Skip Global Navigation to Main Content
Skip Breadcrumb Navigation
Graduate Study

Graduate Study in the United States

More than 1,200 accredited U.S. institutions offer graduate study. Of these, approximately one-third offer doctoral degrees. Most doctoral-level institutions are large, public universities.

American institutions are either public or private, and there is no official or implied distinction in quality between the two. Nearly all states support at least two public universities.

It usually takes a minimum of 12 months to select universities, complete the admissions process, and apply for financial assistance, scholarships, etc. Graduate study in the U.S. is expensive. Annual tuition costs may be as much as US$24,000, while living costs may range from US$9,000 to US$15,000.

Some institutional financial aid is available to international students at the graduate level. Most of it is merit-based rather than need-based; so only students with truly outstanding academic records can expect to receive financial assistance from the university, which grants them admission. At the graduate level, the primary sources of funding for international students are personal and family sources (47% of students), and U.S. institutions (38% of students). Scholarships and other forms of financial aid will not cover the total cost of study in the U.S. You will need to find additional sources of funding. 

There are no athletic scholarships for graduate study. 

Universities charge an admission application fee which ranges between US$25 and US$150. Entry to top U.S. graduate schools is very competitive. Some of the most selective graduate schools may accept fewer than 20% of all applicants. You will almost certainly be required to take at least one standardized admission test, which will cost anywhere from US$140 to US$225.

Work opportunities for international students are very limited and tightly regulated by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. You cannot expect to support yourself by working.

Before you can be issued with a student visa, you will need to prove to the U.S. Consulate that you have adequate financial resources to pay for your education and living costs. Potential income from working while studying cannot be counted as part of your financial resources for the purposes of obtaining a student visa. In addition to tuition, fees, room and board, travel and living expenses, you will be required to pay for health insurance.

Description of Graduate Programs

There are two major kinds of graduate degrees: professional degrees and research degrees; and two major levels: masters and doctoral.

Masters Degrees

The professional master's is a 'terminal' degree, providing a specific set of skills needed to practice a particular profession and leading directly to employment. Professional master's degrees are offered in areas such as business and public administration, social work, journalism, public health, international relations, urban and regional planning, communications, etc. There is often no need for an undergraduate degree in the specific field, although some programs may presuppose a certain amount of study in relevant areas. Typically, this type of degree consists of a year of required course work, forming the basic training, followed by a second year of specialized study within the field. Usually these degrees do not include a thesis option or a language requirement, but they may involve some type of internship or fieldwork.The research master's, MA (Master of Arts) or MS (Master of Science), provides experience in research and scholarship.

The research master's is usually part of the progression to the doctorate. It is often a selection process by which those who perform only adequately may be awarded their master's but be denied entry to the doctoral program. Some major universities do not admit students in the humanities and social sciences for only the master's degree, as they are only interested in prospective doctoral students. The content of a master's degree program can be distinguished from that of a doctoral program in that there is more emphasis on course work, there are fewer research seminars, there may be no comprehensive examination, and while most MA and MS degrees still require a thesis, there are options available that waive this requirement.

Doctoral Degrees

At the doctoral level there are also professional degrees and research degrees. The most common professional degrees are the MD for medicine and the JD for law.

The purpose of a doctoral degree program is to train research scholars in a particular field. The doctoral degree typically involves both course work and a major research project. It usually takes four to six years of full-time study to complete a PhD. The first two years involve classes and seminars to give the student a comprehensive knowledge of an academic field. This period of study is followed by written and/or oral examinations.

Admission to a graduate school is not equivalent to admission to candidacy for higher degrees. In the doctoral program for instance, a student is not formally considered as a candidate for the degree until comprehensive examinations have been passed at the end of required course work and a research project has been approved.