What Comes First Masters Or Bachelors: College Degree Explained

The world of higher education can be complex, with various pathways and degrees to consider. In this article, we’ll demystify the academic journey, starting with the foundational question: What comes first, a master’s or a bachelor’s degree?

Understanding the sequence and significance of these degrees is crucial for anyone looking to advance their education and career. Join us as we explore the essential steps in the academic hierarchy and how each degree sets the stage for the next.

Types of Degrees From Colleges And Universities

In the United states, there are generally four types of degrees awarded by colleges and universities. They are:

  • Associate degree
  • Bachelor’s degree
  • Masters’ degree
  • Doctorate degree

Associate Degree

At the undergraduate level, the journey often begins with an associate degree.

In most cases, an associate degree is a two-year program that offers a solid foundation in general education courses alongside a particular field of study. 

This degree is best suited for those looking to enter the workforce quickly or as a stepping stone towards a bachelor’s degree. It is also a less expensive way to discover if university and higher education suits you or not. 

Bachelors’ Degree

The bachelor’s degree, the first level of higher education, typically requires four years of college. Bachelor’s degree program provides in-depth knowledge in a specific area of study.

Options are wide ranging here – you can choose to study for:

  • Bachelor of Arts (BA),
  • Bachelor of Science (BS)
  • Bachelor of Law (LLB), or
  • specialised degrees like a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA).

A BA focuses more on liberal arts, offering a broad education, while a BS is more focused on science and technical disciplines. A BFA, on the other hand, is geared towards students deeply invested in the arts.

Master’s Degree

After earning a bachelor’s degree, many opt to pursue a master’s degree, an advanced level of education that delves deeper into a subject.

This graduate-level degree can vary from a Master of Arts (MA) or Master of Science (MS) to professional degrees like a Master of Business Administration (MBA) or Master of Public Health (MPH).

A master’s degree requires one to two years of study beyond a bachelor’s and is designed for those seeking higher expertise or looking to change career paths.

Master’s studies usually signals a transition from learning and developing knowledge, to actually conducting research and contribute knowledge to the field. 

Doctorate Degree

For those aiming for the pinnacle of academic achievement, a doctoral degree or doctorate represents the highest level of education in a specific field.

This terminal degree, often pursued after a master’s, signifies an individual’s capacity to conduct independent research.

Doctoral programs can span several years, depending on the time it takes to complete the dissertation.

The most common doctorate degree may be the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D), although there are other doctorate degrees as well. Some of these include:

  • Doctorate in Business Administration (DBA)
  • Doctorate in Education (Ed.D)
  • Doctorate in Theology (Th.D), and
  • more.

Between these degrees lie various nuances and insider details. For instance, a degree in business could mean a broad exploration of business fundamentals at the bachelor’s level or an intense focus on advanced business strategies in an MBA program.

Similarly, differences between a Bachelor’s and a Master’s in the same discipline often lie in the depth of study and research involvement. A master’s program, for instance, might require a thesis or capstone project that demands a more rigorous investigation than undergraduate work.

Each degree opens a unique set of doors. An associate degree might lead to immediate employment in technical or administrative roles, while a bachelor’s degree opens up a wider range of professional opportunities.

A master’s degree can provide the specialised skills needed for advanced positions or a shift in career focus. At the doctoral level, the degree may pave the way for academic, research, or high-level professional roles.

What Comes First, Masters Or Bachelors Degree Program?

In the sequence of higher education, a bachelor’s degree precedes a master’s degree. This progression is rooted in the structure of degree programs and the level of education they represent.

A bachelor’s degree is the first level of higher education one pursues after graduating from high school. It provides a comprehensive foundation in a particular field of study, whether it’s a:

  • Bachelor of Arts,
  • Bachelor of Science, or
  • any other type of bachelor’s degree available.

This undergraduate degree typically spans four years of college, offering both general education courses and in-depth knowledge in the chosen area of study. 

There are several reasons you need a bachelor’s degree first before you work on your masters:

Sequence of knowledge

The first reason for this sequence is the foundational knowledge a bachelor’s degree provides. For instance, a Bachelor’s in Computer Science equips you with: 

  • essential programming,
  • software development, and
  • computational theory skills.

This broad yet detailed education is crucial for advanced studies.

Masters Program Requires Base of Knowledge

A master’s degree is an advanced, graduate-level degree that builds on the knowledge acquired during undergraduate studies.

It requires a more focused investigation of a subject, often involving research or specialised professional training.

For example, pursuing a Master of Business Administration (MBA) after obtaining a degree in business at the bachelor’s level allows you to delve deeper into business management, strategy, and leadership skills.

Eligibility And Admission Requirements

Eligibility for a master’s program typically includes holding a bachelor’s degree. This prerequisite ensures that students have the necessary background and maturity in their field of study. 

Master’s programs, whether a Master of Arts, Master of Science, or any specialised graduate degree like a Master of Public Health, demand a higher level of critical thinking and expertise, which is best built upon an undergraduate education foundation.

Which Degree Is Best For Your Future?

Deciding on the best degree for your future can feel like navigating a labyrinth of options, each promising a path to success.

The key lies in aligning your personal interests, career aspirations, and the realities of the job market.

