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Graduate School Training

The Master's Degree, The Doctoral Degree, Professional Graduate Education

Graduate and professional education is the continuation of academic study beyond the baccalaureate degree. Graduate education is distinguished from professional education in that the graduate student is preparing for a career in academia, the government, or other professions. Those continuing in professional education are in degree programs that will prepare them for work in law, medicine, or other professional fields. Both graduate and professional education have been well established in the United States for over 100 years; however it was only in the latter part of the twentieth century that the face of graduate education began to change as the higher educational system became more diversified through such developments as the proliferation of women and minority graduate students.

In the early nineteenth century, German universities were the leading force of graduate education. Leadership in this area passed to the United States in the twentieth century as American universities advanced their programs. Three universities–Harvard, Yale, and Johns Hopkins–are credited with the adaptation of post-baccalaureate education. While Harvard took the lead, in 1847 Yale developed a model that made the distinction between undergraduate and graduate education. Johns Hopkins University was the first institution to be founded primarily as a graduate education institution.

The Master's Degree

Graduate education is divided into two main areas: the master's degree and doctoral study. Obtaining a master's degree typically requires a minimum of thirty credit hours past the baccalaureate degree, although some programs may require more or less depending on the university and discipline requirements. At the completion of class work, either a comprehensive exam is administered or a written thesis is submitted, and either of these may be followed by an oral defense where the student is posed questions by the department faculty. This is the typical pattern of master's degree study, with most programs requiring two years of coursework. However, there are hundreds of different types of master's degrees offered in the United States and it is not unusual for each program to have unique characteristics and requirements.

The traditional master's degrees grounded in the arts and sciences curriculum are the master of arts (M.A.) and the master of science (M.S.). Examples of other master's degrees that have a more practical or professional approach are the master of business administration (M.B.A.), the master of education (M.Ed.), and the master of engineering (M.Eng.). While there are still a significant number of students who attend graduate school immediately following their undergraduate experience, more students are choosing to return for a master's degree several years after entering the work force. For these more mature students, the master's degree is considered a stepping-stone for career advancement. Many individuals have the added bonus that more businesses now make it possible for their employees to attend graduate school by offering tuition reimbursement and time off from work for educational purposes. At the same time, universities are offering more options for students who choose to remain employed while pursuing their master's degree. Examples include offering evening or weekend classes and conducting classes in the work environment rather than on the college campus.

Additionally, the proliferation of master's programs being offered by colleges and universities is increasing the options of those who choose to reenter academia. Rather than graduate education being offered only at universities, liberal arts colleges are adding one or more master's programs to their curriculum. At the same time, they are targeting the more mature student as well as the student who would prefer the liberal arts college environment to the larger university. With the increased availability and visibility of master's education, the number of master's degrees awarded in the United States continues to grow each year.

The Doctoral Degree

A doctoral program is considered the basis for socialization into the professoriate. It has always been regarded as a beginning for developing skills, knowledge, and competencies associated with teaching and research. For this reason, there are some general requirements for doctoral degrees that apply to most institutions in the United States. While there are differences with course requirements and completion rates, the basic doctoral degree begins with one to two years of course work and ends with the oral defense of the dissertation. Some students, particularly those who enter a doctoral program without a master's degree, will earn their master's degree while pursuing the doctorate. In this case, course work could take more than two years to complete. In addition to these basic requirements, many doctoral students hold research or teaching assistantships in addition to taking classes. Likewise, faculty members are encouraged to and often include doctoral students in research projects. Both the assistantships and the mentor relationships with faculty are preparation not only for the dissertation but for the professorial role many will enter into upon completion of their degrees.

Allen R. Sanderson and Bernard Dugoni identified fifty-two different research doctorates in their 1997 summary report of doctoral recipients from United States universities. Traditionally, the nonprofessional doctoral degree most often awarded is the doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.), although other degrees such as the doctor of education (Ed.D.), doctor of arts (D.A.), and the doctor of science (D.Sc. or Sc.D.) are now being offered in greater numbers. Professional doctoral degrees such as the jurist doctorate (J.D.) and the medical doctorate (M.D.) also indicate that ending of advanced education but the requirements for these doctoral degrees differ from the Ph.D. and its equivalent.

Course work for a doctoral degree is most often individually tailored based on the student's background, interests, and professional goals. In addition to completing class work prior to the dissertation, doctoral students are required to take comprehensive exams. Depending on the program, a student may be required to take more than one comprehensive exam throughout the course of study. Typically, a comprehensive exam is administered immediately following completion of course work and the exam itself may take various forms such as a day-long session where students answer questions based on knowledge obtained in their studies. In most circumstances this is a closed book exam and, after faculty members have had the opportunity to grade the exam, doctoral students must defend their responses orally before a faculty panel.

The dissertation is an original body of research conducted by a student in her final years as a doctoral student. A typical dissertation completed by a Ph.D. candidate will include five chapters: the first is a general introduction, the second chapter is a thorough literature review of the subject, the third chapter contains the methodology or how the research is to be conducted, the fourth chapter shows the findings from research, and the final chapter is a discussion of the findings with suggestions for possible future research.

Prior to conducting the dissertation research, the graduate student must defend his proposal to a dissertation committee which is generally made up of three to five members. The proposal is typically the first three chapters of the dissertation. After the proposal is approved the doctoral student may begin their research and move to completing the dissertation. After the research has been conducted and data analyzed, doctoral students must again orally defend the dissertation before their committee. Each Ph.D. candidate must show a thorough knowledge of the subject being studied along with the presentation of original research and findings that add to the body of knowledge for their discipline.

The Ph.D. (doctor of philosophy) is the typical doctoral degree awarded at universities although the areas of study range from the basic humanities to the sciences and education. Those receiving Ph.D.s have traditionally gone on to faculty positions at colleges or universities. It is not uncommon today, though, for Ph.D. recipients to go immediately into careers outside of academia. Not only do many choose to forego teaching or research opportunities, many are forced to look elsewhere for work due to the lack of available faculty positions. With the proliferation of doctoral recipients, it is natural to assume that not all Ph.D.s will find the ideal job at a college or university.

Other doctorates are available for those selecting a course of study that leads to careers outside academia. Some examples are the educational doctorate, which may be pursued by those with careers in K–12 classroom teaching or school administration, and the doctor of engineering, for candidates working in areas of technology or applied sciences. It is normal for these graduate students to focus their studies and dissertations on practical topics, rather than theoretical ones, that have immediate relevance to their field of work.

Professional Graduate Education

Professional doctoral education, as previously mentioned, is post-baccalaureate study in the professions. Two of the most established professional education fields are medicine and law. The requirements for obtaining an M.D. or J.D. are rigid and do not vary greatly at different universities, unlike programs for research doctoral programs, which offer more flexibility to students in their individual courses of study. Professional doctoral students enter their graduate program as a cohort, take the same classes as others who entered the program with them, and graduate within the recommended time period, unless serious circumstances delay their progress. The curriculum focuses on applied areas of study. Unlike a Ph.D., where the dissertation is the culmination of study, often after the professional doctoral education is completed, graduates are required to take state-regulated exams in order to practice their professions, as in medicine, law, or nursing.


FOX, MARY F. 1996. "Publication, Performance and Reward in Science and Scholarship." In Faculty and Faculty Issues in Colleges and Universities, ed. Dorothy E. Finnegan, David Webster, and Zelda F. Gamson. Needham Heights, MA: Simon and Schuster.

SANDERSON, ALLEN R., and DUGONI, BERNARD. 1999. Doctorate Recipients from United States Universities: Survey of Earned Doctorates. Summary Report. Chicago: National Opinion Research Center.


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