Both a bachelor’s and master’s degree can open up rewarding learning and career opportunities. Read to the end of this bachelors vs masters degree article to find out the key differences and reasons why you should study both.
A bachelor’s degree is a post-secondary degree, typically requiring the completion of eight semesters or four years of coursework, that can prepare students for entry-level and intermediate-level studies in their field of study, as well as for further study at the graduate level.
A master’s degree is a graduate degree that provides continuing education and instruction in a specific area of study and can prepare students for more specialized, higher-level positions and/or doctoral programs in that field.
While the upper-level coursework offered in the bachelor’s programs may overlap with the introductory coursework in the master’s program, the curricula of the bachelor’s programs are designed to provide students with a foundation for further academic and professional achievement through a combination of general education and a fixed set of studies in one specific major.
The curricula of the master’s degree programs do not contain any general education requirements and, depending on the degree program and field of study, can take three or four semesters or about one to two years.
The components of a bachelor’s degree
While there are different types of undergraduate programs, including Bachelor of Arts (BA) and Bachelor of Science (BS), most undergraduate programs have two main components: general course requirements and electives, and core courses and electives within a chosen major.
The general education requirements are usually met in the first two years or four semesters of a bachelor’s program and typically include courses in English, mathematics, social sciences, science, history, arts, and culture.
Some undergraduate programs may also require a certain number of general education credits in other areas, such as a foreign language or physical education.
At some point in the first semesters of a bachelor’s degree, the students have to declare a field of study that largely specifies the majors for further studies.
How and when students qualify and declare their courses depends on the program and its structure. In some areas, particularly those that require a professional license and/or supervised internship, it may be beneficial for students to indicate their specialization at the beginning or shortly after beginning their undergraduate studies.
Additionally, some programs may require students to apply for and be accepted into certain highly competitive courses.
Finally, some schools, including schools that offer online baccalaureate programs, may require students to apply to certain baccalaureate programs (eg, Bachelor of Nursing, Bachelor of Education) as part of the initial admissions process.
Structure and duration of bachelor’s courses
The structure of baccalaureate programs varies by school and program, and there may be structural differences between different courses offered by the same school.
However, general education requirements and non-specialist electives can cover up to half or more of the credits required for the award of a Bachelor’s degree.
Courses and other requirements within a particular degree, on the other hand, typically add up to one-third to one-half of the credits required for a bachelor’s degree.
For example, a 120-credit high school diploma program may award 50 credits for general education needs and offer a variety of baccalaureate and baccalaureate courses, some requiring completion of as little as 42 credits, while others require students to complete up to 50 or more credits.
The remaining credits required for a bachelor’s degree are commonly assigned to electives that may or may not count toward a secondary or secondary major, as some programs allow students to take minors in an area other than a major or dual major to be in two fields of study.
The table below shows a simplified example of how the credit and course requirements might be structured for a bachelor’s degree, which awards an average of three credits per course and requires students to earn 120 credits, which is a common number of credits for a bachelor’s degree.
A student enrolled full-time in a bachelor’s program like the one described above can graduate in four years and take an average of five classes per semester for eight semesters.
Students taking classes during the summer semesters can complete a program structured in this way in less than four years, or reduce the number of courses they take per semester to three or four over a four-year period.
Bachelor Degree Programs
There are numerous specialization opportunities at the undergraduate level, some of which are offered more frequently than others.
Most colleges and universities offer courses in a variety of humanities, social sciences, and sciences such as English, biology, chemistry, communications, history, mathematics, philosophy, physics, psychology, and sociology.
Courses in more specialized areas such as accounting, business administration, cybersecurity, data analysis, engineering, environmental studies, library science, nursing, social work, and teaching are offered by some but not all schools.
Potential bachelor’s degree candidates should research programs carefully to determine which schools offer a specialization in their area of interest or in a closely related field.
