Levels of Education
© 13 May 2014 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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The meaning and of Associate’s, Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Ph.D. degrees in American universities.


Many people—once upon a time myself included—have some form of the following model of education in their head:

High School < Associates < Bachelors < Masters < Ph.D.

Over time I have learned to think otherwise. The different degrees prepare you for different kinds of work.

High School Diploma

High schools have no centralized model in the USA, but there are trends. Coming out of high school you should be able to push numbers through equations, understand where to use arithmetic in daily life, have a tenuous grasp of where to use algebra in daily life, be able to write short passages of readable but low-quality text, and be conversant but not actually knowledgeable on a variety of artistic and scientific topics.

In general, a high school degree speaks to your socio-economic background, the amount of stimulants you were exposed to as a teen, and your willingness to stay with a process that might seem tedious or pointless. As far as I can tell, not being in the field personally, people don’t fail to attain a high school diploma unless they quit, drop out, stop “‍doing their work.‍”

All that said, each high school is unique. There is also a long-standing push to add more and more standardized testing to high school, which (if continued) will mean it becomes more unified but less educational.

Associate’s Degree

Associate’s degrees are of two principle types.

A topically-focused associate’s degree program is the set of things that you can learn about a narrow field from inside a classroom. The goal is to make you a competent employee in that field. The community college I attended, for example, trained a fair number of people looking to enter law enforcement and food photography. The course work was exposure to the knowledge needed in those fields.

A college-prep associates is basically the first two years of a bachelors.

An associate is trained either to take on one specific role or to be trained in one field with less effort than someone without such a degree. They are prepared to handle fairly unambiguous but skilled tasks with fairly constant supervision.

Bachelor’s Degree

The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that in the 14th century a “‍bachelor‍” was a young knight who lacked the age or power to have his own banner and lead his own forces. Around the same time it took on similar meaning in trades and scholarly fields, as Chauser’s use “‍a Bacheler of lawe‍” and Wriothesley’s “‍Batchlers of the Majors crafte‍”. Hundreds of years later this basic meaning still remains: a Bachelor’s degree is intended to prepare one to be a practitioner under another’s leadership, not a novice or squire but also not setting out on ones own.

Undergraduate education, which is what grants one a bachelor’s degree, typically consists of a set of relatively detailed classes exploring the known and established aspects of various fields. These courses almost always approach what a professional would do but do so on a tiny scale. You write little papers, do little research, solve little problems—all while staying firmly inside the previously-explored regions of knowledge.

One holding a bachelor’s degree might reasonably by thought to understand all of the little parts of their fields but not how those pieces fit into the vast unknowable that is the world. A bachelor is prepared to work semi-autonomously under the direction of another. They are assumed to have the flexibility to move between roles within the field and to be able to solve non-trivial problems that take a hours or days to figure out.

Master’s Degree

There are two kinds of master’s degrees: professional masters and research masters.

A professional master’s degree is mostly a continuation of a bachelor’s degree: courses exploring subsets of a field in relative isolation. However, most master’s programs are significantly more open-ended than most bachelor’s programs. Assignments are often given at the semester-long level and often have quite vague specifications.

A research master’s is much like a professional masters except a few courses are replaced by a year-long self-directed research project written up in a thesis. Typically thesis projects are near the edge of current knowledge in the field, close enough to what we know that they usually behave predictably but close enough to what we don’t know that there are some small surprises along the way.

One holding a master’s degree has generally seen where the edges of our knowledge of a field lie and has a reasonably-detailed understanding of the knowledge this side of that boundary. They are prepared to handle clear but not defined tasks that may require creativity, experimentation, and months of effort. Their education does not prepare them to set off into uncharted waters but it does prepare them to run significant parts of the ship on their own.

Doctorate Degree

Most Ph.D. degree programs consist of a few years of master’s courses followed by several years of trying to think of something useful that no one has ever thought before. This is done with a mentor or advisor, but in most cases the student is in charge: the student comes up with the topic, decides how to explore it, designs and executes the experiments of studies, writes up the results, presents these results to others working in the field, and deals with all the many failures along the way.

It has been said that a Ph.D. is an exercise in endurance, not intelligence. During my grad school orientation I was told “‍if you know it will work, it isn’t research‍” and research is what Ph.D. students do. If you do not have to deal with several quite large setbacks in a Ph.D. program then you have missed out on some of its most important and useful experiences.

One holding a Ph.D. degree has been mentored in self-directed work. They are expected to be able to be told “‍make X better‍” and to be able to plan out years of effort to accomplish that goal. I’m not sure this objective is accomplished as often as we’d like, since there does not seem to be much understanding about how to train Ph.D. students to do this, but it is generally true that those who endure long enough to get the degree.

Which one to earn/hire?

When friends at earlier stages of the education pipeline ask me for advice on which degree should be their last, I usually come up with some scenario in their field of interest and discuss possible roles they might want in that scenario. Then I suggest the degree that their response most closely resembles.

You can be over-qualified for a job. Everyone with a Ph.D. degree has a bachelor’s degree too, but in general they are not satisfied long term with the kind of supervised tasks that bachelor’s degree holders are usually asked to perform. This means that they often quit earlier than others, which means that the investment the company made in training them for the job is lost.

It is also true that you can often get the kinds of jobs that higher degrees prepare you for through on-the-job experience instead of degrees. Years ago I had a friend whose only degree was a high school diploma but who ran several established businesses (masters-level work).

There are also fields where a particular degree is just necessary. If you want to teach college, get a Ph.D. even though the level of freedom in most teaching jobs is more in line with a master’s preparation. If you are going into medicine or law you need their specialized doctorate degrees that have more in common with professional master’s degrees than Ph.D. degrees. Etc.

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