From Associate to Doctorate: A Complete Guide to College Degree Levels

The four types of degrees are associate, bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees. Each college degree level equips you with skills for a successful career.
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Updated August 31, 2023

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Are you ready to discover your college program?

Considering a college degree? First, you'll have to understand the types of degrees and college degree levels.

Different degrees prepare you for different career paths. For example, you can't become a psychologist with just a bachelor's degree — you'd need a master's or doctorate in psychology. And you usually can't become an engineer without at least a bachelor's degree.

Typically, as your university degree level rises, your earning potential increases, and the unemployment rate decreases. That's one more reason it's important to understand the different types of degrees.

What Types of Degrees Are There in College?

There are many types of degrees you can earn in college. College degree levels can be broken down into two categories: undergraduate degrees and graduate degrees.

Here are the college degrees in order, from lowest ranking to highest:

While a doctorate is the highest education level, some fields may stop at a master's. The phrase "terminal degree" refers to the highest degree in a field.

A professional degree is a type of graduate degree — often a doctorate — that prepares you for a professional career in fields like law and medicine.

Popular Online Programs

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

Associate Degree

Most associate degrees prepare you to enter the workforce immediately upon graduation. These programs can be found at community and technical colleges and typically last 1-2 years.

An associate degree can also serve as the foundation for a bachelor's program. You may even be able to transfer some of the credits you earned for your associate degree toward a four-year degree.

Some associate degrees require you to complete an internship or practicum in addition to taking classes. This is particularly common among healthcare and tech degrees.

To apply for an associate degree program, you'll need a high school diploma or equivalent, like a GED certificate. Some schools may require you to submit standardized test scores, such as the ACT or the SAT, as well.

Featured Associate Programs

What Can You Do With an Associate Degree?

An associate degree prepares you for vocational, allied health, and support roles. For example, you can become a medical assistant, paralegal, or vet tech with an associate degree.

The highest-paying careers with an associate degree pay over $50,000 per year. See the table below for salary information on other popular associate degree jobs.

Popular Associate Degree Jobs
Job Median Annual Salary (May 2021) Job Growth Rate (2021-2031)
Dental Hygienist $77,810 9%
Diagnostic Medical Sonographer $77,740 15%
Web Developer $77,030 30%
Computer Network Support Specialist $62,760 7%
Respiratory Therapist $61,830 14%
Occupational Therapy Assistant $61,730 25%
Physical Therapist Assistant $61,180 26%
Paralegal $56,230 14%
Health Information Technologist $55,560 17%
Veterinary Technician $36,850 20%

Source: BLS

Types of Associate Degrees

Colleges can offer three kinds of associate degrees:

Arts, humanities, and creative fields typically offer an AA, whereas social sciences and natural sciences fields often award an AS. Many applied and vocational programs offer an AAS degree.

The type of degree matters if you're planning to transfer into a bachelor's program. Colleges normally offer fewer transfer credits for an AAS degree.

Bachelor's Degree

  • Typical Program Length: 4 years
  • Typical Number of Credits: 120

A bachelor's degree prepares you for many career paths. You'll generally spend four years earning a bachelor's degree at a college or university. You'll take general education classes and courses in your major. You can also choose a minor.

Some colleges offer accelerated bachelor's programs, which take less time — often 2-3 years. Degree-completion programs can also speed up the timeline by awarding you credit for previous college coursework.

You can earn your bachelor's degree online as well. An online degree from an accredited college meets the same standards as that of an in-person degree.

You'll need a high school diploma for admission and may also need to submit SAT or ACT scores.

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What Can You Do With a Bachelor's Degree?

In diverse industries like business, tech, and education, a bachelor's degree can prepare you for many entry-level careers. Some of the highest-paying jobs with a bachelor's degree include roles in finance, management, and tech.

Graduates with a four-year degree can also benefit from high demand in many lucrative fields, like software development and engineering. The table below introduces some popular jobs with a bachelor's degree.

Popular Bachelor's Degree Jobs
Job Median Annual Salary (May 2021) Job Growth Rate (2021-2031)
Software Developer $120,730 26%
Mechanical Engineer $95,300 2%
Microbiologist $79,260 9%
Technical Writer $78,060 6%
Registered Nurse $77,600 6%
Human Resources Specialist $62,290 8%
High School Teacher $61,820 5%
Graphic Designer $50,710 3%
Social Worker $50,390 9%
Substance Misuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselor $48,520 22%

Source: BLS

Types of Bachelor's Degrees

You can earn a bachelor's degree in many fields. Some of the most common types of bachelor's degrees you'll see include:

  • Bachelor of Arts (BA)
  • Bachelor of Science (BS)
  • Bachelor of Applied Arts (BAA)
  • Bachelor of Applied Science (BAS)
  • Bachelor of Architecture (B.Arch.)
  • Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA)
  • Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA)
  • Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)

The two most popular degrees are a BA and a BS. These degrees cover all arts and sciences majors and some education and engineering degrees.

Master's Degree

A master's degree can help you gain specialized skills and qualify for higher-paying roles. As a graduate student, you'll work closely with experts in your field to explore advanced topics.

While a master's degree typically takes two years, some universities offer accelerated one-year master's programs. You can also enroll in a bachelor's-to-master's program to earn both a bachelor's and master's degree in less time.

Most master's programs require a minimum of 30 credits. Admission and graduation requirements vary depending on the program. For example, many arts and sciences master's programs require GRE scores, while business programs typically require GMAT scores.

