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What is a Bachelor's Degree? The Difference Between Bachelor’s and Master’s

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.

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 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.

The most common bachelor’s degrees are:

A blue infographic piece with the text Most Bachelor's Programs are 120 credits – or about 40 courses
  • Bachelor of Arts (BA)
  • Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA)
  • Bachelor of Science (BS)
  • Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)

Generally, 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. Finally, the BSN provides nurses with the opportunity to advance in their field.

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 29.9% to 36% from 2010-2019.

Master’s Degree

James Hussey and the text "James Hussey"

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.

Typical master’s degrees include the:

  • Master of Arts (MA)
  • Master of Business Administration (MBA)
  • Master of Science (MS)
  • Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)

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, according to James Hussey, an academic advisor for Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). At SNHU, he said, these programs require 36 credits:

However, other master's programs may take up to 45 credits, he said, including:

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

The 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.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more adults are pursuing master’s degrees. About 13.1% of U.S. adults now hold an advanced degree, such as a master's or doctorate, up from 8.6% in 2000.

Which Degree is Best for Your Future?

A yellow infographic piece with the text BLS reports 2020 median weekly earnings: $1,305 with a bachelor's degree

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 2020 was $1,545. In comparison, this is more than 18.3% higher than the $1,305 average median weekly salary earned by those with a bachelor's degree.

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

For example, a clinical social worker typically requires a master’s degree to become licensed. In 2020, social workers earned a median salary of $51,760, according to BLS. On the other hand, those with a bachelor’s degree in computer information technology can expect to see higher entry-level salaries in computer programming jobs. In 2020, the median annual salary for computer programmers was $89,190, according to BLS.

Keep in mind some professions typically require you to have a master’s degree.

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 open up rewarding learning and career opportunities. 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.

Krysten Godfrey Maddocks ’11 is a writer and marketing/communication professional. Connect with her on LinkedIn


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About Southern New Hampshire University

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SNHU is a nonprofit, institutionally accredited university with a mission to make high-quality education more accessible and affordable for everyone.

Founded in 1932, and online since 1995, we’ve helped countless students reach their goals with flexible, career-focused programs. Our 300-acre campus in Manchester, NH is home to over 3,000 students, and we serve over 135,000 students online. Visit our about SNHU page to learn more about our mission, accreditations, leadership team, national recognitions and awards.