In the US one seldom reads about Master and much more about Graduate schools. I have the feeling that Graduate school can also mean doing a doctorate/pursuing a PhD degree; thus I am confused with the lack of clear separation here as it isn't a problem with the European distinction of Bachelor, Master, and Doctorate.

Is there a general rule that can be applied to understand what educational level is meant? Like for PhD there is an department admission process required and for Master there isn't, or something like this?

Moreover, one could say to have graduated from High school, from college, from Master's...from kindergarden if you want. Wouldn't it therefore be more logic not to use "graduate" when talking about some specific educational level and instead use terms such as Bachelor, Master, PhD?

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    Even the European system is full of exceptions. For example, the Finnish equivalent of medical doctorate is a 6-year undergraduate degree, where one gets the title (but not the degree) of bachelor of medicine after completing the first 2.5 years of studies. Commented Apr 4, 2016 at 13:09
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    After you receive a bachelor's degree, you have "graduated". Any education beyond that level is "graduate education". In addition to master's or Ph.D., the term "graduate school" may sometimes include medical school, law school, veterinary school, and so on.
    – GEdgar
    Commented Apr 4, 2016 at 14:12
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    @GEdgar this is only true in some countries. Where I studied the Bachelor's was an administrative artifact and the real degree was the Master's.
    – Cape Code
    Commented Apr 4, 2016 at 14:22

2 Answers 2


Graduate school refer to a school that offers advanced degrees (MS, PhD, or both), even if a school offers only MS degree, it is still called graduate school. I think med-schools are also called graduate schools (since they offer MD and OD degrees).

There will always be some sort of an admission process. Student usually apply for MS program, finish it then join a PhD program. Although in some cases, students can combine MS and PhD together and save 1-2 semesters.

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    + They even might pursue a direct PhD...
    – user41207
    Commented Apr 4, 2016 at 13:46
  • Graduate programs that don't require research components (such as traditional medical and law degrees) are often called professional schools as well.
    – aeismail
    Commented Apr 4, 2016 at 16:56

In STEM disciplines at R1 universities (the big research universities) in the US students tend to go direct to PhD programs. The main reason is that usually PhD programs have some kind of funding whereas Masters programs are self-funded. Because PhDs are funded, their admissions process is more demanding. Usually there has to be some faculty that is interested in you or some other indicator to the department that you will have alternative funding during the later stages of your PhD.

Leaving the PhD early in these cases results in a Masters degree which people colloquially call mastering out (some people do this intending to get only the Masters but not having to self-fund, though that is not looked at favorably by the institution). For some disciplines (for example, I see this in a lot of biology programs) there is ONLY a program for PhD students, with the option of mastering out. In some disciplines, after completing certain course/exam requirements you get a Masters degree "for free" along your way to the PhD.

However, in other cases there are stand-alone Masters programs. These are called terminal Masters programs because they are meant to be the end of your time at a given university, i.e. not many people go from a terminal Masters to a PhD (at least in the same program. They will make you re-apply).

Collectively, all of this is called graduate studies in the US. You can see how it's all muddled together.

Note: Sometimes medical, business, or Law school are also lumped into graduate studies. More often they are termed professional school.

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