Explain the American system of academic degrees to me

A thread currently running about the record holder in number of qualifications got me thinking about this: What exactly is a “Master’s degree” in context of American education?

The German, and as far as I can tell most of the continental European, system of education works quite different. There are different types of schools between which you can choose after elementary school. One of them, called Gymnasium athough it doesn’t have anything to do with athletics, will bring you to a degree called Abitur, which you’ll usually earn at the age of about 19. Afterwars, you may go to university (Abitur is a prerequisite for going to university; there are Abitur-like degrees that can qualify you for certain academic careers, but Abitur is the only one which gives you access to the entire field of academic education). Then you’ll study at university for about 4-5 years, and then you hold the final degree of the stuff you studied; the name of the degree depends on the career, but in general you only have that one diploma.

My understanding is that you have to get a Bachelor’s degree first, then you can go on for Master, and it’s not unusual for people to study something completely different as a Master than was the subject of the Bachelor studies. Additionally, it’s not unusual for people to earn several Masters consecutively. Right?

Due to a European Union conference held in Bologna a few years ago, there’s a lot of talk about switching all of Europe’s academic curricula to a scheme where you get a Bachelor after three years and a Master after two more; but apparently the Master studies are in the same field as the Bschelor was before.

In the US, the pubic education system spans from Kindergarten to 12th grade (13 grades in total) which gets one a High School diploma at around age 18. If one drops out, a Graduate Equivalence Degree (GED) theoretically carries the same weight. Getting into college (or university, essentally the same) requires taking SAT and/or ACT standardized tests, and applying with all the requisite essays, etc.

After you complete the required classes (about 4 years worth, but 5 or more for some institutions or fields), you get your Bachelor’s Degree, which can be a Bachelor of Arts, Sciences, or other broad designations that generally encompass the field you actually studied.

You can then go and get another Bachelor’s in a different field if you want to, or get a Master’s in some field that your Bachelor’s qualifies you for. The “qualificiation” part is largely at the discretion fo the insisution you apply to. That can take 2-4 more years, after which, depending on the rigor of your Master’s program, may qualify you to go on to get a PhD or Doctorate. Some institutions have programs where the Bachelor’s is blended with the Master’s into a longer program, or the Master’s with the PhD, but those are the exception, not the rule.

Not necessarily. The fourth largest university in the United States, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, does not require either test for admission.

Exception rather than the rule, though.

Not everyone gets a Master’s degree. At some schools you can go straight from B.S. to Ph.D. At the school my mother worked at, this was called a “terminal Ph.D.”, a term that caused much humor.

In some fields you can get either an M.a. (Master’s of Arts) or an M.s. (Master’s of Science). I know my program had the option. The major difference was a thesis for the MS.

You can get higher degrees in completely different fields. My M.S. is in a different field and a different “School” than my B.S. and Ph.D. My bachelor’s and Doctorate are in Physics , from the ollege of Arts and Sciences. My Master’s is in Engineering from the College of Engineering.
Incidentally, my “B.S.” isn’t a B.S. – it’s an “Sc.B.” I suspect they didn’t like the alternative meaning of “B.S.”

Someone will pop in and explain this much better than me, but I shall try.

High school (grades 9-12; freshman, sophomore, junior and senior). High school graduation gets you a diploma that does mean something. Many employers wont higher someone without a high school diploma (or the equivalent for someone who drops out and goes back to attain the degree – called a GED).

There are (generally speaking) three choices for a further education: vocational school, junior college, and university.

Vocational school gets you various certifications that allow you to do certain jobs (welding, mechanics, computer work, etc.).

Junior college is a two year school. You can declare a major (history, literature, etc.), but you don’t have to. After two years (and a certain number of courses) you get what is called an Associates Degree. After junior college, you can go get a job or do another two years at a university.

At a university, the degrees are split (again, GENERALLY speaking) into two areas: Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Arts. BS ( :stuck_out_tongue: ) degrees are things like physics, chemistry, etc. and so forth. BA degrees are anything in the humanities arena. Generally, these degrees take four years to get because you have to complete a certain number of units.

