Online Graduate School Guidebook

A ranking of the best online graduate programs. Programs ranked by affordability, flexibility, and academic quality.

Updated February 28, 2024 is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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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. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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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 is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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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

  • Carefully assess prospective colleges, including faculty members, accreditation, graduation rate, post-grad employment statistics, availability of financial aid, and coursework. Usually, you can find this information on the school's website or through sources such as U.S. News & World Report, but you can also contact someone at a school's admissions or financial aid office for more information.
  • Evaluate whether an online graduate degree program suits your current commitments to work and family. Accredited online colleges typically offer the same educational quality and content as traditional campus-based programs, but they provide more flexibility and convenience.
  • Talk to friends, family, and colleagues who have gone the grad school route, learning from their experiences (or mistakes).
  • Interview employers and career experts, university faculty members, and financial aid officers to learn about all the options available to you.
  • Talk to your company's HR department to see if your current employer has a tuition assistance program. Some companies help cover the cost of graduate school if you pursue a degree relevant to the field.
  • Find out if you qualify to receive tax credits or deductions and what you need to do to claim them. Examples of potential credits and deductions include the Lifetime Learning Credit, Graduate School Loan Interest Tax Deduction, Tuition and Fees Deduction, and Educational Expense Tax Deduction. You can visit or speak with a tax professional for more information.

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:

Online Master's in Business Administration (MBA)

Online MBA degrees have grown in popularity among students who wish to enhance their credentials and move into management. Admission requirements typically include completion of an undergraduate degree, successful scores on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) or Graduate Management Admission Test, professional references, and submission of all college transcripts. Some schools also require a statement of purpose and an online or in-person interview, as well as two years of professional experience in a relevant field.

It generally takes two years to complete an online MBA, depending on the depth of the program and the student's ability to keep pace. Online MBA degrees can be full or part time, and some schools offer accelerated programs that can be completed in less time. In addition to core business administration curriculum, students can specialize in a particular area. Common MBA concentrations include technology, healthcare, entrepreneurship, marketing, finance, and supply chain management.

Online Ph.D. in Education (Curriculum and Instruction)

An online Ph.D. in education curriculum and instruction caters to working education professionals who want to deepen their knowledge of administration in curriculum assessment, development, and leadership. Accelerated three-year Ph.D. programs allow educators to apply learning directly to the workplace. Applicants usually need a master's degree to apply and must submit all previous transcripts, GRE scores, letters of recommendation, and demonstrated professional experience.

To graduate, candidates must complete a minimum of 68 credits composed of coursework and field experience, along with the completion and defense of a scholarly dissertation for graduation. Blended or hybrid elements of the degree include up to two weeks of campus residency and/or laboratory hours arranged within parent school districts. Coursework includes studies in developmental and learning theory, instructional leadership, social and economic contexts, and qualitative case studies.

Online Master's Degree in Social Work

One of the most popular online degrees, the MS in social work is a common minimal state requirement for career licensing in the social services fields. Many applicants already work in educational and public assistance settings, but they need the additional degree to assume roles such as school counselor, social worker, substance abuse counselor, and program administrator.

Applicants need a bachelor's degree and, in some cases, demonstrated social work experience and reference letters from former teachers and current employers. This self-paced academic program typically takes three years to complete, including 1,200 hours of field internships arranged in the student's community.

Coursework includes studies in social welfare policy, human behavior, cultural diversity and special populations, and clinical practice. Depending on the school, graduation requirements may include a comprehensive exam and completion of a master's research project.

Online Master of Science in Electrical Engineering

This two-year, self-paced online master's in engineering degree meets the educational needs of professionals entering specialized engineering roles or for career advancement into leadership positions. Master's students need to complete 25-30 units in graduate courses, with at least 18 units in electrical engineering, a major research project, and a passing score on a comprehensive examination.

To apply, candidates need an undergraduate degree in math, engineering, or a related hard science, and they must provide transcripts of undergraduate work, letters of recommendation, and GRE scores. Major areas of study include computer networks and systems, nanotechnology, power systems, optics, and signal processing.

Online Master of Science in Nursing

One of the fastest-growing online degrees in the healthcare sector is the master of science in nursing (MSN). Working registered nurses find that online advanced practice degrees provide the shortest routes to progression in the field. Online MSN programs can include specialized options that allow nurses to concentrate on management, health informatics, and healthcare leadership.

