Graduate Study in the U.S.

Graduate education in the United States will almost certainly be different from the system you are used to in Pakistan. This section gives you an introduction to the graduate degrees available in the United States, the different types of higher education institutions that exist, and some key terms and ideas you will come across if you want to study at a U.S. university.

Graduate Degrees

The two graduate degrees offered in the United States are the master's degree and the doctoral degree; both involve a combination of research and coursework. Graduate education differs from undergraduate education in that it offers a greater depth of training, with increased specialization and intensity of instruction. Study and learning are more self-directed at the graduate level than at the undergraduate level.

Depending on the subject, courses may be quite formal, consisting primarily of lecture presentations by faculty members, or they may be relatively informal, placing emphasis on discussion and exchange of ideas among faculty and students. Seminars involve smaller groups of students than lecture courses, and students may be required to make presentations as well as participate in discussions. Class participation, research papers, and examinations are all important.

Degree requirements are stated in terms of "credits" (sometimes called "units" or "hours"), and each course usually earns three or four credits, generally reflecting the number of hours spent in the classroom and the amount of other work involved. A student will usually accumulate up to 48 credits per academic year if the university operates on a traditional two-semester system.

Master's Degrees

The master's degree is designed to provide additional education or training in the student's specialized branch of knowledge, well beyond the level of baccalaureate study. Master's degrees are offered in many different fields, and there are two main types of programs: academic and professional.

Academic Master's

The Master of Arts (M.A.) and Master of Science (M.S.) degrees are usually awarded in the traditional arts, sciences, and humanities disciplines. The M.S. is also awarded in technical fields such as engineering and agriculture. Original research, research methodology, and field investigation are emphasized. These programs usually require the completion of between 30 and 60 credit hours and could reasonably be completed in one or two academic years of full-time study. They may lead directly to the doctoral level.

Many master's programs offer a thesis and a non-thesis option. The degree is the same in both cases, but the academic requirements are slightly different. Students in non-thesis programs usually take more coursework in place of researching and writing a thesis, and they take a written comprehensive examination after all coursework is completed. Students in degree programs that include a thesis component generally take a comprehensive examination that is an oral exam covering both coursework and their thesis.

Professional Master's

These degree programs are designed to lead the student from the first degree to a particular profession. Professional master's degrees are most often "terminal" master's programs, meaning that they do not lead to doctoral programs. Such master's degrees are often designated by specific descriptive titles, such as master of business administration (M.B.A.), master of social work (M.S.W.), master of education (M.Ed.), or master of fine arts (M.F.A.). Other subjects of professional master's programs include journalism, international relations, architecture, urban planning, public administration (M.P.A.), and public policy (M.P.P.).

Professional degree programs usually require completion of between 36 and 48 units (one to two years of full-time study), and usually do not offer a thesis option. They do not always require that the bachelor's degree be in a specific field, but they may recommend a certain amount of prior study or coursework in the subject area.

Doctoral Degrees

The doctoral degree is designed to train research scholars and, in many cases, future college and university faculty members. Receipt of a doctoral degree certifies that the student has demonstrated capacity as a trained research scholar in a specific discipline.

At the doctoral level, the Ph.D. (doctor of philosophy) is the most common degree awarded in academic disciplines. Other doctoral degrees are awarded primarily in professional fields, such as education (Ed.D. or doctor of education) and business administration (D.B.A. or doctor of business administration). Doctoral programs involve advanced coursework, seminars, and the writing of a dissertation that describes the student's own original research, completed under the supervision of a faculty adviser.

A comprehensive examination is given, usually after three to five years of study and completion of all coursework, and when the student and adviser agree that the student is ready. This exam is designed to test the student's ability to use knowledge gained through courses and independent study in a creative and original way. Students must demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of their chosen field of study. Successful completion of this examination marks the end of the student's coursework and the beginning of concentration on research.

The Ph.D.degree is awarded to those students who complete an original piece of significant research, write a dissertation describing that research, and successfully defend their work before a panel of faculty members who specialize in the discipline. This may take an additional two to three years. To earn a doctoral degree, therefore, may take anywhere from five to eight years beyond the bachelor's degree, depending on the field of study.

