Post-graduate education involves learning and studying for degrees or other qualifications for which a first or Bachelor’s degree generally is required, and is normally considered to be part of higher education.
The organization and structure of postgraduate education varies in different countries, and also in different institutions within countries. This article sets out the basic types of course and of teaching and examination methods, with some explanation of their history.
Types of postgraduate qualification
There are two main types of qualification studied for at the postgraduate level: academic and vocational degrees.
Although systems of higher education go back to ancient Greece, China, the Indian subcontinent and Africa, the concept of postgraduate education depends upon the system of awarding degrees at different levels of study, and can be traced to the workings of European medieval universities. University studies took six years for a Bachelor degree and up to twelve additional years for a master’s degree or doctorate. The first six years taught the faculty of the arts, which was the study of the seven liberal arts: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music theory, grammar, logic, and rhetoric. The main emphasis was on logic. Once a Bachelor of Arts degree had been obtained, the student could choose one of three faculties — law, medicine, or theology — in which to pursue master’s or doctor’s degrees. Theology was the most prestigious area of study, and considered to be the most difficult.
The degrees of master (magister) and doctor were for some time equivalent, “the former being more in favour at Paris and the universities modeled after it, and the latter at Bologna and its derivative universities. At Oxford and Cambridge a distinction came to be drawn between the Faculties of Law, Medicine, and Theology and the Faculty of Arts in this respect, the title of Doctor being used for the former, and that of Master for the latter.” Because theology was thought to be the highest of the subjects, the doctorate came to be thought of as higher than the master’s.
The main significance of the higher, postgraduate degrees was that they licensed the holder to teach (“doctor” comes from the Latin “docere“, meaning “teach”; “magister” is Latin for “master”, and often “schoolmaster”, and is also the root of “magistrate“).
In most countries, the hierarchy of post-graduate degrees is as follows:
- Master’s degrees (Postgraduate)
- These are sometimes placed in a further hierarchy, starting with degrees such as the Master of Arts and Master of Science, then Master of Philosophy, and finally Master of Letters (all formerly known in France as DEA or DESS before 2005, and nowadays Masters too). However, in Scottish Universities, the Master of Philosophy degree tends to be the research or higher Master’s degree and the Master of Letters the taught or lower Master’s degree. In many fields such as clinical social work, or library science in North America, a Master’s is the terminal degree. In the UK, Master’s degrees may be taught or by research: taught Master’s include the MSc and MA degrees which last 1 year and are worth 180 CATS credits (equivalent to 90 ECTS European credits), whereas the Master’s by research degrees include the MRes (Master of Research) which also lasts 1 year and worths 180 CATS or 90 ECTS credits (the difference compared to the MA/MSc being that the research is much more extensive), and the MPhil (Master of Philosophy) degree which lasts 2 years . Professional degrees such as the MArch (Master of Architecture) can last to three and a half years to satisfy professional requirement to be an architect.
- Doctorates (Postgraduate)
- These are often further divided into academic and professional doctorates.
- An academic doctorate can be awarded as a PhD (Philosophiæ Doctor), or as a DSc (Scientiae Doctor). The scientiae doctor degree can also be awarded in specific fields, such as a Dr.sc.math (Doctor scientiarum mathematicarum, Doctor of Mathematics), Dr.sc.agr. (Doctor scientiarum agrariarum, Doctor of Agricultural science), DBA (Doctorate in Business Administration) etc. In some parts of Europe, doctorates are divided into the PhD or ‘junior doctorate’, and the ‘higher doctorates’ such as the DSc, which is generally awarded to highly distinguished professors. A doctorate is the terminal degree in most fields. In the United States, there is little distinction between a PhD and DSc. In the UK, PhD degrees are often equivalent to 540 CATS credits or 270 ECTS European credits, but this is not always the case as the credit structure of doctoral degrees is not officially defined.
In the UK and countries whose education systems were founded on the British model, such as the U.S., the master’s degree was for a long time the only postgraduate degree normally awarded, while in most European countries apart from the UK, the master’s degree almost disappeared. In the second half of the 19th century, however, U.S. universities began to follow the European model by awarding doctorates, and this practice spread to the UK. Conversely, most European universities now offer master’s degrees parallelling or replacing their regular system, so as to offer their students better chances to compete in an international market dominated by the American model.
Most universities award honorary degrees, usually at the postgraduate level. These are awarded to a wide variety of people, such as artists, musicians, writers, politicians, businesspeople, etc., in recognition of their achievements in their various fields. (Recipients of such degrees do not normally use the associated titles or letters, such as “Dr”.)