Online Graduate School Guidebook

ASO Staff Writers
Updated February 28, 2024
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How to Choose a Program, Get In and Graduate

Graduate school gives students a tremendous opportunity to grow academically, professionally, and financially. The following guide explores the graduate school landscape, from the wealth of degree options to the rise of online programs. Learn more about how to choose the right graduate program and what it takes to succeed.

Should You Go to Graduate School?

Students considering graduate school have many pros and cons to weigh, even long before the program selection and application process begins. While graduate school involves a large time and financial investment, it can also provide the opportunity to learn skills necessary for career advancement.

Any time I speak with students about graduate school, my first question to them is always, “Why do you want to go to graduate school, and what are you trying to achieve? Andrew Selepak, Director, MA in Mass Communication, University of Florida

Before beginning the quest for a graduate degree, there are a few basic questions to address. To understand whether starting on the path to graduate school is something worth exploring, use the checklist below to find out how ready for the journey you may be today.

If you checked at least four of the above boxes…
Great! You have an idea of what you want to do, and already understand why graduate school would make sense for you. This page will walk you through the next steps in preparing for grad school, including providing decision making tips on choosing the right college and program and staying organized from pre-application to post-acceptance.

If you checked fewer than four of the above boxes…
You’re in the right place–this guide is a good place to start. We’ll cover the differences between the types of graduate degrees students can earn, explain how online grad programs work, provide helpful resources for breaking down the application process, and offer scholarship and other financial aid resources to help make paying for grad school easier.

If you’re still not convinced grad school is the right path for you…
Take a look at some of the benefits below, or see what a university expert has to say about taking the leap towards earning a graduate degree.

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The Benefits of Graduate School

For some careers in law, education, healthcare, and social work, graduate degrees are not optional; they are required. Other industries may base promotions and other career advancement on the level of degree an employee is willing to acquire–many working professionals return to college to earn a graduate degree to boost earning power, grow their career, and move upwards in rank or professional status. The key benefits of graduate school include:

Greater Employment Opportunities

More job opportunities.

Earning a graduate degree can potentially increase students’ job opportunities by preparing them for employment in a different sector of the economy. Potentially higher earnings.

Master’s graduates boast higher weekly earnings than bachelor’s graduates, taking home an average of $236 more per week. Doctoral graduates earn a median weekly income of $1,825, which is $627 more than those with a bachelor’s. More job security.

According to The College Board, during economic downturns between 1999-2012, workers with undergraduate and advanced degrees experienced half the layoffs that fell upon workers with only a high school diploma. Employer recognition.

Employers are starting to recognize the benefits of having employees with advanced degrees. The American Council of Education estimates about 20% of graduate students receive financial assistance to attend grad school directly from their employers.

Greater Career Advancement

Employer preferred.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that employers look favorably on employees that return to college for advanced degrees, professional certificates, and continuing education. Requirement for advancement.

Some job entry or promotion requirements are pegged to the completion of a graduate degree. More job growth.

The greatest job growth from 2012-2022, according to the BLS, will be in positions requiring applicants to hold a master’s degree. Good ROI.

Studies of education reimbursement programs offered by employers show excellent returns on investment, a mark of added job security and growth potential within a company.

Achievement, Expertise, and Credibility

Enhanced learning.

Graduate students gain invaluable experience collaborating with top researchers in their field, which enhances one’s credibility and expertise. Funding networking.

Enrollment in a graduate degree program opens doors to funding for research, internships, and fellowships with major corporate or governmental agencies and memberships with professional associations.

Types of Graduate Degrees

Graduate schools offer programs leading to research or professional degrees at the master’s and doctoral levels. Coursework and research are considerably more challenging than in undergraduate studies and focus on a specialized discipline. Master’s degrees typically take two years to complete, while doctoral degrees may take 4-8 years. Class sizes are usually smaller compared to undergraduate programs and require a considerable amount of independent research. Grad students may finance their studies in part through student teaching or through loans, grants and scholarships.

Professional Master’s Degree

Whether online or campus-based, professional master’s degree programs are often considered terminal degrees for certain careers in business, government and nonprofit sectors. Some popular professional master’s degrees include the master of fine arts, master of social work (MSW), master of business administration (MBA), master of arts in teaching, master of health administration, master of public administration, and master of public health.

Professional master’s degree programs generally take 1-2 years to complete, depending on the school and format. Accelerated online professional master’s degrees, for instance, can shorten the time to graduation. Like their traditional counterparts, online professional master’s degree programs may require internships and collaborative research projects.

