.). An A.A.S. in Nursing is a specific degree program that transfers into a specific vocation, whereas an A.A. in Liberal Arts is a generalized program of study.

Popular associate degree careers include:

  • Dental hygienist
  • Web developer
  • Paralegal
  • Veterinary technician

Bachelor’s degrees (undergraduate)

A bachelor’s degree is a four-year program (or 120 course hours) offered by colleges and universities. Bachelor’s degrees require you to take general education courses (such as math, English and science) and specialized courses related to your chosen major.

Bachelor’s degrees offer a broad variety of subjects – more than any of the other levels of college degrees. You may choose from arts and sciences, business, psychology, and studio art, to name a few. Each of these programs of study will come with a different designation, such as the two most popular levels of bachelor’s degrees – B.A. (Bachelor of Arts) or B.S. (Bachelor of Science).

A Bachelor of Arts (B.A) degree covers all arts studies, including anthropology, communications, French, music and politics (to name a few). In contrast, a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) includes studies of sciences, including engineering, mathematics, neuroscience and public \health.

Popular careers that require a bachelor’s degree include:

  • Software developer
  • Microbiologist
  • Registered nurse
  • High School teacher
  • Graphic designer

Master’s degrees (graduate)

A master’s degree is an advanced degree obtained after a bachelor’s, typically requiring 1-2 years of additional study (or 30 course hours). Master’s degrees allow students to specialize in a particular area of interest, such as business, health and sciences or art, to become more employable or knowledgeable in an area of study. 

Some master’s programs offer accelerated timelines, online-only programs or even nighttime courses for professionals in full-time careers. In 2021, 52.8 million people held a bachelor’s degree, while 24.1 million held a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree.

A Master of Arts (M.A.) and Master of Science (M.S.) are the most popular master’s degree programs. However, Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.), Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.) and Master of Social Work (MSW) are also popular programs.

Popular careers that typically require a master’s degree include:

  • Physician assistant
  • Political scientist
  • Occupational therapist
  • Historian
  • Social worker

Doctoral degrees (graduate)

A doctoral degree (Ph.D.) is the highest level of degree, often requiring several years of research and study beyond a master’s degree. The length of time and course hours needed vary depending on the focus of the study. 

Doctoral degrees emphasize research; therefore, Ph.D. students often find careers in academia or highly specialized fields, such as medical, political or legal. A doctoral program requires students to participate in advanced courses, graduate-level seminars, and research labs and defend a dissertation to a committee.

A Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) is the most commonly known doctoral degree, but these degree programs are not reserved for philosophy students. You can earn a Ph.D. in many other subjects, such as health and sciences or the arts. Other popular doctoral degrees include the Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) and Juris Doctor (J.D.), which includes lawyers.

Popular professions that require a doctoral degree include:

  • Physician or surgeon
  • Pharmacist
  • Lawyer
  • Postsecondary teacher or professor
  • Dentist

Pre-professional programs, certificates, and minors

Pre-professional programs, certificates and minors are also available to add to your college diploma. These programs allow you to further your education with knowledge that complements your overall degree program or further your studies in an area of personal interest or development.

Pre-professional programs

A pre-professional program prepares students for specific professional degrees in areas such as law or medicine. These programs provide the foundational knowledge necessary for success in professional schools, such as medical school. Popular pre-professional programs include pre-med or pre-law.

Certificate programs

Certificate programs are short-term courses (or collections of courses) designed to strengthen specific career skills. They develop practical skills often valued in the job market and look attractive on job applications and resumes. Certificate programs are often related to newer subjects within a degree of study. For example, social media studies are more recent programs designed to educate students on rising social media trends in the marketing and advertising industries. 


Minors are additional areas of study outside a student’s major. Minors don’t typically contribute to the varying levels of college degrees, though they can complement chosen majors. Minors are not required to graduate, but they do allow students to explore diverse interests to enhance their professional skills and career marketability. Popular minor programs include foreign languages, journalism and data analytics

No matter what career path you’re interested in, there’s a level of college degree to help get you there. While some careers require more extensive studies (like surgeon or lawyer), others require a shorter education, like veterinary technician. There is flexibility and variety available in all degree programs!

When you’re considering your path through college and the career world, exploration is encouraged. It’s wise to research all levels of degree programs related to your interests and desired career. You may even find a program that allows you to reach career certification while studying a personal interest!

Understanding the varying levels of degrees and available certificate and minor programs will allow you to make informed decisions about your higher education journey, ultimately saving you time (and tuition!) as you reach your dream career.

What degrees can you get at Furman University?

Furman offers more than 70 majors, minors and programs, each designed to prepare you for a successful career. Whether you choose a bachelor’s degree program now, enroll in one of Furman’s graduate programs after graduation or plan to continue to a doctoral degree, our advisors can help you with the tools you need to continue achieving your goals.

The perspectives and thoughts shared in the Furman Blog belong solely to the author and may not align with the official stance or policies of Furman University. All referenced sources were accurate as of the date of publication.