Postgraduate education

This article is about education upon the completion of a first degree, known as graduate education within North America. For other uses, see Postgraduate training in education (disambiguation).

Postgraduate education, or graduate education in North America, involves learning and studying for academic or professional degrees, academic or professional certificates, academic or professional diplomas, or other qualifications for which a first or bachelor's degree generally is required, and it is normally considered to be part of higher education. In North America, this level is generally referred to as graduate school.

The organization and structure of postgraduate education varies in different countries, as well as in different institutions within countries. This article outlines the basic types of courses and of teaching and examination methods, with some explanation of their history.

Types of postgraduate qualification

There are two main types of degrees studied for at the postgraduate level: academic and vocational degrees.


The term degree in this context means the moving from one stage or level to another (from French degré, from Latin dē- + gradus), and first appeared in the 13th century.


The enrollment of some students in the University of Bologna.

Although systems of higher education date back to ancient Greece, ancient Rome, China, the Indian subcontinent and Arabian Peninsula, the concept of postgraduate education depends upon the system of awarding degrees at different levels of study, and can be traced to the workings of European medieval universities, mostly Italians. [1] [2] University studies took six years for a bachelor's degree and up to twelve additional years for a master's degree or doctorate. The first six years taught the faculty of the arts, which was the study of the seven liberal arts: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music theory, grammar, logic, and rhetoric. The main emphasis was on logic. Once a Bachelor of Arts degree had been obtained, the student could choose one of three faculties— law, medicine, or theology—in which to pursue master's or doctor's degrees.

The degrees of master (from Latin magister) and doctor (from Latin doctor) were for some time equivalent, "the former being more in favour at Paris and the universities modeled after it, and the latter at Bologna and its derivative universities. At Oxford and Cambridge a distinction came to be drawn between the Faculties of Law, Medicine, and Theology and the Faculty of Arts in this respect, the title of Doctor being used for the former, and that of Master for the latter." [3] Because theology was thought to be the highest of the subjects, the doctorate came to be thought of as higher than the master's. [4]

The main significance of the higher, postgraduate degrees was that they licensed the holder to teach ("doctor" comes from Latin docere, "to teach").


In most countries, the hierarchy of postgraduate degrees is as follows:

  1. Master's degrees.
    These are sometimes placed in a further hierarchy, starting with degrees such as the Master of Arts (from Latin Magister artium; M.A.) and Master of Science (from Latin Magister scientiæ; M.Sc.) degrees, then the Master of Philosophy degree (from Latin Magister philosophiæ; M.Phil.), and finally the Master of Letters degree (from Latin Magister litterarum; M.Litt.) (all formerly known in France as DEA or DESS before 2005, and nowadays Masters too). In the UK, master's degrees may be taught or by research: taught master's degrees include the Master of Science and Master of Arts degrees which last one year and are worth 180 CATS credits (equivalent to 90 ECTS European credits), whereas the master's degrees by research include the Master of Research degree (M.Res.) which also lasts one year and is worth 180 CATS or 90 ECTS credits (the difference compared to the Master of Science and Master of Arts degrees being that the research is much more extensive) and the Master of Philosophy degree which lasts two years. In Scottish Universities, the Master of Philosophy degree tends to be by research or higher master's degree and the Master of Letters degree tends to be the taught or lower master's degree. In many fields such as clinical social work, or library science in North America, a master's is the terminal degree. Professional degrees such as the Master of Architecture degree (M.Arch.) can last to three and a half years to satisfy professional requirement to be an architect. Professional degrees such as the Master of Business Administration degree (M.B.A.) can last up to two years to satisfy the requirement to become a knowledgeable business leader. [5]
  2. Doctorates.
    These are often further divided into academic and professional doctorates. An academic doctorate can be awarded as a Doctor of Philosophy degree (from Latin Doctor philosophiæ; Ph.D. or D.Phil.) or as a Doctor of Science degree (from Latin Doctor scientiæ; D.Sc.). The Doctor of Science degree can also be awarded in specific fields, such as a Doctor of Science in Mathematics degree (from Latin Doctor scientiarum mathematic arum; D.Sc.Math.), a Doctor of Agricultural Science degree (from Latin Doctor scientiarum agrariarum; D.Sc.Agr.), a Doctor of Business Administration degree (D.B.A.), etc. In some parts of Europe, doctorates are divided into the Doctor of Philosophy degree or "junior doctorate", and the "higher doctorates" such as the Doctor of Science degree, which are generally awarded to highly distinguished professors. A doctorate is the terminal degree in most fields. In the United States, there is little distinction between a Doctor of Philosophy degree and a Doctor of Science degree. In the UK, Doctor of Philosophy degrees are often equivalent to 540 CATS credits or 270 ECTS European credits, but this is not always the case as the credit structure of doctoral degrees is not officially defined.

In the UK and countries whose education systems were founded on the British model, such as the US, the master's degree was for a long time the only postgraduate degree normally awarded, while in most European countries apart from the UK, the master's degree almost disappeared. In the second half of the 19th century, however, US universities began to follow the European model by awarding doctorates, and this practice spread to the UK. Conversely, most European universities now offer master's degrees parallelling or replacing their regular system, so as to offer their students better chances to compete in an international market dominated by the American model. [6]

In the UK, an equivalent formation to doctorate is the NVQ 5 or QCF 8. [7]

Honorary degrees

Most universities award honorary degrees, usually at the postgraduate level. These are awarded to a wide variety of people, such as artists, musicians, writers, politicians, businesspeople, etc., in recognition of their achievements in their various fields. (Recipients of such degrees do not normally use the associated titles or letters, such as "Dr".)

Non-degree qualifications

Postgraduate education can involve studying for qualifications such as postgraduate certificates and postgraduate diplomas. They are sometimes used as steps on the route to a degree, as part of the training for a specific career, or as a qualification in an area of study too narrow to warrant a full degree course.