When I go to university for four years and study, e.g., law or medicine, do I earn an undergraduate degree? And do I have to go to university for another two years or so to get a graduate degree? Also, is it the same university then, or do I have to go somewhere else? And do you have to get a graduate degree? I’m really confused by the American academic system.

4 Answers 4


This flow chart, from the National Center for Education Statistics, summarizes it better than any explanation I can think of.


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Everywhere you see an arrow represents a potential change of institutions, or (above the black line) a natural place to exit formal education if desired. In particular, most people who pursue graduate or professional study do so at a different institution than their undergraduate institution. (They are usually eligible to apply for a graduate program at their undergraduate institution, if it's offered, but don't receive any special preference over applicants from other institutions.)

I'd also note that in many fields, one can go from an undergraduate program directly into a PhD program, without having to get a masters first. In that case the PhD program normally takes more time (say about 5 years), and may or may not award a masters degree "en passant".

  • 4
    PhDs vary a LOT—in some programs, 5 years would be shockingly fast. You might want to add also that the length of professional degrees varies quite a bit more than this chart indicates, e.g. law school is usually three years and done, while medical school is four years with an additional mandatory three to seven years of post-graduate "residency", which combines formal on-the-job-training and study.
    – 1006a
    Commented Aug 27, 2017 at 6:49
  • 2
    A lot of places have 5-year combined bachelors/masters programs in various fields of engineering now, and this is a growing trend. Commented Aug 27, 2017 at 18:07
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    @DavidPostill: The grade/age relationship only applies through the end of high school, though. You can attend college at any age, and the four-year undergrad degree is just a norm for full-time students. Those who work, or have other commitments, can take longer. It's also possible, though difficult, to do it in less.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Aug 28, 2017 at 3:23
  • When I’ve went to university for four years and studied, e.g. law or medicine, do I earn an undergraduate degree?

The first four years of university, in the U.S., generally result in an undergraduate degree. However, in the U.S., typically you can't study law or medicine at the undergraduate level.

  • And do I have to go for another two years or so to university to get a graduate degree? Also is it the same university then, or do I have to go somewhere else?

Generally this is indeed done after an undergraduate program. The length of time varies greatly, depending on what course of study you choose. It is possible to earn a graduate degree at the same university where you earned your undergraduate degree, or at a different university.

In general, you have to apply for admission to graduate programs, and this is not guaranteed even if you are already an undergraduate at the same university.

  • And do you have to get a graduate degree?

It depends on what you want to do. Many people seek employment right after their undergraduate studies and do not go on to graduate school. If you want to practice law or medicine in the US, then a graduate degree is necessary.

  • It may be worth noting that in medicine in the U.S.A. (and the laws do vary somewhat by state), there are two Masters degree options for people who do not want to be physicians: Physician's Assistant (PA), and Nurse Practitioner (NP). To be certified (-C) requires many more (e.g., 2000) hours of clinical work in addition to the coursework. Commented Aug 29, 2017 at 18:21
  • @E.DouglasJensen Many NP programs now offer doctorates. Commented Mar 4, 2019 at 21:12

None of the answers have discussed this yet, so I'll mention that the 4-year undergraduate degree (a "Bachelor's of Science" or "Bachelor's of Arts" or perhaps "Bachelor's of Engineering") typically requires completion of a range of introductory "general education" courses as well as more specific requirements in a "major field of study." In comparison with most other countries, undergraduate degrees in the US (even in very technical fields) generally require a much broader range of course work.

For example, an undergraduate student majoring in computer science might be required to take about 25% of their courses in general education subjects including things like English, History, Psychology, etc. The CS major might include another 20% of courses in mathematics (e.g. calculus, combinatorics, probability, etc.) Another 40% of the major might be in specific computer science courses. The remaining courses would be "elective", allowing the student to take more computer science or branch out into other disciplines. Of these courses, only the "Computer Science" courses would be taught by Computer Science faculty. The general education courses and mathematics would be taught by faculty from those respective academic departments.

  • how much is on studying computer languages? AND what is difference with Associate degree
    – SSimon
    Commented Aug 27, 2017 at 5:35
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    Associate's degrees are typically earned at "community colleges" which are a different kind of institution from 4-year colleges or universities. Some of these programs are intended to prepare students for transferring into a 4-year program (with the community college part being the first two years), while other community college degree programs are intended to prepare students for careers. For example, a student might study surveying in a 2-year program at a community college and then go to work in that field. See the diagram in Nate Eldridge's answer. Commented Aug 27, 2017 at 14:04
  • Although many courses in an undergraduate computer science degree will require the student to write programs, specific instruction in programming languages is usually limited to the first few courses. Later courses are typically more theoretical. Commented Aug 27, 2017 at 14:07
  • @Brian Borchers: Also, many of the programs offered by community colleges are more vocational than academic. For instance, the local community college offers programs in auto mechanics, EMT certification, welding...
    – jamesqf
    Commented Aug 27, 2017 at 17:08
  • @jamesqf; that's what I just said... Commented Aug 27, 2017 at 17:22

A 4-year degree (BS, BA, &c) just qualifies you to enter medical or law school. There are undergraduate pre-med and pre-law programs, but they're general degrees with concentration on areas needed in medical or law. You don't, AFAIK, actually have to take the pre-law or pre-med programs to get into medical or law schools.

A graduate degree requires extra study beyond the undergraduate degree, pretty much by definition. There's no fixed length. Two years is probably a minimum for a masters' degree, but you can take longer, if for instance you're doing it while working a regular job. (This is also true of undergrad degrees.)

You may or may not do graduate work at the same school that you did the undergraduate degree at. It really depends on your personal circumstances. If you are really interested in a particular field, and have financial support so you can continue directly to grad school, you'll typically try to get into the best program for that field. OTOH, if you are attached to the area you're living in, or need to work to finance education (and life), you might well stay at the same school. (As I did: I choose to live where I do for reasons unrelated to education, so I attend the local university.)

Also, in the US there's no need to go directly to grad school from undergrad. I got my MS about 15 years after the BS, and entered the PhD program some years after that. I also know several people who got undergrad degrees, became financially independent from jobs in industry, and went back to school to do grad work in fields that interested them.

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