What is grad school? | Top Universities

What is grad school?

By Sabrina Collier

Updated November 1, 2023 Updated November 1, 2023

If you want to study a postgraduate degree, you’ll be looking at various graduate (grad) schools and courses to find the right ones for you. But what actually is grad school?

The term grad school means a higher education institution which awards postgraduate degrees – most commonly master’s and doctorate (PhD) programmes. You will almost always need to have completed an undergraduate (bachelor’s) degree, sometimes known as a ‘first’ degree, before applying for admission to grad school.

Grad schools can be found within academic departments of universities, or as separate colleges which are dedicated entirely to providing postgraduate education.

Most students will study a master’s or doctorate in the same area they majored in at undergraduate level, or a similar subject, aiming to acquire more in-depth knowledge in a specialized area. However, there are also chances to embark on an entirely different subject of study if you change your mind, want to gain new skills, or fancy a change in career direction.

Many master’s courses available to graduates of any subject, and many will consider relevant work experience alongside academic qualifications. In cases where applicants are required to have completed a specific set of course modules, it may be possible to take a fast-track or conversion course in order to reach the required level.

Where is the term ‘grad school’ used?

The term ‘grad school’ is primarily used in North America, although some universities elsewhere in the world will name their postgraduate departments the ‘graduate school’ of a subject, such as such as the Graduate School of Law or Graduate School of Medicine. Others omit the term ‘graduate’ to offer both undergraduate and postgraduate courses within the same faculty.

Types of grad school

Professional school 

If you’ve got a particular career in mind, such as becoming a lawyer, you can attend a professional school in order to become fully trained and prepared for that career, and to obtain a professional qualification or license. Courses at these professional schools are likely to involve a more applied learning style and/or more opportunities for work placements.

Academic school

Outside of professional schools, postgraduate degrees vary in the amount of focus given to vocational training and to academic research. This will also vary depending on the subject, with some fields lending themselves more to research, and others leaning more towards professional practice. Most postgraduate degrees offer a blend of both, allowing students to develop a varied set of skills applicable in a wide range of graduate careers.

How is grad school different from undergraduate education?

During your undergraduate degree, you should have already developed an independent learning style; at grad school, you can develop this further, with support from the academics in your department.

Undergraduate studies focus largely on passing on the knowledge already acquired by the human race. At postgraduate level, the focus is much more on contributing to this body of knowledge, with students encouraged to conduct their own research. This is particularly this case if you opt for a research-based master’s or a PhD.

Class sizes are also often much smaller for postgraduate courses, meaning students can benefit from more direct involvement and engagement with tutors and fellow classmates.

What is a ‘terminal degree’? 

A term most commonly used in the US; a 'terminal degree' describes the highest level of education that a person can have in order to gain a career within their field of study. Often, a PhD is considered a terminal degree because, for many subjects, it is the highest level of education that can be obtained.

However, for subjects such as business, architecture, humanities, arts and social sciences a master's degree may be considered a terminal degree because it is the highest level of education that will give its students practical information that they can use when beginning a career.

While PhD's are available in these subjects, they involve subject specific research and do not offer any practical skills or knowledge that an employer may look for. A terminal degree for subjects such as medicine, of course, are different.

For many medical doctors, a terminal degree could be a MD or a PhD. Many medical doctors will have both because the research that they conduct in a PhD will be relevant to their practice.

Types of terminal degrees include a master's degree, PhD, EdD (Doctor of Education), DEng (Doctor of Engineering), PsyD (Doctor of Psychology), MD (Doctor of Medicine) and JD (juris doctor).

The time that it will take to complete a terminal degree is often dependent on the subject being studied and the nature of the terminal degree itself.

For some careers, such as medical doctors, engineers and lawyers, a terminal degree will be essential to begin a career but for many subjects a terminal degree is not strictly necessary. However, many students choose to pursue one because it makes them more attractive to potential employers and statistically increases their earning potential.

This article was originally published in November 2015 . It was last updated in November 2023

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