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What is the Difference Between Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees?

There are differences between a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree related to the number of credit hours required, the content focus and the complexity of the material studied in each program.
A person with a laptop and notebook, considering the differences between a bachelor's degree and a master's degree.

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At SNHU, we want to make sure you have the information you need to make decisions about your education and your future—no matter where you choose to go to school. That's why our informational articles may reference careers for which we do not offer academic programs, along with salary data for those careers. Cited projections do not guarantee actual salary or job growth.

Bachelor’s degree and master’s degree programs differ in the number of credit hours required and their depth of content focus. Before pursuing a master's degree, you must complete your bachelor's degree. During your bachelor's degree program, which is typically four years, you take general education courses and several courses aligned directly to your major. In your master's degree program, you focus entirely on one area of study.

Types of Degrees

Understanding the differences between a bachelor's degree and a master's degree gives you an idea of how graduate programs build upon undergraduate study. It can also give you a sense of how long it might take you to finish each program and how each might fit into your long-term academic and career goals.

Bachelor’s Degree

A graphic with a blue background and white book iconA bachelor’s degree is the second level of undergraduate higher education; an associate degree is first, but you don't need to get your associate to pursue a bachelor's. Most bachelor’s degree programs require you to complete 120 credit hours or the equivalent of 40 classes.

Some of the most common types of bachelor’s degrees are:

Danielle Jernigan, a BSN graduate at SNHUGenerally, the difference between BA and BS is that a BA focuses on humanities while a BS emphasizes science and math. A BFA focuses on the fine arts, such as studio art, creative writing, drama or music. Although SNHU does not currently offer any BFA programs, you could also pursue the arts through some BA programs, like a creative writing degree or a degree in digital art and design.

Finally, the BSN provides nurses with the opportunity to progress in their field. Take Danielle Jernigan '23 for example — a nurse living in New York City who opted to earn her BSN online at SNHU.

"As a nurse, most employers prefer to hire BSNs, especially the city hospitals," Jernigan said. "With this degree, I am able to advance in my career."

More and more Americans are earning bachelor’s degrees. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the percentage of adults ages 25 years and older in the United States with a bachelor’s degree rose from 30.4% to 37.7% from 2011-2022.

Find Your Program

Master’s Degree

Once you’ve completed your bachelor’s degree, you're eligible to enroll in a master’s degree program to earn what is referred to as a graduate degree. The top reasons people choose to pursue a master’s degree include a desire for higher earnings, a career change or to follow a passion, according to the Harvard Business Review (HBR).

Unlike a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree narrows your focus to one particular area of study.

An icon of the globe with a yellow graduation cap resting on top of itTypical master’s degrees include:

Some graduate schools also offer a Master of Fine Arts (MFA), a terminal degree for those wishing to teach writing, studio art, or other fine arts.

Shorter than a bachelor’s degree but tighter in focus, a master’s degree requires you to complete anywhere from 33 to 60 credits. These programs require 36 credits:

The time it takes to earn an MBA varies, and some programs are only 30 credits and can be completed in just one year.

Christopher McGinnis, a 2023 graduate from SNHU's master's in organizational leadershipThe range of credits largely depends on students' academic backgrounds. If you earned undergraduate credits in the same field, such as business, you might achieve your master's degree with fewer credits.

When Christopher McGinnis '23G started his master's degree at SNHU, he had already applied to several promotions within his organization. "I was always passed over for someone who had just ‘that’ much more experience," McGinnis said.

He decided to earn a master's in organizational leadership, and the next time a leadership role opened up, McGinnis applied and got the promotion.

"Going after my master's helped me even before I had completed the program," he said.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 14% of U.S. adults over 25 held an advanced degree, such as a master's or doctorate, in 2022, up from 10.9% in 2011.

Which Degree is Right for You?

An icon of a certificate with a star.Whether or not you should pursue a master’s degree after you earn your undergraduate degree is highly dependent on your field and career goals. However, some seek a master's degree to boost their earning power. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median weekly earnings of someone holding a master’s degree in 2022 was $1,661.* In comparison, this is more than 15.9% higher than the $1,432 average median weekly salary earned by those with a bachelor's degree in 2022, according to BLS.*

It’s important to understand that your earnings will vary widely depending on what occupation you enter.  

For example, instructional coordinators typically need a master's degree, according to BLS, and these professionals earned a median salary of $66,490 in 2022.* But to become a software engineer or developer, BLS said you'll likely only need a bachelor's degree, and the median salary for software developers was $124,200 in 2022.*

Keep in mind some professions may require you to have a master’s degree, and be sure to research all the job requirements for whichever role you plan to pursue. 

So, Is It Better To Get a Bachelor’s Degree or a Master’s Degree?

Both a bachelor's degree and a master's degree can offer rewarding learning and career opportunities. However, you may consider it advantageous to earn a master's degree if it aligns with your personal goals and is required in your career field.

The good news is that you can start a master’s degree any time after you earn your bachelor’s degree, whether you decide to take a few months off or begin classes again more than a decade later.

A degree can change your life. Find the SNHU online program that can best help you meet your goals.

*Cited job growth projections may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions and do not guarantee actual job growth. Actual salaries and/or earning potential may be the result of a combination of factors including, but not limited to: years of experience, industry of employment, geographic location, and worker skill.

Krysten Godfrey Maddocks ’11G is a writer who covers K-12 and higher education topics, including policy and the role of digital technology in education. She spent almost a decade working in various marketing roles at an educational assessment company before launching a strategic marketing company. Maddocks earned a master's degree in marketing from Southern New Hampshire University and a bachelor's degree in English/ journalism from the University of New Hampshire. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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