In the United States, you will find a variety of nontraditional doctoral programs; these programs might have very different types of requirements from the traditional programs. Prospective students should be sure of what is required to enter any program they are considering, and what is required to obtain the degree. This information is usually available from university catalogs and websites or directly from individual departments.

Academic Calendar

Different schools use different calendars, and sometimes the differences become confusing. The academic year in the United States generally lasts nine months, from late August or early September until the middle or end of May, and it may be divided into two, three, or four academic terms depending on the institution. If the year is divided into two terms, these are called the fall and spring terms, or "semesters." Short breaks occur during both fall and spring terms, between terms, and on public holidays. An optional summer term is often available and provides the opportunity to continue courses if you wish to accelerate your program.

It is best to start a program in the fall term (beginning in August/September). Many courses must be taken in sequence, and time may be lost in completing the degree if you start in another term. It is also easier to become accustomed to studying in the United States and to meet other students in the department if you start at the beginning of the academic year. Lastly, scholarship opportunities may be more readily available to students starting in the fall rather than midyear.

Course Load and Grading Systems

The U.S. system of grading is rather consistent between schools, as is the system of determining what courses and how many a student enrolls in. "Course load" refers to the number of courses students take each term. The normal course load for a graduate student is three or four courses, which equals approximately nine to 12 credits per term. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services branch of the Department of Homeland Security requires that international students take a course load that is considered full-time by the institution. Passing grades are typically awarded on a scale of "A" through "D," and "F" indicates a failing grade for a course. An average grade of "B" is usually the minimum required for completion of a graduate degree program. Other grading systems may include a grade-point scale from 0 to 3, 4, or 5; pass/fail; high pass/low pass; or other variations. Credit, course load, grading systems, and requirements vary between institutions. Make sure you are aware of the policies of an individual program and institution before you apply.

Types of Institutions

Colleges, Universities, and Institutes: There are definite differences between the three, but none is inferior to the others.

Colleges, Universities, and Institutes: The Distinction

Degree-granting institutions in the United States can be called by any of these terms, and colleges and institutes are in no way inferior to universities. As a general rule, colleges tend to be smaller than universities and usually do not offer doctoral degrees, while a university offers a wide range of graduate programs, including doctoral degrees. Universities emphasize research as well as teaching (traditionally a strength of colleges), and universities that offer doctoral programs are usually referred to as research universities.

An institute usually specializes in degree programs in a group of closely related subject areas, so you will also come across degree programs offered at institutes of technology, institutes of fashion, and institutes of art and design. Research centers offer graduate degrees or research and training opportunities, and they may or may not be affiliated with universities.

Within each institution you may find schools such as the school of arts and sciences or school of business. Each school is responsible for the degree programs offered by the college or university in that area of study.

Private and Public Institutions

Both public and private universities offer degree programs. The terms "public" and "private" refer to the way in which universities are financially supported. Public universities may also be called state universities, and some include the words "state university" in their title or include a regional element such as "eastern" or "northern." State universities tend to be very large with enrollments of 20,000 or more students. Since public universities obtain a part of their support from the state in which they are located, the tuition they charge is often lower than that charged by private institutions. In addition, public institutions generally charge lower tuition to state residents (those who live and pay taxes in the state) than to students coming from outside the state.

Private institutions are supported by student tuition, investment income, research contracts, and private donations. Tuition fees tend to be higher at private universities than at state universities, and they charge the same tuition to all students, both state and non-state residents. Colleges with a religious affiliation and single-sex colleges are private. In general, private universities have enrollments of fewer than 20,000 students, and private colleges may have 2,000 or fewer students on their campuses.

Except for financial considerations, the public or private nature of a university should not be a factor in selecting a graduate program. High quality programs exist in both types of institutions. Of more importance is the institution's commitment to the graduate program. This commitment is found in its willingness to maintain a first-class faculty and to provide excellent facilities for advanced study, including libraries, laboratories, computers, and other equipment. Another important factor to consider in many disciplines is the presence of strong departments in other fields relevant to your interests so that you can have access to scholars and courses in disciplines related to your own.

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