What’s the Difference Between a Bachelor’s Degree and a 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.
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Bachelor’s degree and master’s degree programs differ in the number of credit hours required and in their depth of content focus. Before you can pursue a master's degree, you must successfully complete your bachelor's degree. During your bachelor's degree program, you take general education courses and a number of courses that are aligned specifically 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 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 the first level. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, most bachelor’s degree programs require you to complete 120 credit hours (NCES pdf source) or the equivalent of 40 classes.

The most common bachelor’s degrees are the Bachelor of Arts (BA), the Bachelor of Science (BS), and the Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA). Generally, a BA focuses on the 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 Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), provides licensed nurses the opportunity to advance in their field.

More and more Americans are earning bachelor’s degrees. From 2010 to 2019, the percentage of adults age 25 and older in the United States with a bachelor’s degree rose from 29.9% to 36%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Master’s Degree

Once you’ve successfully 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. 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.

Unlike a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree narrows your focus to one particular area of study. Common master’s degrees include the Master of Arts (MA), Master of Science (MS) and Master of Business Administration (MBA). Some graduate schools also offer a Master of Fine Arts (MFA), which is considered a terminal degree for those wishing to teach writing, studio art, or other fine arts.

James Hussey and the text 'James Hussey'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). For example, at SNHU, a master's in communication, English or curriculum and instruction each require 36 credits. However, students seeking a master's in psychology, finance or applied economics may need to take up to 45 credits, he said.

To earn an MBA, students may need to earn anywhere between 36 and 51 credits. The range of credits largely depends on students' academic backgrounds. If they earned undergraduate credits in the same field, such as business, they may be able to earn their master's degree with fewer credits.

Today, more adults are pursuing master’s degree according to the U.S. Census Bureau. About 13.1% of U.S. adults now hold an advanced degree, up from 8.6% in 2000.

Which Degree is Best for Your Future?

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.  Some pursue a master's degree to boost their earning power.  The median weekly earnings of someone holding a master’s degree in 2019 was $1,497, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). In comparison, this is more than 15% higher than the $1,248 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 in order to become licensed. In 2019, social workers earned a median salary of $50,470, 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 2019, the median annual salary for computer programmers was $86,550, according to BLS.

Keep in mind, there are some professions that typically require you to have a master’s degree, according to the BLS. These include:

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.

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

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