Beyond the Bachelor’s: Academic Degrees Explained

Types of Academic Degrees Photo

In terms of degree goals, most students in high school have one light at the end of the academic tunnel: getting a high school diploma. But after high school, there are many different academic directions students can go when it comes to moving up in higher education. One college degree isn’t necessarily like the other.


Academic Degrees: "One college degree isn't like the other."Licenses and certifications are programs that vary by type and industry. They generally require fewer credits than an associate or bachelor’s degree and can usually be completed within a year. Certificate programs train students in a specific trade with more concentrated subject matter. Unlike associate degrees, certifications usually cannot be applied toward a higher degree (i.e., bachelor’s degree), although teacher certification can be combined with a bachelor’s when it comes to some state certification requirements.

 Some example certifications include:

  • Classroom management certificate
  • Broker license
  • Human resources management certificate

Associate Degree

An associate degree is a degree that typically takes two years to complete at community colleges, career colleges, and some four-year institutions. Sometimes, after receiving an associate degree, students will transfer to a four-year program to go on and work toward their bachelor’s degree.

The difference between an Associate of Arts (AA) and an Associate of Science (AS) is fairly self-explanatory. In addition to general education requirements, an Associate of Arts includes liberal arts classes, while the Associate of Science includes science classes.

Bachelor’s Degree

In the United States, bachelor’s degrees typically take four years to complete, although sometimes they can be completed in less time, depending on the student and an institution’s offerings.

The two main types of bachelor’s degrees are the Bachelor of Arts (BA) and the Bachelor of Science (BS). The difference between these two degrees is similar to the difference between the AA and AS. Again, in addition to general education courses, a BA focuses more on liberal arts classes, while a BS focuses more on science-related courses. Another way to think about it is that a BS is based more on practice, typically with numbers and science labs, while a BA is based more on academia, theory, and general education.

Examples of Bachelor’s Degrees

Examples of Bachelor of Science degrees:
Examples of Bachelor of Arts degrees:
Computer science/information technologyCommunications
Environmental scienceEnglish
MathematicsModern languages

Sometimes, however, you may have to choose whether you want to pursue a BA or a BS across the same major. For example, if you’re interested in studying psychology, you could pursue a BA track, which could focus more on areas like counseling and social work, or you could pursue a BS track, which could focus on areas like biopsychology, psychopharmacology, and neuroscience. Choosing a BA or a BS can sometimes dictate the career direction you want to go with a certain subject.

A few schools, such as Stanford and UC Davis, offer a Bachelor of Arts & Science (BAS). In order to receive a BAS, students must meet the curriculum requirements of two majors that would lead to both a BA and a BS. While a BAS is often meant to be completed within four years, it sometimes takes students longer to complete since there are more requirements. However, it is not a double degree; universities only bestow it as one.

Other Types of Bachelor’s Degrees

Besides the traditional BA and BS, there may be other variations by school and major. For example, Georgetown University offers a Bachelor of Science in Foreign Service (BSFS) degree.

Examples of other variations on bachelor’s degrees include these tagged degrees:

  • Bachelor of Architecture (BArch)
  • Bachelor of Pharmacy (BPharm)
  • Bachelor of Science in Public Health (BSPH)
  • Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA)

These types of degrees can differ from their BA and BS counterparts by curriculum. For example, the difference between Bachelor of Arts (BA) and a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) is that most BFAs are awarded to students by conservatories or art schools. BFAs also typically consist of four years of study within a major, with fewer general education classes, whereas BA and BS degrees generally involve two years of general education classes and two years of major study.

Master’s Degree

After the bachelor’s degree, the next level of study is the master’s degree. These degrees generally take two years to complete, and the most common ones include the Master of Arts (MA) and the Master of Science (MS).

Examples of other variations on master’s degrees include these tagged degrees:

  • Master of Business Administration (MBA)
  • Master of Counseling (MC)
  • Master of Library Science (MLS)
  • Master of Fine Arts (MFA)


Beyond the master’s degree, there is a doctorate or Ph.D. A doctorate enables the possessor to teach at a university level or to work in a specific field. Typically, it takes four or more years of study for a student to complete a doctorate, but this can vary depending on the school and program. Most doctoral candidates either focus on research or instruction and must defend their work with a thesis at the end of the program.

Other examples of doctorates include these tagged degrees:

  • Doctor of Architecture (D Arch)
  • Doctor of Criminology (D Crim)
  • Doctor of Fine Arts (DFA)
  • Doctor of Optometry (O.D.)

Other Degree Variations

Some schools offer other alternatives, including:

  • Joint degrees, which involve students completing their bachelor’s and master’s degrees together.
  • Liberal arts and career combination programs, with three years of liberal arts study and two years of professional or technical study, resulting in earning two bachelor’s degrees (a BA and a BS).
  • Post-bachelor’s or post-master’s degree certificates, which provide specialized study or training with less time and financial commitment than enrolling in a master’s or doctorate program.

The Bottom Line

Choosing a degree program is usually the first step toward a future career, so understanding the available academic degrees is essential to making the most of your education. To find colleges that offer the degree you’re looking for, check out the Basic College Search on Niche.

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  1. J Brennan

    How can you print this out without the recent posts and comments showing and making it hard to read the actual article?

    • Megan McLachlan

      Great suggestion, J Brennan. We added a PDF feature for printing right below the picture. Hope this helps!

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