Being a US citizen and native, my view of degree progression is

  1. Bachelors, 4 years of study
  2. Masters, 1-2 years of study, thesis or portfolio required
  3. Doctorate, 3-4 years of study, comprehensive exams and dissertation required

How does this compare globally? My current understanding is that European schools invert the Bachelors/Masters terms. How does a global organization's human resources department track this for comparison? How do you ensure you are comparing apples to oranges? What are the names of the systems (if they have them, possibly American, European, or another nomenclature)? I recall looking for a simple presentation of this information before, and not being able to find it, so I hope to solve this once and for all here.

  • There are no comprehensive exams in (most of?) Europe.
    – gerrit
    Mar 21, 2014 at 20:33
  • 4
    Even in standard US universities, many masters degrees do not require a thesis or portfolio at all - they are entirely class based. Additionally many US doctorate programs substantially longer than 3-4 years, with 7 being not uncommon.
    – chmullig
    Mar 23, 2014 at 23:31
  • 2
    Seems like this should be community wiki as there is not one right answer, but rather many answers each corresponding to some part of the world. Mar 24, 2014 at 11:22
  • 1
    As @DavidKetcheson says, there is no entity representing "Global universities" so this can't have a right answer. I think that it makes even less sense to have a bounty. Mar 24, 2014 at 17:39
  • I suggest a right answer would be of the form: "There are three main types of systems of higher education: the Frabjob system, in X, Y, and Z region Nations, The Jaberwock system, which covers Foo, and Bar areas, and the Frimfram system, which is inconsistently adopted in Narf, Poit, and iki iki iki PiTang. These systems break down as follows:..." or as close to a system of nomenclature as we can get. What I suspect (without evidence yet) is a smattering of European systems plus the American, which have been adopted in various nations globally, each one's likely concentrated in regions.
    – Aaron Hall
    Mar 24, 2014 at 18:02

4 Answers 4


In Finland (and other Nordic countries) the situation is almost the same as what you describe. Here, the degree progression is

  1. Bachelor's degree, 3 years (180 ECTS credits), includes a thesis without original research, e.g. literature review (10 cr)
  2. Master's degree, 2 years (120 cr), includes a thesis with research (30 cr)
  3. Doctorate, 4 years, completed by either writing a monograph or a stapler thesis consisting of a preface and four or more publications, some universities also require 6-12 months of coursework (40-60 cr)

Prerequisite for a bachelor's degree is three years of upper secondary school.

I think this applies for most other European countries as well.

  • 5
    According to the Bologna system, it should.
    – gerrit
    Mar 21, 2014 at 20:33
  • 2
    Moreover, in Europe it's typical to bundle Bachelor's and Master's (but it is very rare (if possible at all) to bundle Master's and Doctorate). Mar 23, 2014 at 20:48
  • This is the situation in the Netherlands as well, although whether a Bachelor thesis is required varies per institution.
    – Mangara
    Mar 24, 2014 at 3:52
  • Because the only fixed workload of a PhD degree is the coursework, I don't know what the legal status of "4 years" is currently in Finland. It's not uncommon to get a doctorate in 3 years if you get the publications quickly, and on the other hand, if you only can get funding, you won't get kicked out if you don't finish your PhD thesis in 4 years. Probably the universities are somehow (=financially) encouraged to adjust their requirements such that most grad students get their degree in 4 years?
    – JiK
    Mar 24, 2014 at 23:03
  • 1. The amount of research in master's thesis varies. There might be very little in pure mathematics, for instance. 2. The amount of publications in an artikkeliväitöskirja varies. I have seen one accepted with just two, at least one of which was a preprint.
    – Tommi
    Sep 20, 2019 at 9:52

In Europe most countries use the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) as have been stated in the other answers. By this system it should be easier to compare a Higher education award from one country to another as the number of ECTS need to gain the award are now comparable regardless of the name of the award.

According to the EU this is what ECTS achieve. Site link here (This page also has a pdf ECTS users guide.)

By making higher education comparable across Europe, ECTS makes teaching and learning in higher education more transparent and facilitates the recognition of all studies. It aids curriculum design and quality assurance and allows for the transfer of learning experiences between different institutions, greater student mobility and more flexible routes to gain degrees. ECTS is closely related to the modernisation of higher education in Europe. In particular, it is a central tool in the Bologna Process which aims to make national systems more compatible.