Whether you’re considering an undergraduate degree or pondering advanced education, the choice you make can significantly impact your career trajectory.

At the undergraduate level, degrees like a:

  • Bachelor of Science (BS),
  • Bachelor of Arts (BA), or
  • Bachelor of Engineering (B.Eng)

Lay the groundwork for your professional life. A BS, focusing on technical and scientific areas, might be your calling if you’re drawn to fields like engineering, computer science, or biology. 

A BA, with its broader scope in humanities and social sciences, could be ideal if your interests lie in areas such as psychology, education, or communication.

For those with a creative bent, degrees like a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) or a Bachelor of Arts in a specific art discipline offer in-depth training in your chosen art form.

These programs are designed not just to hone your artistic skills but also to prepare you for the business aspects of a career in the arts.

As you move to higher degrees, the focus shifts to specialisation and research.

Graduate degrees like a Master of Business Administration (MBA) or a Master of Science (MS) in a specialised area can open doors to advanced positions in the corporate world or in research and development.

An MBA, for example, can provide you with the strategic thinking and leadership skills needed for executive roles, while an MS might be the key to a career in cutting-edge scientific research.

Choosing the right degree also involves considering the time it takes to complete and how it aligns with your career goals.

While a bachelor’s degree is typically a four-year commitment, master’s and doctoral programs can vary, often requiring one to six years depending on the field and level of research involved.

Remember, the best degree is one that not only provides in-depth knowledge in your area of study but also prepares you for the practical challenges of your chosen field.

It’s about finding a program that resonates with your interests and ambitions, one that opens doors to opportunities you’re passionate about pursuing.

As you weigh your options, consider how each degree aligns with the current job market and where it can take you in the future. After all, the right degree is a powerful tool that can shape your career and define your path in the professional world.

Does Everyone Need A Doctorate Degree?

The question of whether everyone needs a doctoral degree is multifaceted and depends largely on personal career objectives and the specific demands of one’s chosen field.

A doctoral degree, often seen as the pinnacle of academic achievement, is not a universal requirement for professional success. Here are three reasons to consider when evaluating the necessity of a doctoral degree for your future.

Your Career Pathway

Your intended career path plays a significant role in determining the level of education required. For many professions, a doctoral degree is not a prerequisite for entry or advancement.

Fields such as:

  • technology,
  • business, and
  • various forms of art

often place a higher value on practical experience, skill sets, and, in some cases, a portfolio of work over academic credentials.

A Master of Business Administration (MBA) is frequently considered sufficient for climbing the corporate ladder in business, and a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) might be all that’s required to launch a successful career in many creative industries. A DBA or DFA may not be required.


The commitment required to pursue a doctoral degree is substantial, encompassing several years of:

  • intense study,
  • research, and often
  • teaching.

This level of commitment is not feasible or desirable for everyone, especially considering the opportunity costs involved, such as foregone earnings and professional experience. 

The time it takes to complete a doctoral program can vary widely, typically ranging from four to eight years, depending on the field of study and the nature of the research.

Financial Implications

The financial implications of pursuing a doctoral degree cannot be overlooked. While some doctoral programs offer stipends and funding opportunities, the potential for accruing significant debt exists, particularly if one has already undertaken loans for undergraduate or master’s level studies.

The financial return on investment of a doctoral degree may not always justify the costs, especially in fields where a doctoral degree does not significantly increase earning potential compared to a master’s or bachelor’s degree.

Do You Really Need To Go Get A College Degree?

The decision to attend university is a significant one, with implications for your:

  • career path,
  • personal development, and
  • financial future.

While a degree from a college or university has traditionally been seen as a golden ticket to professional success, the landscape is changing, and higher education is no longer the only path to a fulfilling career.

For many, a bachelor’s degree in fields like engineering, medicine, or law is essential, serving as the first degree necessary to enter these professions.

Here, university education provides not just in-depth knowledge but also the credentials required by these industries.

Similarly, for those eyeing careers in research or academia, a graduate or doctoral degree can be indispensable, opening doors to advanced study and teaching opportunities.

However, not every career path demands a university degree. The tech industry, for example, often values skills and experience over formal education. Many successful programmers and developers are self-taught or have completed shorter, more focused coding boot camps.

Similarly, in creative fields like art, design, and music, a portfolio showcasing your work can be just as powerful as a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree.

Moreover, the rise of online learning platforms has democratised access to education. You can now acquire specific skills or knowledge relevant to your career goals without committing to a multi-year degree program.

This flexibility can be particularly appealing for those balancing education with work or other responsibilities.

College Degree Level Explained

Your higher education journey typically begins with earning a bachelor’s degree, laying the foundational knowledge and skills necessary for advanced study. Following this, a master’s degree offers you a specialised expertise, building upon undergraduate learning. 

Each step in this educational progression serves a distinct purpose, guiding you towards your professional and personal goals.

Understanding this sequence is key to making informed decisions about one’s higher education path and ultimately achieving success in one’s chosen field.

The Author

Dr Andrew Stapleton has a Masters and PhD in Chemistry from the UK and Australia. He has many years of research experience and has worked as a Postdoctoral Fellow and Associate at a number of Universities. Although having secured funding for his own research, he left academia to help others with his YouTube channel all about the inner workings of academia and how to make it work for you.