After university, you can go to a specialized school (law school, medical school, etc.) or just plain old grad school.

I think law school takes about three years and you get a certain degree (JD or something? Someone correct me on that). Medical school takes much longer (10-12 years?) and you end up with an MD (which stands for…medical doctorate?).

If you go to plain, old grad school you can get a Master’s Degree after 3-4 years or get a Doctorate degree after 5-7 (?) or so years.
You can get a Bachelor’s in one thing and get a Master’s in something different. You can also get multiple degrees at any level.

Once again, this is all off the top of my head and, quite frankly, I really am not too sure how the grad school thing works (year-wise and such). I’m sure someone else can hop in and clarify.

I had to take the ACT to get into UW-Madison… maybe the rules have changed or it might not have been completely necessary but im sure it helps with the admissions.

In addition to Bachelor’s, Masters, PhD’s, and professional degress (MD, DDS, Whatever a law degree is called) there are also associate degrees.

Associate degrees are almost always two years worth of schooling (again, after one attains a high school diploma or GED), and, in general, don’t encompas the same range of knowledge a Bachelor’s does. For example, you might easily find colleges and universites offering Bachelor’s degrees in African-American studies, but the chances of getting an Associate’s degree in that field are slim to none. A lot of technical degreees (ike electronics, mechanics, etc…) are associate’s, as are a lot of culinary arts (and regular arts) degrees.

Most peopel I know don’t take nearly that long. It seems to me the average is 1-2 years for a master, and another 1-3 for a PhD.

Oh, and in addition to a Master of Science and Master of Arts, there is also Master of Engineering. Obviously, it is designed specifically for engineering majors, and it’s basically an MS, but (AFAIK) no thesis is required. I rarely see school offering an ME program, most just lump all the graduate engineering programs into an MS, because apparantly a thesis is a wonderful, magical thing everyone needs to do. :stuck_out_tongue:

Bachelor’s Degrees have the distinct advantage of being the most humorous, due to their abbreviations.

In addition to “B.A.” (snicker) for Bachelor of Arts, and “B.S.” (chuckle) for Bachelor of Science, I have also seen “B.M.” (guffaw) for Bachelor of Music.

One thing to understand is that in the American system, the grade level (or specific classes and credits) are important, not an arbitrary tier. You can go to a private school for kindergarten through 3rd grade, then transfer to public school for 4th and 5th grades. Then you can go to another private school through grade 9, then transfer to yet another public school for grades 10-12.

In short, the way we divide grades up between different facilities is mostly dependant on what any given school system feels is comfortable. I don’t think Germany is too different on that, but I’m not sure.

Also, there is a much different emphasis on linear tracks than in germany. In Deutschland, if underperform early in you school career you tend to get shoved into a “stupid class” and never get out. This can pretty much end yout educational aspirations with regard to the public schools. They still consider people who switch majors to be “failures” in germany (That’s literally what they’re officially called .) In the US, there’s a lot more freedom to move around, up, and down.

Other bachelor’s degrees, besides Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Arts:

Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA)
Bachleor of Nursing (BN)
Bachelor of Music (BMu)
Bachelor of Applied Mathematics

A bachelor’s degree does not usually require a thesis (though it might, if you’re in an honors program). A master’s degree may or may not require a thesis: Many schools will offer both thesis and non-thesis options for a master’s degree (the non-thesis option requires more classwork). A PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) degree always requires a thesis, and may or may not have additional classwork beyond what’s needed for a Master’s.

You need a high school diploma before you can start working on a degree (in general: There are some bright high schoolers who take college classes before actually graduating HS), and you need a bachelor’s degree before you can start on a graduate degree (Master’s or doctorate). There will usually be some relationship between the fields of study of your bachelor’s and graduate degrees; what relationship is decided by the school/department where you do your graduate work. For instance, among the physics grad students here, there are folks who majored in physics, math, astronomy, mechanical engineering, and electrical engineering for their bachelors’ degrees, but one could probably not get into physics grad school with a bachelor’s in art history (at least, not without some other degree as well: Some students get more than one bachelor’s at once, not necessarily in related fields).

