Postgraduate education

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File:Cam degree ceremony.jpg
Degree ceremony at Cambridge.

Postgraduate education (synonymous in North America with graduate education, and sometimes described as quaternary education) involves studying for degrees or other qualifications for which a first or Bachelor's degree is required, and is normally considered to be part of tertiary or higher education. In North America, this level is generally referred to as graduate school.

The organization and structure of postgraduate education is very different in different countries, and also in different institutions within countries. This article sets out the basic types of course and of teaching and examination methods, with some explanation of their history.

In some programs in the traditional German system, there is no legal distinction between "undergraduate" and "postgraduate". In such programs, all education aims towards the Master's degree, whether introductory (Bachelor's level) or advanced (Master's level). The aim of the Bologna process is to abolish this system.

Types of postgraduate qualification

There are four main types of qualification studied for at the postgraduate level: academic and vocational degrees, and academic and vocational certificates and diplomas.


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


Although systems of higher education go back to Ancient Greece, China, India, and Africa, 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 the European mediæval universities.

University studies took six years for a Bachelor 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. Theology was the most prestigious area of study, and considered to be the most difficult.

The degrees of master (magister) and 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."[1] Because theology was thought to be the highest of the subjects, the doctorate came to be thought of as higher than the master's.[2]

The main significance of the higher, postgraduate degrees was that they licensed the holder to teach ("doctor" comes from the Latin "docere", meaning "teach"; "magister" is Latin for "master", and is also the root of "magistrate").

Modern situation

In most English-speaking countries, the hierarchy of degrees is as follows:

  1. Associate's degree (chiefly in the United States of America) or Foundation degree (in the UK)
    Usually two years (20 courses or 60 semester credit-hours for the Associate degree); often an intermediate degree before finishing Bachelor's. In the UK, a foundation degree is typically 240 CATS credits equivalent to 120 ECTS European credits (whereas a full Bachelor with honours is 360 CATS credits or 180 ECTS European credits).
  2. Bachelor's degrees (Undergraduate degrees; first degrees).
    Usually three or four years (40 courses or 120 semester credit-hours in the US); in a few cases, a degree called "bachelor" is in fact a postgraduate degree — see, for example, Bachelor of Civil Law, Bachelor of Philosophy. An Honours Bachelor's degree in South Africa and other countries may be conferred upon those completing a four-year program, to differentiate it from a three-year Bachelor's. In France there is the Licence degree which is equivalent of the Bachelor. In the Netherlands there is the Hoger Beroeps Onderwijs(HBO), which is equivalent to a four-year Bachelors education. In the UK, all Honours Bachelor's degrees are three years and worth 360 CATS credits or 180 ECTS European credits, whereas ordinary Bachelor's degrees (also three years) are worth 300 CATS (150 ECTS).
  3. First Professional degree (Undergraduate)
    First professional degrees are required for professional licensure or entrance to a specific career. These degrees may require a bachelor's degree for admission into the program, followed by three to four years of specialized study. The programs that do are mainly found in North America; elsewhere professional education for careers such as law and medicine is mainly undertaken through specialised undergraduate degrees and post-university vocational courses that do not confer academic degrees. Graduates in some cases are called doctor and the degree program sometimes includes the word doctor. In some fields such as engineering, the undergraduate degree (BS or BEng) is the first professional degree.
  4. Master's degrees (Postgraduate)
    These are sometimes placed in a further hierarchy, starting with degrees such as the Master of Arts and Master of Science, then Master of Philosophy, and finally Master of Letters, and a DEA in France. In many fields such as clinical social work, or library science in North America, a Master's is the terminal degree. In the UK, Master's degrees may be taught or by research: taught Master's include the MSc and MA degrees which last 1 year and are worth 180 CATS credits (equivalent to 90 ECTS European credits), whereas the Master's by research degrees include the MRes (Master of Research) which also lasts 1 year and worths 180 CATS or 90 ECTS credits (the difference compared to the MA/MSc being that the research is much more extensive), and the MPhil (Master of Philosophy) degree which lasts 2 years (and is often granted to failed doctorates).
  5. Doctorates (Postgraduate)
    These are often further divided into academic and professional doctorates.
    An academic doctorate can be awarded as a PhD (Philosophiæ Doctor), or as a DSc (Scientiae Doctor). The scientiae doctor degree can be also be awarded in specific fields, such as a (Doctor scientiarum mathematicarum, Doctor of Mathematics), (Doctor scientiarum agrariarum, Doctor of Agricultural science), etc. In some parts of Europe, doctorates are divided into the PhD or 'junior doctorate', and the 'higher doctorates' such as the DSc, which is 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 PhD and DSc. In the UK, PhD 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 U.S., 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, U.S. 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.[3]

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 — normally held to be lower than degrees. They are sometimes used as steps on the route to a degree, or as part of training for a specific career, or as a qualification in an area of study too narrow to warrant a full degree course.

See also


  1. Burns
  2. Curiously, Oxford and Cambridge (and Dublin) still continue to awards Masters of Arts (MA) degrees to undergraduates without any further study seven years after matriculation. These universities also award Bachelor's degrees for some forms of postgraduate study (e.g., see BCL)
  3. EUROPA - Education and Training - The Bologna processs

Sources and external links

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