Researching and Selecting a Degree Program

In many cases, pursuing a dream career requires students to ask questions about the type of education they all need to be qualified and competitive in their field. How long will it take to obtain an appropriate degree? Will this program provide enough to earn a good job and competitive salary? These are just two of the fundamental questions to review when considering how to move from aspiration to reality. The following section provides students with relevant information on different degree levels, programs, and types of education to help them find the best path.

Understanding Degrees by Level

Degree programs are available at many different levels and types of institutions, allowing prospective students to use their goals and preferences to guide decisions. The decision tree below can help students determine what type of degree might suit their professional ambitions.

Which Degree Is Right for Me?

Do you want to start working as quickly as possible?


A certificate is a great way to gain specific skills and knowledge in a short amount of time. Depending on the field, some certificates can be earned in as little as a few months or take up to a year.

Do you have a limited amount of time to invest in higher education due to outside responsibilities?

Certificate or Associate Degree

Either option can be ideal for those looking to learn the required skills for a job, but only have a couple years or less to dedicate to studying.

Are you looking for a basic education, one that gives you the fundamental tools needed to obtain a job in your chosen field?

Associate Degree

An associate degree can lead to fast entry into the job market. This degree can also serve as the foundation for a bachelor's degree later in the future.

Do you prefer to get a comprehensive, well-rounded education that can help you land an entry-level position in your chosen field or are you considering eventually enrolling in a master's degree program?

Bachelor's Degree

A four-year degree is the minimum education requirement for a range of professional careers. The comprehensive education a graduate receives can prepare him or her for the job market or serve as the foundation for more advanced education at the master's degree level.

Do you want to qualify for a competitive, high-paying, management position?

Master's Degree

A graduate degree gives students more specialized knowledge and skills, typically qualifying them for higher-level positions and increased salary potential.

Do you aspire to be a professor or administrator in your field?


This is the highest-level degree for most fields and is typically required for postsecondary teaching positions or high-level administrative roles. It is also ideal for research-focused positions in academia and the government.

Consider exploring the educational paths discussed below in more detail. Once you have a better idea of what's available, you can begin narrowing down options to find the best fit for your educational and career aspirations.


A postsecondary or undergraduate certificate is a non-degree program enabling individuals to pursue a career in their chosen field in less time than a degree. Certificate programs can last anywhere from two months to one year, and typically involve four to eight courses. These specialized training programs focus on professional skills and knowledge required for a particular field or job, and individuals are able to begin their careers upon certification. Students can find these types of programs at community colleges, vocational or trade schools, and four-year colleges. Some of the most common certificate programs are in:

Another option is a postgraduate certificate, usually undertaken by working professionals. A postgraduate certificate can be ideal for learning new skills, qualifying for a raise or promotion, or applying for a specialized position.

Top Certificate Programs

  • Medical / Clinical Assistant

    In 2012, 58,478 certificates were awarded.

    Job Outlook, 2012-2022: 29% growth (higher than average)

    2014 Median Annual Pay: $29,960

  • Vocational Nurse

    In 2012, 52,034 certificates were awarded

    Job Outlook, 2012-2022: 25% growth (higher than average)

    2014 Median Annual Pay: $42,490

  • Cosmetologist

    In 2012, 49,396 certificates were awarded.

    Job Outlook, 2012-2022: 13% growth (average)

    2014 Median Annual Pay: $23,120

  • Patient Care Assistant / Nursing Assistant

    In 2012, 38,658 certificates were awarded.

    Job Outlook, 2012-2022: 21% growth (higher than average)

    2014 Median Annual Pay: $25,100

  • Automotive Technician / Mechanic

    In 2012, 24,249 certificates were awarded.

    Job Outlook, 2012-2022: 9% growth (average)

    2014 Median Annual Pay: $37,120

  • Associate Degree

    An associate degree takes approximately two years to complete and is perfect for the student that either doesn't have a lot of time or wants to enter the workforce quickly. It can also be ideal for those who wish to "test the waters" of a particular field. An associate degree equips students with the foundational skills necessary for particular industries or positions and provides a more robust curriculum than certificate programs. While offering more opportunities than a certificate program, it lacks the comprehensive liberal arts education of a bachelor's degree.

    Associate degrees can be gained at community colleges and technical or trade schools. Typically having less stringent academic requirements and offering flexible classes at an affordable cost, an associate degree may be preferable for someone who has entered the workforce with only a high school diploma and wants to advance their education.