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What Can You Do With a Master's Degree?

With a master's degree, you can qualify for management-level careers and specialized roles in industries like healthcare, research, and social services. The highest-paying master's degrees include MBAs and nurse practitioner degrees.

Learn more about the earning potential and demand for popular master's degree jobs below.

Popular Master's Degree Jobs
Job Median Annual Salary (May 2021) Job Growth Rate (2021-2031)
Physician Assistant $121,530 28%
Nurse Practitioner $120,680 46%
Political Scientist $122,510 6%
Industrial-Organizational Psychologist $105,310 4%
Marriage and Family Therapist $49,880 14%
Occupational Therapist $85,570 14%
Economist $105,630 6%
Speech-Language Pathologist $79,060 21%
Statistician $95,570 33%
Historian $63,940 4%

Source: BLS

Types of Master's Degrees

Here are some of the most common types of master's degrees you can earn:

An MA and an MS are among the most popular master's degrees. Humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences fields typically award an MA or an MS. Other popular options include an MBA and an M.Ed.

Doctoral Degrees

  • Typical Program Length: 2-10 years
  • Typical Number of Credits: Varies

A doctorate represents the highest degree you can get in academia. There are a few types of doctoral degrees you can get.

Professional doctorates train you for a professional career. For example, law school and med school are two common professional paths. A Ph.D., on the other hand — by far one of the most common types of doctorates — emphasizes theory and research.

In a doctoral program, you'll take graduate-level seminars and courses, take comprehensive exams, conduct original research, and defend a dissertation in front of a faculty committee.

Most applied doctorates take 3-5 years, while a Ph.D. typically requires 4-6 years of coursework. In certain fields, you can earn your doctorate online.

Some doctoral programs require a master's degree for admission, whereas others admit applicants with just a bachelor's degree. You may need to submit standardized test scores depending on the program.

Featured Doctoral Programs

What Can You Do With a Doctorate?

If you want to become a physician, professor, or lawyer, you'll need a doctorate. In many fields, a doctorate translates into higher salaries. Lawyers, pharmacists, and physicists all report median salaries of over $125,000 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

The following table shows the earning potential and demand for popular doctoral degree jobs.

Popular Doctoral Degree Jobs
Job Median Annual Salary (May 2021) Job Growth Rate (2021-2031)
Physician or Surgeon >$208,000 3%
Dentist $163,220 6%
Physicist or Astronomer $147,450 8%
Pharmacist $128,570 2%
Lawyer $127,990 10%
Veterinarian $100,370 19%
Physical Therapist $95,620 17%
Psychologist $81,040 6%
Postsecondary Teacher $79,640 12%
Audiologist $78,950 10%

Source: BLS

Types of Doctoral Degrees

A doctorate is the highest education level, but there are still several types of doctoral degrees. Here are some of the most common you can get:

  • Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
  • Doctor of Business Administration (DBA)
  • Doctor of Education (Ed.D.)
  • Doctor of Medicine (MD)
  • Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)
  • Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm.D.)
  • Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.)
  • Juris Doctor (JD)

A Ph.D. is the most popular doctorate. You can earn a Ph.D. in many arts and sciences fields. Other doctorates take their names from the career path associated with the degree.

Frequently Asked Questions About College Degree Levels

What are the four types of college degrees?

The four types of college degrees are associate degrees, bachelor's degrees, master's degrees, and doctoral degrees. Colleges classify associate and bachelor's degrees as undergraduate degrees and master's and doctoral degrees as graduate degrees.

Within those categories, you can earn many types of degrees. For instance, at the bachelor's level, you could earn a bachelor of arts (BA), a bachelor of science (BS), or a bachelor of fine arts (BFA) degree.

What is a four-year college degree called?

A four-year college degree is called a bachelor's degree. Another term for this degree type is a baccalaureate degree.

Many careers require a bachelor's degree for entry-level roles. For example, most careers in business require you to hold a bachelor's degree. Many roles in tech, education, the public sector, and engineering also require you to have a four-year degree.

Some career paths require a specific major. In many states, you'll need a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) to become a registered nurse. In other fields, your specific major matters less than the quality of your skills.

What is the highest degree?

The highest degree is a doctorate, also called a doctoral degree. In terms of university degree levels, both master's and bachelor's degrees rank below doctorates.

You can earn a doctorate in a wide array of fields, including the social sciences, business, the humanities, education, engineering, and healthcare.

In some fields, however, a master's degree represents the terminal, or highest, degree. For instance, a master of fine arts (MFA) is the terminal degree for creative writing.

What is the hardest college degree?

Most would agree that the hardest college degree is a doctorate. As the highest education level, a doctorate requires significant expertise in the field.

Many Ph.D. programs take six years or more and require you to write a book-length dissertation based on original research.

Because a doctorate represents the top of the university degree levels, it's a relatively uncommon degree. Only around 2% of U.S. adults held a doctorate in 2022, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

What is the quickest degree?

The fastest degree you can get is either a one-year associate degree or a one-year master's degree. While other types of degrees typically take a minimum of two years, you can earn a master's degree in one year with an accelerated or fast-track program.

You can sometimes add a master's degree to your bachelor's through a 4+1 program, also known as a bachelor's-to-master's program. In this case, some of your coursework counts toward both your undergraduate and graduate degrees, meaning you'll spend an additional year in college to leave with a master's degree.

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