Educational Options for the Working Professional

Adult learners continuing their education

As employers demand an increasing array of expertise from their employees, many working professionals are going back to school. Are you looking to change your career, advance your skillset, or obtain additional education to maintain your current position? Below is an overview of the types of degree programs available.   

Ready to get started? Test the waters with an associate degree. An associate degree is typically earned in two or more years and is offered by local community colleges, technical colleges, vocational schools, and some four-year colleges and universities. An associate degree is comprised of a minimum of 60 semester credits of study or 90 quarter credits. It can prepare you for a career and/or be a stepping stone toward a bachelor’s degree. Many 2-year degree programs prepare students for immediate employment such as IT, healthcare, and criminal justice. It can also be a very cost-effective start to your bachelor’s degree and many institutions offer entire degrees 100% online.  

Already have an associate degree or just want to jump into a bachelor’s degree, feet first? A bachelor’s degree is a four-year degree, meaning it typically takes four years of full-time study to complete, so for working professionals, it usually takes longer than four years. It’s comprised of 120 semester credits or 180 quarter credits and courses can be taken on-campus, online, or in a hybrid format (partially on-campus and partially online). Over the past few years, competency-based programs have become quite popular. Employees with a large resume can use that experience toward their degree. With a competency-based program you “show what you know.”  If you already know a concept, you can demonstrate that competency and move to the next course. A bachelor’s degree may be a requirement for many professional careers. It is also linked to higher earning potential, increased opportunities, higher job satisfaction, job security, and marketable skills that employers look for.

I have a bachelor’s, now what? A master’s degree may be a great option. Master’s degrees are designed to designate mastery of a specific field of study or professional practice. The average full-time employee/part-time student will take 2 to 3 years to complete. A master's degree is often necessary to secure a profession and advance within certain professional fields. Professionals with a master's degree often benefit from higher pay and increased job responsibilities. It may also be a requirement for a managerial or supervisory role within an industry. If you have a bachelor’s and just want to add a new skill set, then you might consider a certificate program. These short, typically 4 to 5 course programs, help you develop skills in another field. For example, if you have a bachelor’s in business but decide you would like to work in human resources, there is a certificate you can complete to make that transition.  

Thinking of going further? A doctoral degree requires a significant investment of time; at least 4 to 6 years. Students interested in a Ph.D. program must first earn a bachelor's degree and usually a master's degree in a field related to their doctoral field of study. In some cases, a student can enter a doctoral degree program with only a bachelor's degree and earn a master's midway through the program (it’s important to know if the school will confer a master’s along the way in case one needs to opt out of the program). Earning a doctorate has the potential for one to earn a higher salary than someone with just a master’s degree; it can provide more career opportunities, increase knowledge in a subject area, improve writing skills after completing a lengthy dissertation, and build interpersonal skills that help aid in collaboration and teamwork with peers.

What degree will help you in your career? To define your path, explore job descriptions and industry news to gain an understanding of the educational requirements in your chosen field. Research and reflect on your goals and you will be on the way to selecting the degree level that is right for you.

Written by: Melissa Kessler

March 24, 2021

About the Author

Melissa Kessler headshot

Melissa brings 25 years of experience in higher education to Bright Horizons, including 15 years as the Assistant Director of the Office of Financial Aid and Scholarships at Rochester Institute of Technology and 7 years advising within a Nursing program. Melissa holds a Master’s in Career Development.