Types of Degrees and How They Can Influence Your Career

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated 25 November 2022

Published 23 July 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Academic institutions offer different types of degrees for students and professionals. The degree type you choose can influence the trajectory of your career and how effective you might be in the labour force. They also relate to each other differently and have different prerequisites. In this article, we define what an academic degree is, the types of academic degrees you can get, how long they take to earn and their various advantages.

What is an academic degree?

An academic degree is a credential or certificate that a student gets after completing some form of higher education, mostly through full-time study after completing secondary school. These credentials certify the student went through the course requirements, such as completing all the classes and passing their respective exams. Universities generally award degrees, although there's the possibility of acquiring one through certain types of apprenticeships.

Related: The Complete Guide to National Vocational Qualifications

What are the types of degrees?

Generally, there are five types of university degrees:

  • Associate degrees/foundation degrees

  • Bachelor's degree

  • Master's degree

  • Professional degree

  • Doctoral degree

Related: How To Choose a Career Path

Associate degree/foundation degree

An associate degree, or foundation degree, is a post-secondary school education programme that combines academic and workplace skills. The programme usually takes up to two years to complete when you enrol for full-time classes but can take longer when you enrol part-time.

The associate degree allows you to acquire additional academic skills while still working and the option to further your education by pursuing a bachelor's degree later. People who hold an associate degree get a two-year exemption when they enrol for a bachelor's degree programme.

Here are some common associate degrees:

  • Associate of Business Administration (ABA): serves as an introduction to business studies

  • Associate of Arts (AA): good for students who wish to further their careers in the arts by completing studies that lead to a bachelor of arts degree

  • Associate of Science (AS): an initial course for students who, later on, enrol for a bachelor of science degree

Bachelor's degrees

A bachelor's degree takes between three and four years to complete and is one of the more common post-secondary school academic qualifications. If you decide to get a bachelor's degree, you can choose single honours or joint honours. The differences between these are as follows:

Single honours

A single honours bachelor's degree focuses on one subject, but during the studies, you have to take different classes that cover different topics within the subject of the course. For example, if you're taking a bachelor of commerce, you may have to take several relevant courses, such as Principles of Accounting I and II, Portfolio Management, Financial Accounting I and II and Company Law.

Each topic is called often a 'unit' or 'module', and each semester has several of these units. To progress to a subsequent semester, you're typically expected to pass examinations in all of your units. Different universities have different policies regarding these.

Related: What Is a Bachelor's Degree?

Joint honours

In joint honours, you'll get a chance to combine at least two subjects, which can complement in-depth knowledge of the field you're studying. It's not a very common type of degree, but people who enrol for this type of bachelor's degree may have a higher chance of finding employment opportunities due to their more diversified education. A good example would be taking English literature and history courses simultaneously, or computer science and accounting, or mechanical engineering and electrical engineering. These are some of the common bachelor's degrees you can find:

  • Bachelor of Arts (BA): offers you a career focusing on liberal arts, social sciences and similar fields, such as writing, philosophy, literature, history, English, graphic design and communication

  • Bachelor of Science (BSc): suits students who want a career in a technical field such as engineering, computer science and natural sciences

Related: A Beginner's Guide To Earning Your Undergraduate Degree

Master's degrees

Master's degrees are postgraduate degrees that students enrol in to gain specialised skills and knowledge on a specific subject. It usually takes a student one to two years to complete their studies and acquire a master's degree. The course usually requires a student to have completed a relevant bachelor's degree with at least an upper second-class honours degree to qualify.

During the course, the student takes specialised courses in relevant topics to build their professional and academic capabilities. Alternatively, they may complete a purely research-focused masters degree. A master's degree can help students further their careers, with some of them using them to become eligible for promotions or positions within certain organisations that require postgraduate qualifications.

These are some of the more common master's degrees you can find:

  • Master of Business Administration (MBA): helps students gain better business world knowledge and improve their grasp of corporate management and related topics

  • Master of Arts (MA): helps students to further specialise in arts subjects, similar to those in a BA degree.

  • Master of Science (MSc): performs the same function as an MA, but for students who've completed a BSc.

Professional degrees

Professional degrees typically relate to a specific position or career path and differs somewhat from other degree types. Some of these differences include:

  • The career requires licensing.

  • It can take more than four years to complete.

  • Some of them require a master's degree for enrolment.

The students often have to complete coursework during their studies that help with the licencing process and acquire in-depth knowledge of a certain profession. Below are the most common types of professional degrees:

Law degree (LLB)

This course prepares you to practise law and become a solicitor or barrister. As a student, you're taken through different legal subjects and have to sit different exams. Before you become a certified solicitor or barrister, you are required to complete the necessary examinations and register accordingly. There are different types of careers you can have with a law degree and they'll depend on your studies and preferences. Generally, lawyers are either solicitors or barristers:

  • Solicitor: These professionals are legal experts who carry out legal work, provide advice and negotiate for clients outside of the courtroom. They can specialise in different areas, like employment, crime, family or property law.

  • Barrister: These professionals are law practitioners who work at higher-level courts and act as advocates for their clients in legal hearings in front of judges. Barristers are less likely than solicitors to interact with the public in their work, but more likely to be found within a court.

Related: Highest Paying Jobs in the UK

Medical degree (MBBS or MBChB)

This type of degree is for students who want to pursue a career in medicine or medicine-related fields. To enrol for this course, you need A-levels and GCSEs with typically high grades. A bachelor's degree in medicine usually takes five or six years to complete and is the first step in a long process to become a qualified doctor. The medical field is diverse and can create several career paths for students, including:

  • Surgeon: This is a type of doctor that specialises in performing surgery. These individuals know how to perform invasive medical procedures on the human body to treat serious medical problems and injuries.

  • General practitioner (GP): These doctors have primary responsibility for patient care outside of hospitals, including diagnosing and treating problems. They can refer patients to specialists if the need arises and generally don't specialise in a specific area of medicine unless they're a GPsWI (GP with special interest).

  • Psychiatrist: This specialisation deals with the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders. They differ from psychologists, as the latter are not medical doctors and cannot usually prescribe medicine.

  • Consultant: These are the most senior hospital doctors and lead teams. They have a specialised area and it can take eight years to become a consultant after finishing medical school.

Doctoral degrees (PhD)

A doctoral degree, or PhD, is the most advanced form of academic achievement that you can earn. A student typically needs to finish their master's degree before they can enrol for a doctoral degree. PhD holders can go by the title of 'Doctor'. It usually takes at least three years to complete this programme, which focuses on furthering your academic research to make you an expert in your chosen specialisation. PhD students typically either work on specialised projects or on producing a unique contribution to their field through a doctoral thesis.

It's common for people who have a PhD to teach in universities and elsewhere, where the most senior academics can become professors. Before this, you can be an assistant lecturer, lecturer or associate professor. Other PhD holders may choose to dedicate their time to research in their field, but can occasionally give talks or presentations on their work.

Related: What to do after a PhD (plus answers to other FAQs)

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