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What is a College Credit?
Unfortunately, there is still no national definition of a “credit hour” for colleges and universities. However, one college credit hour generally means that a student has had one hour of class instruction per week over the course of 15 weeks (a semester), as well as about 2 hours of out-of-classroom work, which could be homework, labs, practicum, etc. Therefore, most core classes for your major are worth 3 credits, because they usually meet 3 times a week for an hour, or twice a week for 90 minutes and have corresponding out-of-class assignments. 2- and 1-hour classes are smaller classes that meet for less time and require less work, like electives, but still count towards your bottom line.

For online colleges, credits are counted a bit differently. Since you’re not sitting in a traditional classroom, credits are counted by how many times you log in to participate, and how much time you spend contributing comments, questions and overall discussions to your class. Again, since there are no federal regulations yet, this is more subjective, and requirements vary between professors, classes and schools. But it’s important to understand that even though you’re taking classes online, you still have to participate to earn a good grade and the credit hours that correspond with that class.

How Many Credits Do I Need To Graduate?
There is no set number of college credits you need to graduate. This number varies depending on the major and the school from which you are graduating. However, the average number of college credits you need to complete a program averages about 64 credits for a 2-year associate’s degree and 120 credits for a 4-year degree. Some degrees require more; for instance, I had to earn over 150 credit hours for my undergraduate degree in English Education, mainly because that type of program is like combining two majors—English and education into one degree. Your advisor, as well as the school’s course catalog will show you exactly how many college credit hours you need to graduate from your chosen major.

How Do College Credits Work, and How Should I Earn Them?
If you’re starting to panic about how you’ll earn all of your credits, don’t. Most programs for each major break down exactly what courses you need to graduate, and show you how to earn all of your credit hours to complete your degree. Each major will have what’s called “core classes,” which you must pass and earn credit for to graduate within that major. Beyond that, you’ll have some choices in the “electives” category. For instance, an English major may get to choose between a poetry class, creative writing class or French literature class to fulfill an elective spot. This is where you can tailor your program to meet your needs and interests. As long as you meet with your advisor and plan out your classes according to your school’s course catalog, you should have all the credits you need (sometimes more!) to graduate.

Where counting credit hours really becomes important is when you transfer credits. It’s always a good idea to spend the extra time to get as many of your previous college credits transferred as possible (to learn why, click here). And the more you transfer, the less you have to complete to finish your degree. Once you’ve completed the transfer process, you can then figure out how many credits you have left to earn, as well as what core classes and electives you still have to take (learn how to transfer college credits here).

All The Right Moves
Overall, understanding exactly what college credits are and how they work will help you go through the planning process for your degree much more smoothly. Once you understand what your graduation requirements are, you can map out a timeline to help you earn your credits in a balanced way, at your own pace. Also, understanding college credits will help you better negotiate credit transfers by making you more knowledgeable about how the credit system works. Then, you can earn your degree with confidence, knowing you’re taking every step you need to get to graduation.

What are doctoral degrees?

The most common doctorate is the Doctor of Philosophy or Ph.D. Ph.D.s and other research doctorates prepare students to initiate new projects that add to the collective knowledge base of the field. Candidates for and holders of Ph.D.s often seek careers as professors and researchers, but many also go on to varied roles in the nonprofit, public, and private sectors. According to the U.S. Department of Education, "the research doctorate is the highest earned academic degree in U.S. postsecondary education."

Some important considerations

Going to graduate school for any degree and in any field, you should be prepared for a different experience from your undergraduate years. When you enroll in a graduate degree program, it's best to be motivated by professional and academic goals, and in many fields, to have a few years of work experience under your belt (work you did as an undergraduate counts!). Read about other things to consider when deciding to go to grad school here and here.

You may also be familiar with professional doctorates such as the M.D. (Medicinae Doctor) that medical school graduates earn, and the J.D. (Juris Doctor) that law school graduates earn. A large number of other doctorates exist. To get an idea of just how many degree types exist within doctorate-level study, check out Wikipedia's pages on the subject.

Typical program details

Students entering a Ph.D. program have already earned a bachelor's degree, and sometimes also a masters degree (depending on the Ph.D. program). Because of the nature of specialization, Ph.D. programs tend to be smaller than masters programs.

Ph.D. candidates begin by taking courses and exams, go on to taking advanced seminars and designing dissertation research, and complete their requirements by researching, writing, and defending a dissertation. A dissertation is the doctoral-level thesis, the culmination of a Ph.D. candidate's research into a topic, and typically the major requirement of earning the doctorate. Unfortunately, failure to complete the dissertation is a major reason some doctoral candidates don't complete their studies, but may claim "ABD" (All But Dissertation) on their resumes.

Doctorates may take up to eight years to earn—depending on the program, whether the student has already completed a masters degree (or is coming straight from undergraduate), and how long the student takes to write the dissertation.

Purpose and uses of a doctorate

A Ph.D. typically demonstrates a person's competence in research and qualifies them to become professors. It can also prepare them to play other roles (such as developing policy) in the nonprofit, public, and private sectors. Doctoral study offers a unique opportunity for an individual to conduct intensive and prolonged research on a very particular topic, which often leads to publication. Other reasons exist to get a Ph.D.—such as the desire to be called "Doctor," or the romantic notion of being a Ph.D. candidate at a prestigious institution—but these reasons pale in the light of the hard work and long years it takes to earn the distinction, if your professional goals do not require it.

