The associate’s degree usually takes two years to complete. Associate’s degree programs may be “terminal” programs, which lead into specific careers upon graduation. They can also be “transfer” programs, which correspond to the first two years of a bachelor’s degree and tend to be more liberal-arts based. If you did the latter option, you could easily transfer into the third year of a four-year bachelor’s degree program. Associate’s degree programs are offered at two-year colleges known as junior or community colleges.
The bachelor’s degree typically takes four years to complete, though some students take slightly less or more time to finish. One of the most attractive features of the bachelor’s degree program is that it is highly flexible. You can usually choose from a wide variety of courses and create your own unique program of study. The degree is awarded after you complete a specified number of credits, which you can usually do in four years of full-time study. The first year is called the freshman year; the second is called sophomore; the third, junior; and the fourth, senior. Some students take longer than four years to complete their degrees. This may be because they change majors and need to accumulate enough credits in the new major to earn the degree. Or it may be because they take less than a full-time course load for academic, personal, or financial reasons. Courses taken in the first two years are known as lower-division courses, and courses taken in the final two years are called upper-division courses.
The two graduate degrees offered in the United States are the master’s degree and the doctoral degree. Both involve a combination of research and coursework. Graduate education differs from undergraduate education in that it offers a greater depth of training, with increased specialization and intensity of instruction. Study and learning are more self-directed at the graduate level than at the undergraduate level.
Graduate courses assume that students are well-prepared in the basic elements of their field of study. Depending on the subject, courses may be quite formal, consisting primarily of lecture presentations by faculty members. Alternatively, they may be relatively informal, placing emphasis on discussion and exchange of ideas among faculty and students. Seminars involve smaller groups of students than lecture courses, and students may be required to make presentations as well as participate in discussions. Class participation, research papers, and examinations are all important in seminars.
Degree requirements are stated in terms of “credits” (sometimes called “units” or “hours”). Each course usually earns three or four credits, depending on the number of hours spent in the classroom and the amount of work involved. A student will usually accumulate 24 credits per academic year if the university operates on a traditional two-semester system.