    If an individual wants to pursue a bachelor's degree in the future, obtaining an associate degree and earning high grades can be a great stepping-stone. After completing a two-year degree, graduates have the knowledge and training necessary to begin a career in their field of study.

    Top Associate Degree Programs

    Four+ Years

    If a student wants to pursue a career beyond what a certificate or associate degree can offer, attending a postsecondary institution is the next step. Each level of four+ year degree programs opens up new, advanced job opportunities in the student's field of choice, and often equates to higher earning potential. Below is a review of what students can expect from each type of degree.

    Bachelor's Master's Doctoral
    What is it? A four-year degree providing a strong curriculum in the desired discipline, alongside a general education component to establish other valuable skills for the workforce A post-baccalaureate degree enabling students to specialize and pursue further education and research opportunities The highest degree students can attain in most disciplines. The courses and research involved equip graduates to have a mastery of their chosen field
    What are the benefits?

    Minimum education requirement for many entry-level positions

    Provides comprehensive overview of field-specific studies, helping students narrow their interests as studies progress

    Introduces students to specialized, focused studies in a specific field

    Allows students to perform original, independent research project for thesis

    Graduates can teach at all levels of education and hold key administrative/leadership positions

    Allows graduates to pursue more in-depth and complex research opportunities

    What are the top 3 fields?
    1. Business Administration and Management
    2. Psychology
    3. Nursing/Registered Nurse
    1. Business Administration and Management
    2. Education
    3. Educational Leadership and Administration
    1. Physical Therapy/Therapist
    2. Educational Leadership and Administration
    3. Chemistry

    Exploring Degrees by Industry

    When researching and choosing degree programs, another thing to consider is the industry or field you wish to pursue. Depending on the field and one's ultimate career goal, an associate degree may be enough to land a job offer, but in some cases a master's or even doctorate degree may be preferred or required.

    Browse the fields below for an idea of what kind of training and education will be necessary.




    Human Services




    Where to Earn Your Degree

    Depending on the degree or certificate program, students may need to attend a particular type of institution. Some schools offer more resources, while others are more affordable. Many institutions provide students with opportunities to pursue more than one type of degree or certificate. A quick analysis of each type of institution is given below.

    Vocational / Trade Schools

    A vocational school, also known as a trade school or career school, offers educational programs that provide specialized professional skills needed to pursue a particular trade. Students at vocational schools are often seeking certification, the shortest route to increased job opportunities. For instance, if an individual wants to work in healthcare but does not have the time to attend school for two, four, or even more years, he or she can obtain a certificate to work as a nursing assistant or medical assistant.

    Vocational schools often provide the technology or resources needed for students to learn the basics of their chosen profession, but may not offer the same level of services available at community or four-year colleges. What this type of school does offer is a fast-track education leading directly to a professional career.

    Community Colleges

    At a community college, students typically have the option of pursuing either an associate degree or a professional certificate. These institutions can be seen as an intermediary between vocational schools and four-year colleges, providing students with a fast track to employment while offering a variety of resources and extracurricular opportunities.

    Students enrolled at community colleges most commonly undertake two-year associate degrees, but many also take advantage of continuing and adult education programs. Community colleges tend to be localized in terms of student body, though some schools offer online learning in addition to campus-based courses.

    Community colleges are also a great entry point for students planning to attend a four-year college but who do not meet the academic requirements needed for a bachelor's degree program. Earning exceptional grades at a community college can increase the chances of a student being accepted into a four-year institution.

    Four-Year Colleges

    Four-year colleges tend to provide the most opportunities for students, both during their education and upon entering the job market. Bachelor's degrees are often the minimum educational requirement for entry-level positions, making them a common degree for students graduating high school. The student body tends to be geographically diverse, attracting students from across the country, and even the world. Colleges offering bachelor's degrees also provide many resources and extracurricular activities, from academic clubs and honor societies to labs and classrooms equipped with the latest technology.

    Students aiming to undertake graduate study will first need to complete a bachelor's degree. Within this level of education, students have access to more areas of specialization, increased job opportunities, and higher salaries. The majority of four-year colleges include master's and doctoral degree programs, alongside undergraduate offerings. In some cases, these are offered as accelerated or continuous programs, meaning students can complete two degree levels in a shorter amount of time than if undertaking them individually. Students in master's or doctoral degree programs may teach undergraduate classes during their studies. They may also participate in or conduct their own research on campus, either independently or with other departmental faculty.

    Some four-year colleges also offer certificate programs. While often in conjunction with the main campus, they may also operate a separate campus for such programs.