What are masters degrees?

Masters degrees are more versatile than doctoral degrees, and have a wide range of professional and academic applications. According to the U.S. Department of Education, three types of masters programs exist: research, professional, and terminal.

Research masters degrees are typically for academic and applied research disciplines. Examples of the research masters degree include Master of Arts in History, Master of Arts in Comparative Literature, and Master of Science in Biology. In some fields, earning a research masters degree without going on to earn a Ph.D. severely restricts your professional options. If you are considering a research masters degree, discuss your educational options and career trajectory with professors or professionals in your field.

Professional masters degrees prepare a person to do professional work by introducing practical skills and frameworks for understanding issues in their field. Professional masters degrees may also qualify a person to practice in their field (Master of Social Work, Master of Architecture, or Master of Art in Teaching, for example). Most of the degrees featured at Idealist Grad Fairs are professional masters degrees.

Masters degrees that are the highest academic degree in their field are called "terminal masters." While some masters degrees may serve as the first step towards a doctorate, other—such as a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing or a Masters in Library Science—are as high as you can go for academic accreditation in those fields of study.

The most common masters degree types are Master of Arts (M.A.) and Master of Science (M.S.) in a variety of subject areas. Other masters degrees exist, and Wikipedia has a long list.

Typical program details

Masters programs typically take one to three years. Students entering a masters degree program have already earned a bachelors degree, and so masters candidates take advanced-level courses and seminars. In some programs, students go on to research, write, and defend a masters thesis. In professional masters programs, the thesis is often replaced by final projects and exams.

Purposes and uses of a masters degree

The variety of masters degrees is vast, as are the purposes and uses of each. Masters degrees prepare a person for a range of pursuits through specialized study of a field.

Research masters enhance a student's research skills, prepare them for a Ph.D. program, and may help qualify them to teach in elementary, secondary, and community education settings. Professional masters degrees teach students skills they will need as practitioners in their respective fields, and may lead to credentials necessary to practice in the field.

Comparison chart of basic differences between masters and doctoral degreesDoctoral Masters
Types and examples Academic or research (Ph.D., Ed.D), Professional (M.D., J.D.) Academic or research (MPhil), Professional (MPA, MSW), Terminal (MFA)
Why get this degree? To research, teach at the university level, is necessary for profession To research, is necessary for profession, is an intermediate step before doctoral, broaden your knowledge of an issue/subject area, increase your skill set for a job
Time to complete degree 2-8 years, full-time. Longer, part-time. 1-3 years, full-time. Longer, part-time.

How do you decide which degree is right for you?

Depending both on your professional field and your educational goals, you may have to choose between a masters degree program and a Ph.D. program. You must determine what your career goals are, and which degree is most helpful to you. You can find out more about the requirements in your field by doing some basic internet research, asking admissions staff at schools, and conducting informational interviews with professionals.

If you are unsure right now what your ultimate goal is, you have at least a couple of choices:

You may choose to hold off on grad school for now to give yourself time to better discover and define your career goals.
You may start a masters program and later choose to go on to the Ph.D. program. (Note that your masters credits may not all transfer to the Ph.D. program. Check with your target school for details.)
In another scenario altogether, the masters degree in your field may be terminal—a higher degree may not exist. In this case, you don't have to decide whether or not to go on to a Ph.D. It's still wise to make your career goals explicit (at least to yourself) in deciding whether or not to go to grad school.

Examples of how people use masters and doctorates

Below are examples of how a masters degree and a doctorate are used in two different fields of study, social work and business.

If you want to go to graduate school to study social work, you can study at the masters level or the Ph.D. level. In this case, you must ask yourself what you want to do with your degree or what role you'd like to play in the field of social work. If you'd like to be a social welfare direct service provider or government agency administrator, a masters program may suffice. If you'd like to become a faculty member at a post-secondary institution, a social welfare research scholar, or a social welfare policy analyst, a Ph.D. program may be more helpful to you. Outside of academic settings—where a doctorate is the norm for scholarly positions—a masters combined with practical work experience may provide ample preparation for a career as a researcher, policy analyst, or mid-level manager.

Another example is in the field of business administration. You have the Masters of Business Administration (MBA) as one option, and the Doctorate of Business Administration (DBA) as another. If you aim to take on a leadership role in a nonprofit or business enterprise, the MBA (or nonprofit management degree) is a useful pursuit. If you aim for a career in academia—teaching and researching on business practices—the DBA is the more appropriate course of study.

Conclusion and further resources

Knowing your professional goals will help guide your choices for graduate study. Certain career paths, such as becoming a public defender or a medical doctor, are very clearly marked with the necessary steps, including the required educational level and graduate degree. Other career paths are less regimented and therefore require more investigation and discovery on your part. Thoroughly researching your field of interest and having a strong understanding of the skills and knowledge you want and need from your graduate education will inform which degree options make the most sense for your goals.

Read our articles on good and bad reasons to go to grad school
Read our article on certification
Read our article on informational interviews
Explore explanations of Graduate/Post Education Levels from the U.S. Network for Education Information
Compare masters and doctoral degrees in education on


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