Based on an analysis of recent data collected by the Department of Education for its Integrated Higher Education Data System (IPEDS), the ten most common majors or areas of study are:
- Health professions
- Social sciences and history
- Social sciences
- Biological and biomedical sciences
- Visual and performing arts
- Communication and journalism
As mentioned earlier, different courses have different requirements. Students specializing in a liberal arts discipline may be required to submit a course completion article or thesis, while those specializing in a science field may be required to complete a research project.
Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) programs generally require students to create a portfolio of their work or present some form of presentation prior to receiving their degree.
Undergraduate programs in career fields such as nursing, social work, and accounting may require students to complete a specified number of supervised hours of field training, practice, or internship as part of their specialization.
Admission to bachelor’s degree programs
Admission requirements and eligibility criteria vary by program. However, most baccalaureate programs, regardless of their admission requirements, require applicants to have a high school diploma or equivalent.
In addition, students may be required to submit scores from a standardized test such as the SAT. two or three letters of recommendation; a written statement of personal goals; and/or answers to one or more essay questions.
Finally, some baccalaureate programs may require or require interviews with applicants. For specific information about a program’s admissions policy, prospective applicants should contact an admissions advisor or administrator at that school.
Components of Master’s degree programs
One of the main differences between bachelor’s and master’s courses lies in the general education courses, which are not part of a master’s course.
Instead, master’s degree curricula focus solely on various facets of the field of study of the degree, which may include courses in the major and specialized courses within a field, as well as laboratory, internship, internship, and/or field training, as appropriate to the field of study.
For example, the curriculum of a Master of Business Administration (MBA) program typically includes required courses in key business functions such as accounting, finance, logistics, marketing, organizational science, and human resources and project management.
In addition, MBA programs often offer students choices in other areas, such as business analysis, cybersecurity, digital marketing, entrepreneurship, healthcare management, hospitality management, and public relations, and many MBA programs have specific tracks in one or more of these areas and other specializations.
Many master’s programs in other fields are similarly structured, with several required core courses followed by specializations or optional concentrations consisting of a specific set of required courses.
For example, Master of Social Work (MSW) programs typically provide undergraduate training and instruction in general social work practice and may offer students the opportunity to specialize in clinical practice, macro practice, mental health counseling, and/or social work.
Likewise, Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) programs typically cover general areas of advanced nursing practice across multiple core courses and provide focused training in one or more nursing specializations, including nursing administration, nursing education, and multiple registered nurses. APRN) specializations.
There are two additional components that may be required as part of a master’s degree. In many areas, master’s candidates are required to complete supervised hours of clinical or professional experience through internships, internships, and/or field training internships.
For example, MSW programs typically require a minimum of 900 hours of field training, and Masters in Counseling programs typically require a minimum of 700 supervised clinical hours.
In contrast, MBA programs generally have no internship requirements. Finally, some programs require students to pass a comprehensive exam and/or complete a master’s thesis, thesis project, or some other type of thesis or research project that students may have to defend before receiving their degree.
Structure and duration of Master’s degree programs
Master’s programs generally require fewer courses, fewer credits, and less time to complete than bachelor’s programs.
While the total number of courses and credits in a master’s program varies by program and field of study, students who enroll full-time can complete a master’s degree in one to three years in most fields.
Master’s programs in clinical fields can, on average, be longer than non-clinical master’s programs, but this is not universal.
The time required to complete a master’s degree may also depend on the degree of academic and/or professional preparation of the students.
Students who have a bachelor’s degree in the same subject as a master’s degree or who have work experience in that subject may not be required to attend one or more introductory courses.
On the other hand, students who have obtained a degree in a field unrelated to the type of Master’s they are pursuing and who have no professional experience in that field may be required to meet one or more prerequisites as an admission requirement.
For example, students with a bachelor’s degree in accounting typically do not need to take introductory management and financial accounting courses to earn a master’s in accounting, while students who do not have an accounting major typically need to complete several introductory accounting courses before attending more advanced accounting courses at master level.
Social work is another example of an area where a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) can be beneficial for students pursuing a master’s degree.
