You may be surprised by the number of unfamiliar terms associated with college and college life. Undergraduate, TA, accreditation, Greek life, the FAFSA—high school counselors and college admissions officers use these terms every day. Unfortunately, they don’t always stop to explain what each term means.
The “College Speak” series explains the college-oriented vocab that you need to be in the know and focus on the more important questions, such as “which school would be the best fit for me?”
Today’s terms are:
- associate's degree,
- bachelor's degree,
- master's degree,
- doctoral degree,
- terminal degree, and
Matriculate: You will probably matriculate at a post-secondary school before you start your first course there. It is a standard part of enrollment, so you may not even notice it when it happens.
So what exactly does it mean? Students who matriculate at a school are eligible to earn a degree. A degree is an award that formally recognizes your completion of a certain sequence of courses. These courses will typically include your major requirements and the school’s core curriculum, if it has one.
And why wouldn’t you want a degree? You might as well get some recognition for all of the courses you’ve completed, right?
Matriculation usually just involves filling out a form, but some schools have a formal matriculation ceremony.
Typically, only a small minority of students—for example, those who intend to take just a course or two at a given school—do not matriculate there. At many schools, non-matriculated students apply for admission through a separate process.
Associate’s Degree: A degree awarded by some undergraduate schools. It typically involves about two years of full-time study.
There are various types of associate’s degrees. Common types include the following: Associate of Arts (AA), Associate of Business Administration (ABA), Associate in Engineering Technology (AET), Associate of Science (AS), and Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN).
The type of associate’s degree earned may depend on the nature of the courses that the student has taken—for example, liberal arts or science courses. In other cases, an associate degree will pertain directly to the student’s major—for example, Business Administration or Nursing.
Bachelor’s Degree: A degree awarded by some undergraduate schools. It typically involves about four years of full-time study.
By far the most common bachelor’s degrees are the Bachelor of Arts (BA) and the Bachelor of Science (BS). Don’t get too hung up on the words “Arts” and Science” here; depending on the school you attend, you may receive either a BA or a BS for graduating with the same major.
In the hierarchy of degrees, bachelor’s degrees are above associate’s degrees. They take more time and often require more advanced courses. A bachelor’s degree is usually the minimum degree required prior to enrollment at a graduate school.
Master’s Degree: A degree awarded by some graduate schools. Different master’s degrees may require very different time commitments, but most involve one or two years of full-time study.
Earning a master’s degree usually confers “expert” status on a person in a particular field. As the individual is now a “master,” the name of the degree makes sense (at least more sense than a “bachelor’s” degree).
Doctoral Degree: A degree awarded by some graduate schools. Within some disciplines, a student may work toward a doctoral degree after the completion of a master’s degree. Within other disciplines, a student may begin to work toward a doctoral degree directly after undergraduate school.
As is true with master’s degrees, the time required to earn doctoral degrees can vary quite bit; it may take three years or it may take ten years of graduate school to earn it (particularly if the student is no longer in school full-time).
There are two main types of doctoral degrees. Research doctorates involve the production of a new work or new research in a field. The most common example is the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), which may be awarded in many different disciplines (it won’t actually have anything to do with philosophy unless that is the field that you study).
Professional doctorates are also very common. As the name implies, these degrees prepare students to work in a specified profession. Popular examples include the Doctor of Medicine (MD), which is for medical doctors, and the Doctor of Jurisprudence (JD), which is for lawyers.
Terminal Degree: The highest degree you may earn in a particular discipline. Note that not all disciplines are studied at all levels, so a terminal degree in one field may be a master’s degree and in another field it may be an associate’s degree.
Certificate: An award stating that the recipient has proficiency in a specified area. It usually indicates that he or she has passed a test or a series of tests.
Students at a variety of levels seek certificates. Some certificates are earned after high school and others are earned after graduate school. You may earn a certificate in place of a degree or as a supplement to a degree that you already possess.