The associates degrees others have mentioned are not usually a part of the standard degree sequence, but they can be. A bachelor’s degree at most schools will involve a lot of introductory courses common to all of the majors: Everyone has to take an introductory literature course or two, a history course, some number of low-level math courses, etc. Two-year colleges are generally much cheaper than four-year colleges, so some students will take all of these intro courses at a two-year school and then transfer into a regular four-year college for their last two years, for courses specific to their major.

One of the big differences between US education and European education is that there is no exam that must be taken or passed to receive the high school diploma. If you complete the required number of courses with a passing grade or better, you get the diploma. In other words, there is no US equivalent to the German Arbitur or the French Bac. (The ACT and SAT are required by some universities, but count for only part of the entrance requirements. There is also no “passing” or “failing” grade on those exams. Schools may draw a line at a specific score, but getting a very high grade will not guarantee admission to a university, and students with low scores can be admitted on the basis of other factors.)

All high schools are essentially the same, too, although there may be minor regional differences based on the kind of students the school is likely to receive. We don’t have “technical high schools” for example (although there may be a few scattered around) versus “academic high schools.” Instead, most schools teach a variety of programs, and students are encouraged to take courses based on what they want to do when they graduate. (That said, our school district does have a variety of high schools with different programs, and students are encouraged to apply to schools with programs that they are most interested in. However, all of them do have both academic and technical tracks.)

For example, when I started high school, we lived in a small city that had one high school for all students in the city. There were several different programs within the high school, and students were encourage to choose a program of study based on their plans for after high school. There was an academic track for those who intended to go to university (and which included more foreign languages and sciences, based on the state university’s entrance requirements), but there were also technical tracks like mechanics.

My family moved to a much more rural area after my second year of high school. The new school had a very small academic program (about 20 students in my year), but it was very strong in agriculture programs and secretarial programs, for kids who planned to stay on the farm, or who wanted to be prepared for a secretarial position if they couldn’t find a husband. (That was definitely the attitude of those students at that time.)

For teens who choose not to attend school, or for adults who never finished, there is the GED option, which allows you to take a series of exams that proves you know the basics of English, math and science, as taught in high school. While it is technically the equivalent of a high school diploma, it does not include the more academic subjects, so students with GEDs are often accepted into university on a provisional basis, if they are accepted at all. High-ranking private schools often will not accept students with only a GED at all (but they won’t accept students with poor grades, either). State universities and technical colleges, however, will often accept a GED in lieu of a diploma. (With the up-and-coming use of online education, though, some school districts are now offering full-fledged diplomas for curriculum completed as independent study or online courses.)

In the US, though, there isn’t a lot of emphasis on career-oriented training until much later than in Europe. Generally, students are well into high school before they actually start to take classes geared toward specific careers, and students in academic tracks generally don’t start until they are actually in a university.

However, after graduating from high school, there is a much wider range of kinds of schools, including technical schools that train students for specific careers (often two-year associate degrees), and universities that offer the Bachelor’s degree with a greater inclusion of liberal arts/humanities/“it’s good for you” kinds of classes.

The Master’s degree is generally expected to be in a field that is related to the Bachelor’s degree. If you change fields completely, you may be expected to take additional courses at the Bachelor’s level before you will be admitted into the Master’s program of your choice. For example, I have a Bachelor’s in French, and a Master’s in French Linguistics, but actually looked into getting another Master’s in Audiology. However, there were several background courses that I was expected to take before they would even consider accepting me into the Audiology program. Since none of the courses were offered locally, I was not able to get into that program.

Some Ph.D. programs will also give you a Master’s degree if you get to a certain point (usually you have to have passed some sort of qualifying exam) and decide you don’t want to go on for a Ph.D.