The EU also has this page where you can set it up to compare the frameworks within Europe.

In some of the other answers you will also have seen reference to 'Bologna Process' This is the process that is overseen by the European Higher Education Area to assist with the standardisation of Higher Education awards across Europe. Their website also contains National Reports from all countries in the process.

The UK Government have also released comparison Documents link here for degrees around the world as compared to UK degrees. This Document details the characteristics of Masters degrees as viewed by the UK Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education.

In Ireland (my home country) the National Qualification Authority have an Interactive Framework page that shows the breakdown of all levels within the education system. They also produce a document that compared the Irish framework with that of the countries of the UK.

In Ireland there is also a International Qualifications Database where you can search by country to compare them to the Irish framework. This also includes undergraduate and professional degrees.

The European system, while very integrated, still has some differences from Country to Country at the moment, such as how grades are awarded on a per country basis.

Wikipedia has a page that, although not exhaustive, describes the degree system by region.


Global organizations don't compare global degrees.

The specifics matter mostly to academic organizations - which tend to be not global, so they are out of scope.

For global multinational companies, the HR organizations tend to be mostly local due to differences in employment legislation, labor markets, etc. As far the information matters for hiring and comparing local candidates, this is done by local HR, who don't compare global degrees.

The central corporate HR of huge multinational companies simply doesn't care about details of your degree, just as for most other historical data of any specific local employee. They care about the internal job titles, expenses and performance metrics; possibly some business area specific certification; but your degree doesn't particularly matter, it's an "untyped line of text in a CV". If parts of the organization deal with, say, R&D and worry about the degrees - then they do that locally. If the corporate holding company needs some rough statistics from all their local subsidiaries, then local HR's report their people by mapping it somehow to the "mothership" country standards.

That being said, European area (including not-EU) has mostly standardized to the 'Bologna' process; there are local flavors but they're moving to be standardized. For the rest of the world, you'd have to consider each case (country pair) separately to say what is equal to what, all the simple rules-of-thumb are just rough approximations.


Here in Serbia, the situation is similar to other Bologna countries.

Prerequisite for university education is finished elementary school (9 years, recently extended from 8) and a four-year secondary school.

Next step is the choice between the "academic" and "vocational" studies.

In the academic progression "tree" steps are as following:

    • 3-year (180 ECTS points) basic studies giving title of "something",
      followed by 2-year (120 ECTS points) Master studies giving title of
      "master of something"
    • 4-year (240 ECTS points) basic studies giving title of "graduated something" followed by 1-year (60 ECTS points) Master studies giving title of "master of something".
    • 5-year (300 ECTS points) integrated studies, mostly in medical fields, giving titles of "Master of something" or "Doctor of
      something" or "Magister of something", depending on field.
    • 6-year (360 ECTS points) integrated studies, in medical field, giving title "Doctor of medicine"
  • 1-year (60 ECTS points) specialist studies, master studies as prerequisite, not required for doctorate, giving title of "Specialist of something"
  • 3-year (180 ECTS points) doctorate studies, master studies as prerequisite, giving title of "Doctor of some sciences"

In the vocational tree steps are as following:

  • 3-year (180 ECTS points) basic studies giving title of "vocational something"
  • 1-year (60 ECTS points) specialist studies giving title of "specialist vocational something"

There is no direct path for transfer between vocational and academic studies, however schools are allowed to accept equivalence and credit certain exams.

I don't have any hard data about the pre-Bologna system at the moment, but major differences were that there were no master studies. Studies in the technical fields were all 5-year, while most humanities were 4-year.

Doctorate studies were separated into two steps:

Magister studies which had course-work and a thesis starting with "technical qualification exam" and ending with a minor thesis and "research qualification exam".

Doctorate studies themselves which had no coursework and only required publishing an original thesis.

Currently, Bologna-style doctorate studies are combination of previous magister and doctorate studies and contain the technical qualification exam and the research qualification exam.

Furthermore, in technical fields, the thesis results had to be original to science in general, while in humanities, thesis results had to be original in Serbian science.

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