Students communicate with peers online (via chat, email, and/or discussion board) to coordinate joint work. Online colleges and universities typically have partnerships with businesses, hospitals, and nonprofit organizations in various locations, allowing online students to pursue internship opportunities close to home.

Graduation Timeline
Step 1: Choose a concentration, which several schools offer — this determines which courses students take
Step 2: Internship or supervised professional experience
Step 3: Special project, like an independent or team consulting project
Step 4: Capstone course
Step 5: Final examinations or assessment — frequently, but not always, required
Average Time to Graduation: 1-2 years

Academic or Research Master’s Degree

An academic or research master’s degree provides intellectual growth and advanced experience in research and theory. Many working professionals return to school to earn this type of degree and bolster their credentials. An academic or research master’s degree is usually composed of 2-3 years of required courses, laboratory or library research, 30-54 semester credits, and a related practicum or internship.

Depending on the program, students may sit for comprehensive examinations or complete a master’s thesis to meet graduation requirements. Second-year master’s students may declare a research focus and work with an academic mentor to complete degree requirements or transition to a doctoral program within the department.

The most common academic and research master’s degrees are the master of arts and master of science. Unlike undergraduate study, the curriculum at the master’s degree level focuses entirely on the field of study and specialties within it. The degree may also qualify graduates as postsecondary teachers in the major field.

Graduation Timeline
Step 1: Choose concentration and plan academic coursework
Step 2: Internship if applicable to the academic program
Step 3: Dissertation proposal, research, and defense — students usually complete research during the last year, although students usually submit a proposal earlier
Step 4: Capstone course
Step 5: Final examinations or assessment
Average Time to Graduation: 2-3 years

Professional Doctoral Degree

This type of degree emphasizes the practical application of knowledge and skills in a specific area. It often represents the culmination of specialized training for entry into advanced careers in fields such as education, law, medicine and psychology.

Online education doctorates are among the most popular distance learning programs. Other examples of popular professional doctorates include the doctor of business administration, doctor of medicine, doctor of pharmacy, juris doctor, and doctorate of psychology. Professional doctoral degrees are also offered in the fields of dentistry, chiropractic, physical therapy, veterinary medicine, advanced practice nursing and the ministry.

It takes 3-7 years following completion of a bachelor’s degree to complete a professional doctoral degree, depending on the chosen field, program requirements, and the student’s abilities. Self-paced and accelerated online degree programs can shorten time to graduation; however, not all professional doctorates are offered fully online because of the intensive laboratory and clinical components of the degree. For example, no fully online law degrees are currently accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA); however the ABA approved a hybrid law degree in 2014.

Graduation Timeline
Step 1: Taught courses on advanced topics, usually in the first year
Step 2: Supervised practicum, professional, or internship hours; some programs require both a practicum and internship
Step 3: Residency, especially for those pursuing any doctoral degree in the medical field
Step 4: Dissertation research
Step 5: Comprehensive examinations
Average Time to Graduation: 3-7 years

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Research Doctorate

Colleges and universities across the nation offer doctor of philosophy degrees. The Ph.D. represents the pinnacle of formal education. It takes approximately 7-8 years to complete a research doctorate following the completion of undergraduate education. Some doctoral programs require the minimum completion of a master’s degree for admittance. Many colleges, however, offer dual programs where bachelor’s degree holders can work towards a master’s and Ph.D. simultaneously.

Doctoral graduation requirements usually include completion of four semesters of intensive study, comprehensive qualifying examinations, and completion and defense of a research thesis or dissertation. The dissertation defense is presented before a committee of academic specialists in the student’s field. For online students, dissertations can be defended using video conferencing applications, including the school’s digital programs such as Blackboard Collaborate or Skype.

Graduation Timeline
Step 1: Dissertation research proposal — sometimes schools even require this when students apply to the program
Step 2: Taught courses, usually taken within the first 2-3 years of the program
Step 3: Dissertation research, usually completed within the last 3-5 years of the program
Step 4: Teaching undergraduate courses — although not always required, Ph.D. students sometimes teach introductory undergraduate courses
Step 5: Dissertation defense, which serves as the final examination
Average Time to Graduation: 7-8 years

Joint Degree Programs

A joint, or concurrent, degree program allows graduate students to earn two graduate-level degrees simultaneously. These interdisciplinary degrees are especially useful for students who want to apply one area of expertise to a different career sector. For example, a business major may want to include a specialization in global healthcare, or an environmental science major may want to combine studies in sustainable engineering.

