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Academic/Research Master's Degree - Professional Master's Degree - Doctoral Degree - JD/LLM in Law - MD in Medicine - Visiting or Special Student

"The postgraduate programmes in the US seem to be more well-rounded than in the UK.  In the UK, you only focus on your research, while in the US your programme includes taught courses as well as the opportunity to teach undergraduate students through assistantships."
Marc, University of Pennsylvania

There are several types of postgraduate degrees offered in the US. Read on for more information about academic/research master’s degrees, professional master’s degrees, Doctoral degrees, JD/LLM in law and the MD in medicine.

Please note that, unlike in the UK, there are no pure research degrees. Rather, degrees include a combination of research and taught components. If you just want to do research in the lab or library, completing a full postgrad degree may not be the best fit for you. Consider going to the US as a visiting or special student.

Academic/Research Master’s Degree

Academic/research master's degrees are generally completed in two academic years (though there are a few one-year programmes) and commonly lead to a career in academia or research. Students typically complete a thesis as part of their studies. In the humanities, these degrees may also involve meeting a minimum language requirement. While the academic/research master's degree is often a required stepping stone to the PhD in the UK, it is a terminal degree in the US and many students go directly from their bachelor's degree to the PhD. 

Professional Master's Degree

Professional master’s degrees are usually two years in length and are designed to prepare you for a particular profession (e.g. business administration, architecture, social work, public policy/administration, etc.). Professional degrees generally require a set of mandatory core courses and electives, allowing students to specialise or take courses outside the department. They usually emphasise coursework and functional skills and are unlikely to require a thesis. Rather, students may complete an internship or capstone project at the end of their degree programme.

Doctoral Degree

Doctoral degrees typically require between 4 and 6 years of study, often based on prior academic work, type of research (qualitative vs. quantitative) and whether the student is fully-funded (and therefore in less of a hurry to finish). A PhD will usually consist of two years of coursework (usually aligned with the requirements for a two-year academic master’s). For this reason, a master's degree is typically not required for admission, although there will be admitted students both with and without master's degrees. Coursework will culminate in oral and written qualifying exams. Upon passing these exams, the student is admitted to doctoral candidacy and embarks on two to three years of dissertation research. Students are expected to produce a dissertation of publishable quality, which will be defended followed by an oral exam or 'defence' to complete the degree.

One benefit of applying for doctoral programmes is that there is typically more university funding available for PhD students. However, funding alone will not get you through a PhD. When choosing between degree programmes (for example, between an academic master's and a doctoral degree), think hard about what you want to accomplish and how each degree will help you get there. Consider asking academics in your field for their advice and/or applying to several different types of programme (although not at the same university). 

JD/LLM Degrees in Law

Law is a postgraduate degree in the US. There are two degrees: the three-year JD in American law and the one-year LLM. The JD degree prepares individuals to practise law in the US. Upon completion of a JD, students take the bar exam to become qualified to practise law in a particular state in the US. Being qualified to practise law does not guarantee you will be sponsored for a work-related visa. Therefore, if you are not a dual citizen or do not have a Green Card, it is important to have a back-up plan for how you will use a JD in a career in the UK or consider an LLM. More often international students complete a one or two-year LLM - master’s in Law degree, if they have a first degree in law in the UK. LLM degrees offer specialised study in a particular area of law, such as international law or tax law. For more information about the JD and LLM application processes, download our handout on Legal Education in the US. If you are interested in an LLM, we suggest you have a look at this webinar, "Value of an American LLM Degree".

MD Degree in Medicine

Medicine is also a postgraduate degree in the US. Students typically complete a first degree in a science-related field before completing a four-year medical school degree. For more information, download our handout on Medical Education in the US.

Non-Degree Seeking Students

Students may also attend US universities as non-degree seeking students or visiting students. This special status is granted to students not wishing to pursue a full degree programme. Rather, they are enrolled at the university thus gaining access to facilities and lectures. Students must obtain permission from the university to enrol as a special or visiting student and will be required to pay tuition and fees to the university. It is important to note students under this category may not be eligible for some university-based funding.

You may also consider opportunities for postdoctoral research and fellowships, if you have completed a postgraduate degree already.