An academic degree is a qualification assigned to students after completing one of the higher education programs at a university or college. The most common types of degrees are a Bachelor's degree, Master's degree, Doctoral degree / PhD. However, along with them, there are a number of qualifications, which are also called degrees and reflect the characteristics of a particular country.

The Bologna degree system — Bologna Process


A large role in the formation of academic degrees belongs to the Bologna Process, which was founded in 1999. Its goal was the convergence of educational systems in Europe and the creation of a single European Higher Education Area (EHEA). Within the framework of the Bologna Process, it was planned to introduce a three-stage qualification system and a unified European system for transferring and accumulating credits (ECTS) in the participating countries :
CycleNumber of ECTSDuration of studyDegree
First cycle180-2403-4 yearsBachelor's degree
Second cycle60-1201-2 yearsMaster's degree
Third cycle120-4203+ yearsDoctoral degree

To date, there are 48 countries participating in the Bologna Process. Despite a fairly stable system, the names of the degrees inside the cycles may differ. So, Bachelor’s in France is a Licence. Some countries also continue to assign specific qualifications, which makes it difficult to correlate education levels. For example, Associate's degree in the USA, Foundation degree in Britain, Specialist in Russia, etc.
It is also worth noting that most states that are not formally part of the process actually use the same degrees (for example, the USA, Canada, South Korea, New Zealand, etc.). They can have their own variations of additional qualifications, credits, and terms of study, but almost never depart from the three-cycle system.

Bologna Process participants

Preparatory programs — Foundation / Pathway

Foundation programs (sometimes — Pathway Programs / Preparatory Courses) exist at universities of Europe, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Japan, and many other countries. Graduating from a Foundation course does not grant a degree, but helps to achieve the required level for admission to the first stage of higher education.
Foundation program:
  • Prepares the applicant to study at the university, gives the necessary basic knowledge;
  • Covers a missing year of study, if an applicant has 11 years of secondary school (many countries adopted a 12-year system of secondary education);
  • Combines intensive language practice with specialized preparation for entering a certain specialty.
Depending on the university Foundation program lasts from 6 months to 1.5 years. At the end of the training, a certificate is issued, which is accepted by this educational institution, as well as by partner universities. Sometimes, applicants who successfully complete the preparatory program are automatically enrolled in the university or exempted from passing entrance exams. In any case, with a Foundation certificate, the probability of entering a selected university is 80-100%.
Important: the Foundation / Pathway Program should not be confused with the Foundation degree. The latter is a special degree that exists exclusively in British universities.

Associate's degree

Associate's degree is awarded in the United States, as well as some schools in Hong Kong, South Korea, Australia, Canada, and the Netherlands, after two years of college or university. Associate’s degrees are mostly obtained in the US community colleges, where tuition costs are much lower than in the universities. Associate's degree programs are common in the arts, applied sciences, business, medical services, engineering, natural sciences.
Associate's degree allows:
  • To save on tuition in university during the first two years of study and then transfer to a university for a third bachelor’s year;
  • To facilitate admission to a prestigious university for those students who have not scored enough points on SAT or other entrance exams immediately after school;
  • To improve English to the level required for university studies.
Upon completion of training, graduates are awarded the degree of associate, which is accepted by the universities in the US and several other countries if a student decides to continue training. In addition, this degree is enough to find work in some fields (junior staff).
Variations: AA, AS, AAS, AAB, ABA, AAT, AAET, AE, AEng, AF, AGS, AIT, AN, AOS, AS-CAD, AT.
Examples of equivalents:
  • UK: Foundation degree, Certificate of Higher Education (CertHE), Diploma of Higher Education (DipHE);
  • France: French Diplôme Universitaire de Technologie (DUT), Brevet de Technicien Supérieur (BTS);
  • Russia: diploma of secondary vocational education (college, technical school).
Exclusively British qualification somewhat similar to the Associate's degree. Equivalent to two years of bachelor’s studies, while combining academic and professional education. According to the Bologna Process, the Foundation degree belongs to a group of short cycle programs that are a part of or correlated with the first cycle. It is often implemented in such areas as pedagogy, medicine, social work, nursing, sports, tourism, transport, business, management, agriculture, theater, design.
Foundation degree:
  • Gives access to employment in a specific profession;
  • Allows you to continue studies in the 3rd year of bachelor's program (a top-up course) and get a bachelor's degree with honors in the same or partner university.
The duration of study is 2 years (full-time) or 4 years (part-time). Programs are implemented in colleges and universities. According to statistics, 61.5% of graduates are employed immediately after the end of the program, 55.9% go for a bachelor's degree and only 1.8% remain unemployed[0].
Variations: FDA, FDEd, FDEng, FDS.