Most schools do not charge additional tuition for joint degrees. According to Stanford University, some 20% of their MBA students pursue a joint degree. However, students should know that the course load in a joint degree program may increase completion time. Many joint master’s degree students include summer school sessions to finish their degrees on time. Online joint degree programs vary by institution, but students can finish one degree first as part of the requirements, adding up to 20 credits to earn the second degree.

Examples of common joint degrees include JD/MA, JD/MBA, MBA/MSW and the MA/MFS.

Graduation Timeline
Step 1: Complete taught courses; choose concentration if available
Step 2: Professional experience, either through internship or supervised practicum hours
Step 3: Dissertation proposal, research, and defense — students usually complete research during the last year, although students usually submit the proposal earlier
Step 4: Capstone course
Step 5: Final examinations or assessment
Average Time to Graduation: 1.5-3 years

Preparing for Graduate School

Preparing to make the transition to graduate school is different for everyone. Grad school students may come from a variety of professional backgrounds, with a wide range of former educational experiences. The average age of a grad school student is 33 years old, according to the 2016 National Postsecondary Student Aid Survey, with younger students reporting receiving the most financial aid for their time in grad school. But no matter where you are in your professional or educational journey, our expert suggests proper preparation is key.

For those thinking about graduate school, the most important thing to consider is what they are trying to achieve by attending and if the sacrifices necessary are worth it. Andrew Selepak, Director, MA in Mass Communication, University of Florida

More Decision-Making Tips

Online Graduate Schools

Colleges, universities, and professional schools offer online graduate degrees designed specifically to meet the needs of busy working professionals and students with families. Master’s and doctoral degree programs may be delivered entirely online or as hybrid programs that combine traditional campus degree work with online components.

What Is Online Grad School Like?

Online learning shares many similarities with traditional, on-campus learning. The curriculum rarely differs between online and traditional courses. Additionally, both distance learning and on-campus students work with the same dissertation advisors. Here are some of the main differences for online learners:

Location: Distance learners may take classes from home, the office, or coffee shops. Students interested in a far-away university may find this feature especially helpful. Plus, online students can often watch lectures and add comments to a class discussion board at their convenience. Sometimes instructors run online courses synchronously, which means students still need to log on at specific times.

Technology: Online graduate students can meet with their research committee for meetings or conduct their oral defense virtually thanks to technology like Skype or Google Hangouts. Online courses can be delivered in synchronous or asynchronous formats, and include multimedia presentations, chat discussions, video and voice conferencing, and email. Distance learning students also enjoy access to university libraries, special collections, and departmental resources.

Flexibility: Graduate programs also require additional conditions for graduation, like dissertation research or supervised professional experience. Online grad students can fulfill their practicum or internship hours in their local communities. Usually faculty members simply need to review and approve of this professional experience.

What Are the Most Popular Online Graduate Degrees?

Below is a sampling of some of the most popular online graduate degrees, including information on admission and graduation requirements and core academic elements:

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Graduate School Application Process

Graduate schools may use different assessment methods to choose incoming students, but almost all of the graduate colleges and universities in the country, online and campus-based, require certain components from applicants. We cover all the ins and outs of the process, from tips on crafting the perfect personal statement to advice on when and where to apply in our step by step grad school guide below:Online Grad School Guide


Graduate students seeking scholarships to offset the cost of their degree program and living expenses can find scholarships and research fellowships that can help cover costs from one year to an entire degree program. There are scholarships dedicated to most fields, granted by federal and state governmental agencies, professional organizations, trade associations, and independent endowments and foundations. Here are a few examples of scholarships for graduate students.

American Association of University Women Fellowships

  • Amount: Varies, to support living expenses
  • Eligibility: Open to all students working on dissertations in any field except engineering. Technology and gender studies majors encouraged to apply.

National Black MBA Association

  • Amount: Varies
  • Eligibility: Must be an African American graduate or doctoral student.

Woodrow Wilson MBA Fellowship in Education Leadership

  • Amount: N/A
  • Eligibility: Candidates must be willing to attend participating MBA programs and serve as principals for at least three years following graduation.

Find More Scholarships for Grad School Students

Expert Advice: Is Grad School Right for Me?

Andrew Selepak is the director of the master of arts in mass communication program with a specialization in Social Media at the University of Florida in the College of Journalism and Communications. He also teaches courses in the Department of Telecommunication at the University of Florida. Andrew holds a BA in American history from the University of Virginia, an MA in communications from George Mason University, and a Ph.D. in mass communications from the University of Florida.


Applying to and getting through graduate school might seem overwhelming, but several online resources can help students navigate the more intimidating components. Learners can discover ways to help them find scholarships, formulate a thesis topic, and conduct dissertation research.

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