In our system, you can get more than one Bachelor’s degree simultaneously. It’s not terribly uncommon at some universities for people to get two Bachelor’s degrees when they graduate. Usually they’re in related fields like math and physics, but sometimes they are in two totally unrelated fields. I have three B.S. degrees- one in astronomy, one in physics, and one in math.

You can also have a double major, which is different from getting two degrees. In a double major, you get one diploma, if you get two degrees, you get two. The difference is usually a certain number of credit hours- at the university I went to, you had to get 30 additional credit hours (which didn’t have to be in your major, although they could be) to get a second degree.

Yes, you have to get a Bachelor’s degree first. And, once you have it, you always have it. I still list my B.S. degrees on my resume, for example. Usually, except for specialized degrees like nursing degrees, it’s more important what your major was than whether it’s a B.A. or B.S. degree.

I don’t know of too many people who study something completely different in grad school than they did as undergraduates. In most of the cases I know of, it’s related subjects like physics and astronomy. I don’t know of anyone who has actually tried this, but I suspect I’d have a very hard time getting in if I decided tomorrow that I wanted to apply for graduate school in something totally unrelated to what I studied as an undergraduate, like philosophy or sociology.

Medical and law schools are different, though. As I understand it, it’s an advantage when applying to medical or law school to have an unusual degree for a pre-med or pre-law student. There, you supposedly do get people who majored in something totally unrelated to medicine or law pursuing an advanced degree in medicine or law.

What is true of graduate study in a lot of fields is that it’s seen as less than ideal if you get your Bachelor’s degree(s) and Master’s degree or Ph.D. from the same school. It’s certainly true in astronomy that you are expected to change schools after you get your B.S. degree.

It’s not that common, though it does happen. I think what’s usually going on in that case is that the person’s job paid for them to get a second Master’s degree in something more closely related to their work. I have a Master’s degree in astronomy, and considered getting one in computer science after I started working at my job. I would have gone to school part-time (most of the classes would have been by television) while working, and my job would have paid for the classes. I think this sort of arrangement is common for people getting business degrees.

Not completely true. In Mass for example, students must pass the MCAT exam in order to get a HS diploma. Other states may have similar graduation requirements, but there is no single exam that is uniform over all states. Most states don’t have an MCAT equivalent, but some do.

New York has the Regents exam, I was told by all my college buddies who went to HS in NY.

It’s the MCAS, not the MCAT - the MCAT is what you take to get into medical school. If our Massachusetts high-school students could pass the MCAT, I think we’d have the happiest teachers’ union in the country.

(I am sure you just made a typo but if anyone else were reading, they might be awfully confused. I know we’ve got the big heads at MIT here but the rest of the kids are just normal.) :wink:

A few points of clarification (which someone may come along and clarify further…)

The specific requirements vary from institution to institution. Some colleges and universities get way more applicants than they have room to accept, and they make their decisions on who to accept (and, sometimes, whom to give scholarships to) on various factors, inclusing high school GPA, extracurriculur activities, recommendations from teachers, standardized test scores (SAT and/or ACT), application essays, etc.

Also true of “community colleges,” which are essentially state-sponsored junior colleges. Though it’s common, not everyone attending a junior or community college is aiming for an Associate’s degree. Some are just taking one or two individual courses; and some plan to transfer to a larger institution to work on a Bachelor’s degree without first getting an Associate’s.

Worth noting: For a post-graduate degree (i.e. a Master’s or Doctorate), most or all coursework (and research) will be in the specific subject area you’re getting the degree in. A Bachelor’s degree is more general; it will include courses in a variety of subjects as well as a “major” area of specialization.

Note the “GENERALLY speaking”—some schools don’t distinguish. (E.g. the college I graduated from just gave everybody a B.A.)

Getting a PhD requires doing original research, and the time that this takes can vary widely. Occasionally you’ll see someone listed as “A.B.D.” which stands for “all but dissertation” or something like that; it means they’ve completed all the requirements for a doctorate except that they haven’t finished their dissertation.

Who, or what, is this ‘Bachelor’ . What’s the meaning?