What’s the difference between Associate’s, Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Doctoral degrees?

Just like in the world of business, the field of education can be a tricky one to maneuver in. With the ever-changing financial climate, it is difficult to read the signs for changes taking place in business, much less be able to predict them. Gone are the days when a high school graduate would attend four-to-six years of college and then be virtually guaranteed a long and stable career in the profession of their choice. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has recently released findings showing that the "median number of years that wage and salary workers had been with their current employer was 4.2 years." And while it is easy to understand that low-income service-oriented jobs pointed at younger employees may color these findings, it has been reported that even salaried professionals in management still show a median tenure of just 6.3 years. So, based on facts like these, how much education should a high school graduate seek to attain in order to work within the professional field of their choice? A closer look at each type of degree offered will go a long way in answering this question.

An associate's degree is an undergraduate program which takes two years for a full-time student to complete. This degree offers several advantages to a person entering the workplace over those who only have a high school diploma. The credentials associated with this type of degree have been reported the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics to increase annual earnings of an employee by $7,200. Over the span of an entire career, the salary benefit for one holding an associate's degree is over $693,600 in earnings more than a worker holding only a high school diploma. While many students seek an associate degree and then move immediately into an undergraduate program, the benefit of the extra training and/or certification in a particular field can result in an earning power of over 27% more than a professional holding only an undergraduate degree.

The bachelor's degree is by far the most popular type of program college students seek to attain. Also known as an undergraduate degree, these programs can take anywhere from three to seven years to complete while most contain 40 college courses adding up to a total of 120 hours and are completed in four years by students taking full-time coursework. Liberal arts courses are a large part of the course content within an undergraduate degree. With only 10 to 12 courses concentrating on a student's minor at this level, the post-graduate degrees offer more specialized training than a bachelor's program.

A master's degree is the next step in education for those seeking more training and credentials in a specific field of study. While a full-time "grad student" can typically complete all course requirements for a master's degree in two years, part-time and distance-learning degrees continue to be developed by schools. These types of programs offer students the chance to remain working full-time as professionals in their fields. Not only does this scenario allow employees to keep from having to move locations to be closer to a graduate school, they are also able to actively apply many of the concepts they are learning in the classroom to their workplace in real time. Besides the almost 30% increase of expected salary that a professional holding a master's degree has over their bachelor's degree-holding counterpart, greater employment opportunities have been linked to master's programs. "With a bachelor's degree in the 1980s, one could secure an entry level position as an admissions counselor, academic adviser, or student services coordinator. By the 2000s, applicants for these same entry-level positions were not even considered unless they held a master's degree. While holding a graduate degree is not a guarantee of ultimate success, it certainly opens many more doors for employment."

Finally, a doctoral degree is the highest level of an academic degree a student can achieve. While many are familiar with professionals in the medical field who have attained their Medical Doctorate, doctoral degrees can be attained in almost any field of study. The majority of doctoral programs take eight years to complete and some allow students to skip a graduate degree all together and go straight into a doctorate program. Many doctoral degrees include extensive research projects, written and oral exams, and a defense of a dissertation. The dissertation is a resource a student will write over the course of their studies that communicates his knowledge of the topic within his chose field. In most cases this resource is a book's worth of content.

With the climate of our world always changing, and with our business sector evolving at a rapid pace, it is important for professionals to outline the steps needed to reach their professional and personal goals. Some might pursue associates or doctoral degrees, others might pursue traditional or online bachelor's degrees, and some might dive into MBA programs. No matter the choice, each degree can help direct a student and open doors for future professional advancement.