To apply to this two-year, self-paced program, nurses need a baccalaureate nursing degree and a valid state nursing license, as well as at least two years of direct professional nursing experience. Coursework includes advanced studies in financial and human resource management, population-focused healthcare practice, planning and performance assessment, and health policy.

To graduate, students must also complete two advanced nursing practicums and related research projects. Online nursing degree programs are designed to dovetail with student's employment obligations, and practical assignments may be integrated within the current workplace. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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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.

What are the greatests benefits of attending graduate school?

While there are numerous benefits to attending graduate school, I will address the two biggest.

First, since graduate classes are usually much smaller than undergraduate ones, students get to know their classmates and professors quite well. Such close relationships can reap several benefits. For example, students in graduate school typically have professional experience, so it is possible to learn new perspectives from others in graduate courses in addition to the professor. Additionally, graduate student -- those currently employed and those seeking employment -- may network with each other to learn about and/or gain career opportunities.

Finally, small class sizes also mean that students get to know their professors. These interpersonal relationships prove valuable when students need assistance with coursework, academic and professional advice, and recommendations -- or if they just want to know more about the field.

Second, undergraduate education is intentionally broad, making students better and more productive citizens. This is why undergraduates take courses in math, science, the humanities, the social sciences, and foreign languages. And while it is important to be well rounded, our personal interests are often more specific to a few areas.

Graduate programs focus on specific areas rather than a more generalized education. Students pick a specific graduate program in their area of interest, and then their classes focus on that area. Indeed, graduate school is about specific professional development in an area that interests the student and prepares him/her for a specific career rather than focusing on a broad educational experience to prepare students to serve as productive and informed members of society.

What advice would you give to those considering applying to a graduate school?

I have always been a cost-benefit person. 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. Graduate school takes both time and money, so it is important to decide if that cost is worth the benefit; otherwise, students may not dedicate themselves in the way necessary for graduate school.

Anytime 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?" One of my reasons for going to graduate school in the first place was because I didn't study my current field when I was an undergrad, so I lacked the knowledge and education in the area in which I wanted to work. Graduate school was the best way for me to fill that gap and demonstrate to others my knowledge in an area.

Students should also realize that there have never been more options when it comes to graduate school. It is possible to attend graduate school in-person at a local university or move to a new town, state, or country. But it is also possible to attend graduate school online at universities around the world. For those who might not be able to move for work or family reasons, they can find online graduate programs in numerous disciplines that will allow them to gain knowledge and skills in a new field or in their existing field to help them advance in their career. So, it is important to think about the reason for wanting a graduate education and then to find the right program that will achieve those goals.

Drawing from your experience as a professor, what advice would you give to students who are preparing to enter a graduate program?

Research the programs out there, and find one with classes that will most benefit them. This also means looking up professors in the program and learning about their areas of expertise and backgrounds to make sure they match what the student wants to learn.

I would also suggest students find out the program's requirements. Most programs will have application requirements for undergrad GPA or GRE scores. So, it is important to know if those requirements can be met, or if a student might need to take a GRE prep course. I took a GRE prep course to improve my math score because I had not taken a math course since I was an undergrad and needed a refresher.

Remember that, for the most part, graduate school is harder than a bachelor's program: more reading, more assignments, more work. That said, students are selecting a graduate program that most interests them and most benefits them and their career, which means that despite the work, they should enjoy it. In graduate school, I found myself doing work on weekends because I enjoyed it rather than finding it a chore. When you are doing what you enjoy and working with a purpose, it makes the work a lot easier and more fun.


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.

  • Federal Student Aid: The U.S. Department of Education offers the FAFSA, which can help students find loans or grants at the undergraduate and graduate levels.
  • The Princeton Review: The Princeton Review operates as a grad school search engine that publishes rankings list for various graduate programs. Prospective students can also find information about specific schools, like campus size and admissions factors.
  • How to Write a Dissertation: This guide from Purdue University provides simple and practical tips on writing a dissertation or thesis. Graduate candidates can find helpful information on grammar, writing voice, and words to avoid.
  • Graduate School Survival Guide: This grad school survival guide gives students useful suggestions. Readers can learn how to achieve a fruitful relationship with their advisors and make continual progress on their research.
  • National Association of Graduate-Professional Students: This group connects students enrolled in graduate programs through conferences, job fairs, and legislative action days. The organization also offers advice on grad school through online resources.

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