Undergraduate — Bachelor's degree

Bachelor's degree is an academic degree that is awarded to students at the end of the main programs of higher professional education. For admission to the bachelor’s program, one needs a certificate of completed secondary education, recognized as equivalent to the local one. After graduation, a student can find employment in a specialty or continue education in the next cycle.
In some countries bachelor's degrees are divided into ordinary and with honors. The latter may differ in the number of credits or, in rare cases, allow you to enter a PhD without a master's degree.
Bachelor's degree:
  • Serves as a proof of the fundamental and practical training of the graduate in the chosen profile;
  • Grants the right to work in the specialty (the majority of graduates from the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Europe prefer to stop their education at the bachelor’s cycle and start a career);
  • Corresponds to the level of education required for admission to the master’s.
To get a bachelor's degree, you need to study at the university from 3 to 6 years depending on the chosen specialty, country, and institution. As a rule, most programs take 3-4 years. A bachelor's program for a period of 5-6 years is provided for students of medicine, architecture, and sometimes law.
Variations: BA, BSc, BFA, BEng, BBA, BEc, BN etc.

Postgraduate — Master's degree

Master's degree is an academic degree awarded at the end of the master’s studies in many countries around the world. Master’s is the second cycle of higher professional education. In order to start a career in a chosen specialty, in most cases, a bachelor's degree is enough. Master's degree is for those who plan to connect their lives with science and research or just want to change their specialization.
Master's Degree will:
  • Indicate that the student has gained deeper knowledge in the chosen profile;
  • Give the opportunity to engage in scientific activities or enter doctoral studies (graduate school).
Education in the master's lasts 1-2 years depending on the country. In the UK, for example, this step takes one year of study, and in the USA — two years. Upon graduation, a graduate receives a master's degree.
Variations: MA, MSc, MBA, MRes, MPhil, Meng, LLM, MDiv, MTh, MLitt, MPA.

Doctoral degree — PhD

Doctorate/Doctoral degree is a postgraduate degree, which is assigned to experts in a particular field who have successfully completed doctoral studies. In one form or another PhD exists in all countries of the world. As a rule, master’s students and in very rare cases, the holders of the Bachelor's degree with Honors, which exists in Britain, Australia, New Zealand, are accepted into such programs. Historically the most common titles are PHD / DPhil / Doctor of Philosophy but, at present, it has no practical relation to philosophy and is awarded in all scientific fields.
This degree:
  • Grants the opportunity to engage in scientific (research) work, to teach in universities or to start an academic career;
  • Serves as a proof of the deep knowledge and high qualifications in the selected field.
In most countries of the world, doctoral studies last from 3 to 6 years and are the highest degree. PhD holders can conduct their research in the initial academic positions (Postdoc or Research Associate / Scientist / Fellow).

Variations: PhD/DPhil, EdD, rarely DSc, DMSc, DBA, DPA, DML, JSD, DDes, DA, DArch, DFA, DEng/DES.

Professional degrees

Professional degrees are a rather specific concept. Officially, they are granted in the United States and Great Britain, but could also be found in Australia, Canada and other countries of the British Commonwealth. The essence of the term varies greatly depending on the country.
For example, in the USA this is understood mainly as a doctoral degree, which is awarded if there is sufficient knowledge to obtain a license for professional practice (usually 6 years of higher education). The professional degree is contrasted with the usual Doctoral degree, the purpose of which is to conduct research and defend a dissertation.
In the UK, professional degrees are also subject to accreditation by authorized institutions. In fact, professional degrees here may have the names of a bachelor’s, master’s or doctor, but in most cases they are a combination of bachelor’s and master’s (5-6 years) while maintaining the historical name Bachelor's degree or the newer Integrated Master's degree. A frequent requirement is the availability of practical experience in the specialty. Professional doctoral studies in Britain equate to research (PhD) as it also includes hours of teaching and defense of the dissertation. In rare cases, professional degrees are intended for interns/board members.

Common to all countries are the main specialties that require professional degrees — medicine, law, engineering, finance and management, etc.

Variations:
  • USA: MD, DDS, DVM, JD, DPharm, PsyD, DCSc, DHA, DSW, DAT;
  • UK: LLB, MBBS, BDS, BVS, MEng, MPharm, BSc+MArch, BEng + MSc, MBA, EdD, EngD.

What is there after PhD?

In most countries, the single-stage postgraduate education structure takes place, according to which PhD is recognized as the highest qualification. Further advancement on the academic ladder no longer means obtaining a degree followed by the defense of a doctoral dissertation, but an increase in academic rank (lecturer, professor, etc.), less often, obtaining an honorary (not academic) degree on the basis of merit to science (e.g. DLitt, LLD in Britain).
Bologna system


Bachelor's degree3-4 years (180-240 ECTS)
Master's degree1-2 years (60-120 ECTS)
Doctoral degree / PhD3+ years (120-420 ECTS)
Other programs

Foundation6-18 months
Associate's degree2 years
Foundation degree (Britain)2 years
Professional degree5-6 years