There are a few easy answers to this question: Generally you need a Ph.D. if you want to work as a psychologist or conduct independent academic research. If you want to work in mathematics, physics, economics or another highly quantitative professional discipline, you need at least a master's degree. Many mid- to upper-tier business positions also typically fall to candidates with an MBA or other master's degree. Social workers and teachers at the college level typically need a master's degree or better. Although these are the typical educational requirements for these professions, there may sometimes be outlying exceptions to these cases.
A great way to know if you'll need a master's or Ph.D. is to ask a career counselor or a professional who's currently in a position where you want to be. They might not be able to give you an answer that's right for everyone, but their insight may help you figure out the right steps to take on your own path.
Opinions differ on this subject, but there are some general guidelines that you can follow to help narrow down your choices to a manageable few:
The average length of a graduate program, online or on campus, is between four and six semesters of full-time study, but this length of time can vary by student or program. Some degree plans are designed to be completed in a shorter length of time than normal, such as an online Executive Master of Business Administration (EMBA) program that generally takes just one year to complete. Other programs take the opposite tack, allowing part-time students as many as four or five years to complete all the graduation requirements.
Often, the length of time a graduate program takes to complete depends on how much time per year a student has available to devote to it. The set-your-own-hours scheduling style can allow you to blaze through one class in half a semester or less when you've got the time to spare, or it can give you the flexibility to stretch a course out over a full year if you have other obligations.
The exact amount that a graduate school program costs depends heavily on your chosen institution or program, but it is generally safe to say that tuition and fees for online graduate schools are commonly more affordable than those charged to on-campus students at the same institution.
Residency plays a big role in the cost of college as well. Tuition for out-of-state students is often more than double what it is for in-state residents. Online programs can significantly soften the difference between out-of-state and in-state tuition with some schools offering online degrees at a cost equal to or lower than their in-state tuition rate.
Choosing the right degree and putting it to effective use can have a powerful effect on your career. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) releases a chart of the reported earnings of people at various academic levels, and it's hard to argue with these 2014 median annual salary numbers:
On top of that, workers with no college degree were unemployed at rates between three and five times higher than those who had a doctoral or professional degree.
Online degrees may differ from their campus-based counterparts in many practical and experiential ways, but after graduation the degrees are generally the same. As long as you attend an accredited online institution, your degree should serve just as well as one earned in a brick-and-mortar classroom to communicate your command of your subject to employers and other educational institutions.
Also, with more and more traditional institutions beginning to add digital distance education programs to their list of degree offerings, it's increasingly more difficult to tell whether a degree has been earned online or on a physical campus.
Online school can take some getting used to, but it does come with some real upsides for students who can adapt to this new way of learning. First of all, online courses are typically offered in a set-your-own-hours format that can allow you to keep whatever schedule is required by your job or lifestyle and still attend lecture sections or complete coursework whenever you have the time available. While on-campus degrees do offer some options for students who need flexible scheduling, the decentralized nature of online courses tends to give you a lot more room to maneuver.
What's more, online programs cost most schools less to produce than those in traditional classrooms, and textbooks and other materials at the digital bookstore tend to be more affordable than the hard copies on the shelves. All those savings often add up to a reduced cost per credit hour to the student, which can be a lifesaver if your educational funding options are limited.
Financial aid is handled in many of the same ways for graduates as it is for undergraduates. Graduate students can still benefit from having a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) on file, but you may be asked to fill out a new form if your financial circumstances have changed since you applied for undergraduate aid.
Federal programs such as the Ford loans, the Federal Work Study program, and Pell or TEACH grants all may be available to you as a graduate student, depending on the policies of your institution. State-funded aid programs for graduate students may be an option as well. You're also free to compete for scholarship or grant money offered by your college or academic department, provided that you meet the qualifications set by the individual scholarship fund.
To put it simply, accreditation is how you know your degree is legitimate. Private educational associations develop strict criteria by which to evaluate colleges and universities, and schools that meet those criteria become accredited, or recognized as providing an education that is held to the same high standard as those offered at other institutions around the country. Accreditation allows employers and other educational institutions to have confidence that you've learned what you need to learn to do a particular job or pursue an advanced course of study.
Most accredited institutions make it fairly easy for you to find their accreditation information, even if certain college sites may be somewhat difficult to navigate. If there isn't a link on the school's homepage or in the "About Us" section, you can search the U.S. Department of Education's database of accredited schools and programs.
Although there are exceptions to the rule, most graduate programs in the U.S. require that you successfully complete one of three standardized qualifying exams:
On top of the standardized tests, your individual program may also require certain institution-specific qualifying tests or essays. Make sure to check with an admissions representative at your chosen school if the qualifying requirements aren't clear.
FAQs about Accreditation, U.S. Department of Education, accessed November 24, 2015, http://ope.ed.gov/accreditation/FAQAccr.aspx
The Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs, U.S. Department of Education, accessed November 24, 2015, http://ope.ed.gov/accreditation/
Financial Aid for Graduate and Professional Degree Studies, U.S. Department of Education, accessed November 24, 2015, https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/sites/default/files/graduate-professional-funding-info.pdf
One-Year MBA Program, Northwestern University, accessed November 24, 2015, http://www.kellogg.northwestern.edu/programs/full-time-mba/one-year-mba-program.aspx
Graduate School Entrance Exams: GRE, LSAT & GMAT, Rutgers University, accessed November 24, 2015, http://criminaljustice.rutgers.edu/student-info/graduate-study/gre-lsta-gmat
Qualifying examinations and candidacy, Wayne State University, accessed November 24, 2015, http://wayne.edu/gradschool/phd/candidacy/
Education Pays, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed November 24, 2015, http://www.bls.gov/emp/ep_chart_001.htm