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Talking of the general pattern of the system of higher education and degrees

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Ivanov: I’d like to know the general pattern of the system of higher education in the USA.

Briggs: I’ll try to sketch out here what seems most important. A distinctive feature of American university is its two levels – the separation of undergraduate from graduate education. The first level is Undergraduate School of four years duration. Here the work of undergraduate students (undergraduates) during the first two years (the freshman year and the sophomore year) usually consists of broadly-based studies in humanities, social science, applied and natural science.

Barbara: I’m a sophomore at Yale and Donald is a freshman at Columbia. Indeed, the first two years at Undergraduate School are aimed at providing general education and preparing for more special studies. The last two years (the junior and senior year) are devoted almost entirely to the major discipline.

Donald: After the sophomore year, the undergraduate majors in one special subject, which means he takes the majority of courses in this one area. For instance, Barbara is majoring in French Literature. My interests are in science – I’m majoring in chemistry and biochemistry.

Briggs: If all goes well, this undergraduate education culminates in a Bachelor’s degree (BS or BA). It’s usually known as the first degree and may be a terminal qualification. But it is often considered as a background for further specialization, a step toward higher (or advanced) degree.

Ivanov: That would mean that the undergraduate education that culminates in a Bachelor’s degree can be compared to Russian institutions of higher learning which provide four-year training. What about advanced degrees, how are they obtained?

Briggs: I’m just coming to this point… The advanced degrees (the Master’s degree and the PhD) can be obtained in Graduate School, which is the second level of university education. There’re two levels of graduate school: the lower for obtaining the Master’s degree (MS or MA) and the upper level for the doctorate or the PhD, which is a research degree. A graduate student works for two or three years. Within this period of time he takes courses, passes exams, does some laboratory research under a competent professor, and on submitting a thesis he is awarded a Master’s degree, though a thesis is not always required.

Ivanov: The Master’s degree is not a research degree, right?

Briggs: No, it isn’t.

Ivanov: How does one get the PhD degree?

Briggs: Well, it’s like this. A PhD degree (Doctor of Philosophy) is basically a research degree awarded in Graduate School in recognition of achievement in research. If the graduate student is accepted into the PhD program, after obtaining a Master’s degree, he takes two or three years of advanced courses in his field of interest. During this time, he passes exams and does research preparing for his thesis. His research usually culminates in a written dissertation which most demonstrate that the doctoral student has talent and ability for independent research. He comes before a panel of experts in this field, and defends his thesis. These are professors from his university or sometimes other universities who question the candidate and finally decide whether he deserves the degree.

Ivanov: That makes a lot of things clear to me. Thanks a lot.


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