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ColumnsDestination USA: Professional graduate degree programmes

Destination USA: Professional graduate degree programmes

Published: 19th Dec 2021 12:04 am

Unlike academic programmes, professional degree programmes are designed to lead the participant from the first degree to a particular profession. Professional degree programs are available at both master’s and doctorate levels at US institutions.

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In the special topic series on US higher education, today’s column focuses on professional graduate degree programmes offered by US colleges and universities. Graduate (Master’s/PhD) programmes offered at US higher education institutions may be categorised into academic and professional degrees. Academic programmes generally require students to complete original research as part of the programme that may involve some type of field investigation. Unlike academic programmes, professional degree programmes are designed to lead the participant from the first degree to a particular profession. Professional degree programs are available at both master’s and doctorate levels at US institutions.

Academic master’s programmes open the pathway for a PhD. The Master of Arts (MA) and Master of Science (MS) degrees awarded in the traditional arts, sciences, and humanities disciplines or in technical fields, such as engineering and agriculture, are examples of academic master’s degrees. Professional master’s degrees, on the other hand, are most often “terminal” master’s programs, meaning that they do not lead to doctoral programmes. Such professional degrees are often designated by specific descriptive titles, such as Master of Business Administration (MBA), Master of Social Work (MSW), Master of Education (M Ed.), Master of Fine Arts (MFA), Master of Architecture (M Arch), Master of Urban Planning (MUP.), Master of Public Administration (MPA), Master of Law (LLM), and Master of Public Policy (MPP).

MA or MS degrees are awarded after two years of graduate studies. Most of the professional master’s programmes are also generally two years in duration. However, some professional degrees are one-year intensive (like executive MBA) programmes.

Similar to the academic master’s degrees, at the doctoral level, the doctor of philosophy or Ph.D. degree is designed to train research scholars and, in many cases, future college and university faculty members in different academic disciplines. Other than the Ph.D., doctoral programmes may also be professional that lead to licensure in specialized fields, such as law (juris doctorate) and medicine (MD). Other doctoral degrees in professional fields include Ed.D. or Doctor of Education (education), DrPh (public health), and D.B.A. or Doctor of Business Administration (Business Administration).

Financial aid to international students is rarely offered for professional programmes. Also, the course requirements for professional degree programmes are carefully structured and often dictated by accrediting bodies for the profession. So, if a student is interested in transferring while pursuing a professional degree, they should be aware that applying courses toward a particular specialization is most difficult for professional programmes because of the structured course requirements.

Students should choose between an academic and professional programme of study after self-introspection and careful review of the programme requirements before shortlisting the programme of study at a US university.

Monika Setia (Regional Officer and EducationUSA Adviser at the United States-India Educational Foundation based at the US Consulate General Hyderabad. Please visit for more information)


Q. I will be applying to master’s programmes in the United States after completing my bachelor’s degree. What are the deadlines for US university applications? — Aparna Rao

A. Each institution in the United States sets its own application deadline and it is usually firm about not accepting applications after that time, particularly if a college is very popular. There are two common application cycles for the United States – Fall semester starting August/September and Spring semester starting January/February. For Fall semester, deadlines for applications are generally between October and March and for Spring semester, between July to September. If, however, a college indicates that it operates “rolling admissions,” late applicants may still have a fair chance of acceptance. It is nonetheless a good idea to submit your application as soon as possible. It is your responsibility to ensure that all your documents, application forms, references, and official score reports reach the universities safely and on time.

Q. After completing her 12th standard, my daughter wants to pursue her degree in the United States. We have heard about community colleges- what are these?

A. A Community College is a great cost-saving option for international students. However, community colleges usually offer a two-year Associates Degree. If a four-year bachelor’s degree is the goal, identifying a community college that have “articulation agreements” with four-year institutions is a wise choice. Articulation agreements usually mean that the community college has an agreement with a four-year university so that the majority of the community college coursework is applicable towards a bachelor’s degree at a given four-year university. Ultimately, a student could complete two years at community college at a lower cost and then transfer to complete the remaining two years for a full bachelor’s degree (otherwise known as a 2+2 programme).

There is a word of caution to keep in mind regarding community colleges. If the goal is not to pursue a bachelor’s degree after finishing the two-year study, it is important for students to think about how they plan to use their Associate degree, especially since the degree may not be accepted in India.

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