What Is Graduate School?

Graduate school lets you earn an advanced or professional degree that can further your career.

Ryan LaneJuly 28, 2020

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Graduate school is an educational program for students who already have an undergraduate degree and want to pursue an advanced academic or professional degree.

For some careers, like becoming a physician or professor, for example, a graduate degree is required. In other instances, you may want to earn a graduate degree in business or another discipline to gain knowledge, improve your job prospects or further your career.

Graduate school vs. college

Going to college typically means getting an associate degree or bachelor’s degree. Some key differences between graduate school and those academic programs include:

  • How you get in. Graduate school programs are often smaller and more selective than undergraduate programs. Getting in will require not only quantitative smarts — like scoring well on the GRE graduate school entry exam or another admissions test — but also acing qualitative measurements, including recommendations and a statement of purpose.

  • What you’ll study. An undergraduate degree program may include broad liberal arts courses and large lectures that may or may not relate to your major. Graduate classes are targeted toward your specific advanced degree from day one and are typically seen as more rigorous, with a focus on research and thorough discussion.

  • Your role at the school. Graduate students often function much more like university staff than their undergraduate counterparts. As a grad student, you may be required to lead discussion groups, grade others’ work and support faculty research initiatives. You’ll get paid a stipend or salary for your work.

  • What degree you receive. Upon completion of your program, you’ll be awarded a master’s or doctorate degree. Master’s degrees include Master of Arts (M.A.), Master of Science (M.S.) and Master of Business Administration (MBA); doctorates include Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) and Juris Doctor (J.D.).

How long is graduate school?

Graduate school can range from one year to six years or more. How long you’ll spend in graduate school will depend on your program’s requirements. Here are some typical lengths:

  • Business school: Two years. Accelerated one-year programs may be available.

  • Law school: Three years. Accelerated two-year programs may be available.

  • Medical school: Four years. This doesn't include time spent in a residency program after graduation. Other health professional programs, including dental school and pharmacy school, also are four years.

  • Doctorate programs: Up to 8 years. The time to get a doctorate greatly depends on your speciality and the program. While you may be able to finish in three years, earning a Ph.D. could take up to eight years. The median time to finish a doctorate program after starting it is almost six years, according to the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics.

Personal circumstances can also extend your stay in graduate school. For example, you may opt to attend school part-time while juggling a career, family or other responsibilities.

Should you go to graduate school?

If you want to pursue a career that requires an advanced degree, you’ll have no choice but to go to graduate school. The decision is more personal — and, likely, more complicated — for jobs that don’t require a professional degree.

You’ll likely weigh factors such as career goals and the time commitment. But the biggest question to answer may be how you’ll pay for graduate school.

If you receive a generous fellowship or employer assistance that covers most of those costs, you stand to get the greatest financial benefit. Coming out ahead may be tougher if you need to largely finance your degree with graduate student loans.

The average student debt for graduate school alone was $71,000 in 2015-2016, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics, more than double the average undergrad debt for the same period. The median earnings of those with a master’s degree or above is a little over $10,000 more than those with bachelor’s degrees in 2018, according to the NCES.

Your return on investment will depend on the debt you take on, the degree you receive and the employment opportunities. Use school and salary data from the Department of Education’s College Scorecard, as well as a debt affordability calculator, to make an informed decision.

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