Graduates from BSW programs accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) may qualify for Advanced Standing MSW programs, which have fewer introductory courses and field training requirements than traditional MSW programs and take less time to complete.
The table below compares master’s programs that fall on either end of the credit spectrum.
Note: Many master’s programs are designed for students who intend to continue working alongside their studies. These programs offer part-time or flexible enrollment, allowing students to take fewer courses per semester as long as they complete the program within a specified number of years, typically five to eight years. Also at the Master’s level, courses are common that do not adhere to the traditional 15-week semester system and offer courses five or six times a year at five, eight, or ten-week intervals. This can allow students to take one or two courses per semester without extending the time to graduation beyond two years.
Types of Master’s Degrees
The two most common names for master’s degrees are Master of Arts (MA) and Master of Science (MS).
However, there are many formal designations for master’s degrees, including Master of Professional Studies (MPS), Master of Fine Arts (MFA), and Master of Applied Science (MAS), and even more designations for specialized degree programs.
Master’s degree. The following list provides an overview of some of the more common Specialized Master designations and their abbreviations.
- Master of Accounting (MAcc)
- Master of Business Administration (MBA)
- Master of Computer Science (MCS)
- Master of Education (MEd)
- Master of Engineering (MEng)
- Master of Health Administration (MHA)
- Master of Laws (LLM)
- Master of Public Administration (MPA)
- Master of Public Health (MPH)
- Master of Social Work (MSW)
Common areas for a Master’s Degree
An analysis of the most recent IPEDS data on the number of master’s graduates in the United States shows that the top 15 general majors at the master’s level are as follows:
- Health Professions
- Public Administration and Social Services
- Social Sciences and History
- Visual and Performing Arts
- Biological and Biomedical Sciences
- Theology and Religious Vocations
- Computer and Information Sciences
- Homeland Security, Law Enforcement, and Firefighting
- Communication and Journalism
- Multi/Interdisciplinary Studies
- Mathematics and Statistics
Admission to Master’s degree programs
Admission policies for master’s programs vary by school and program. To qualify for admission to a master’s program, students are typically required to have at least a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university.
Some programs are designed for students who have earned their bachelor’s degree in one or more specific fields, or who have passed various college-level courses in one or more fields.
For example, a master’s program in computer science may require applicants to have a bachelor’s degree in computer science or to have taken college-level courses in computer programming, mathematics, and/or statistics.
In addition, master’s programs may require applicants to submit standardized test scores (GRE or GMAT), letters of recommendation, a statement of personal goals, and/or answers to one or more essay questions.
Some master’s programs have minimum undergraduate grade point average (GPA) requirements, while others are designed for students who have one or more years of qualified work experience in their field.
Finally, a professional license may be required for admission to some types of master’s programs. For example, MSN programs generally require applicants to hold a valid, unique, state-issued Registered Nurse (RN) license prior to admission.
Bachelors vs Masters Degree: A direct comparison
The table below provides a general head-to-head comparison of bachelor’s and master’s programs and highlights many of the key differences between the two types of degrees.
Accreditation for bachelor’s and master’s degrees
One area in which bachelor’s and master’s degree programs do not differ significantly concerns institutional accreditation.
There are currently six regional bodies that accredit higher education institutions offering undergraduate and graduate degrees:
- Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
- Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
- New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Commission on Institutions of Higher Education (NEASC-CIHE)
- Northwest Commission on Colleges and University (NWCCU)
- The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
- The Western Association of Schools and Colleges, Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC)
Accreditation by one of these six groups indicates that a college or university has been evaluated to ensure the viability of the institution and its educational and financial resources.
In addition to institutional accreditation, certain types of undergraduate and graduate academic programs may receive programmatic accreditation from accrediting bodies in specific fields such as business, counseling, nursing, and social work.
The importance of programmatic accreditation varies by field but is typically more important in fields that require professional licensing, such as counseling, nursing, and social work, than in fields that do not have licensing requirements.
However, in a field like Business that generally does not require a professional license, there may still be benefits in earning a degree from a program accredited by one of the three bodies that accredit business schools and programs.
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