MA, MBA, BS, MS, MSW, PhD, PsyD: What Does it All Mean?

The benefits of college degrees, be it associate, B.A., M.A. or Ph.D level, have been touted and restated many times. Despite rising costs, the investment continues to be valuable one for a wide variety of people. That said, back it up a little bit: just what do all those different degree acronyms mean? Beyond that, what differentiates, say, a B.B.A. from a BSN?

To help answer those questions we put together the following list of definitions for what each degree acronym stands for as well as explanations of the meanings behind all the different terminology.

Associate Degrees

An associate degree is typically completed in two years of full-time study, but may take longer for part-time students. These undergraduate programs can be found at community colleges, vocational schools, technical colleges, and some universities. In general, associate degrees fall into three different categories: Associate of Arts (A.A.), Associate of Science (A.S.), or Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.).

Associate degrees are a great fit for career-oriented students who want to enter a technical or vocational trade that requires some post secondary education. Along with often being the quickest and cheapest route to a formal degree, an associate program can also be a stepping stone to a four-year degree. Many schools offer students the option to apply credits earned from an associate degree, which is generally 60 semester credits, towards a bachelor’s degree.

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Graduates with an associate degree had median annual salary of $53,700, compared with $37,960 for high school graduates. They also had a better unemployment rate.


*Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018

A.A. Associate of Arts

The associate of arts is a basic-level undergraduate degree granted upon completion of a two-year program, usually at community or junior college, technical college or trade school. As such, these are typically a jumping off point towards pursuing a full bachelor’s degree.

A.S. Associate of Science

Similar to the A.A., the associate of science degree is the culmination of a two-year academic program. The A.S. is usually awarded to junior college students enrolled in science or tech-related programs.

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Bachelor’s Degrees

A bachelor’s degree is the most popular post-secondary degree option, and typically seen as the standard for employment in most professional fields. In most cases, a bachelor’s program takes four years of full-time study to complete. However, some majors may take longer, or schools may offer accelerated programs allowing students to finish their degree in less time.

The two most common types of bachelor’s degrees are the Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) and the Bachelor of Science (B.S.). There are a number of other options, though, that coincide with more specific major fields, such as the Bachelor of Science in Nursing (B.S.N.). Generally, a bachelor’s degree consists of 120 semester credits, with half being made up of general education or liberal arts courses. The other half is typically filled with courses geared toward a student’s particular major.


Bachelor’s degree holders had median annual wages of $73,960 in 2018 — nearly twice the median wages for all occupations and nearly $20,000 more per year than graduates with an associate degree.


*Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018

B.A. Bachelor of Arts

The usual degree path for majors in liberal arts, humanities or social sciences such as English, creative writing, fine arts or political science. A B.A. is typically awarded upon completion of a four-year undergraduate program at a traditional school or university.

B.S. Bachelor of Science

The bachelor’s typically awarded to undergraduates in science and technical fields.

B.F.A. Bachelor of Fine Arts

Awarded to majors like art history, theater, film studies and photography.

B.B.A. Bachelor of Business Administration

A business-oriented bachelor’s path, typically associated with management, accounting, marketing, etc.

B.Arch Bachelor of Architecture

A bachelor’s degree geared towards the architecture field.

BSN Bachelor of Science in Nursing

A degree path oriented towards the technical and hands-on training necessary to obtain a nursing license.

B.E. Bachelor of Engineering

Concentrates on engineering fields like electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and computer engineering.

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Master’s Degrees

Master’s degrees are graduate-level programs that typically take two years of additional full-time study after completion of a bachelor’s degree. Because most graduate students are already working professionals, many colleges and universities offer part-time or flexible master’s degree programs. These allow students to maintain their career while completing the degree at their own pace, but generally take longer than two years of study.

In order to apply for a master’s program, students usually must already possess a bachelor’s degree. Most students choose to pursue a master’s degree in order to advance in their chosen profession or enter a field that requires a high level of education. Many programs fall into one of two categories: Master of Arts (M.A.) or Master of Science (M.S.). The Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.) is another popular option.


The BLS predicts 13.7% growth in employment for master’s degree holders between 2018 and 2028 — the highest of any level of education.


*Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018

M.A. Master of Arts

The basic graduate-level degree granted to grad students in fields in the humanities, social sciences or fine arts.

M.B.A. Master of Business Administration

The Master of Business Administration is the master-level degree granted upon completion of a business administration or management-oriented program. In contrast to an M.A., M.B.A. programs are typically oriented around subjects more narrowly tailored towards business operations like accounting, marketing and analysis.

M.S. Master of Science

Typically awarded to graduate students in scientific or technical fields.

M.S.W. Master of Social Work

Similar to the M.B.A., the Master of Social Work is narrowly defined master’s degree focused on social work. M.S.W. programs may adhere to either a clinical track or practice track. The clinical track is oriented towards working with patients, while the practice track focuses on politics and policy as well as management.

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Doctoral Degrees

A doctorate is the highest level of academic degree awarded by universities, and can take anywhere from three to eight years (or more) to complete. Some doctoral programs require students to already have a master’s before enrolling, while others can be started directly after completion of undergraduate study.

There are many different types of doctoral degrees, but the most common is the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.). Depending on the specific degree awarded, earning a doctorate can qualify graduates to teach at the university level, or work in a position that requires extensive training and education. Psychologists and medical doctors are two examples of professionals who must hold doctoral degrees in order to become licensed to practice in their field.


Workers with a doctoral degree had both the highest median annual salaries — more than $100,000 — and the lowest unemployment of any level of educational attainment.


*Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018

Ph.D Doctor of Philosophy

Despite what the name might suggest, this isn’t a degree for philosophers exclusively. A Ph.D is the doctorate-level degree granted in a variety of different disciplines. These are typically research-intensive programs pursued by those who’ve already acquired bachelor’s and master-level credentials in their field of study.

Psy.D. Doctor of Psychology

The similar to a standard doctorate degree, but granted specifically for students pursuing psychology practice.

Doctoral Degree Related Content


What do these letters stand for?

There are two parts; one can classify the educational level of the degree: “B” stands for bachelor’s degree; “M” stands for master’s degree; and “D” stands for doctoral degree. The second part denotes the discipline of the degree, like “S” for science, “A” for arts, or “Ph” for Philosophy.

What are the distinctions between arts and science degrees?

Depending on the school you attend and the kind of courses you take, you could earn an arts degree or a science degree. Typically, an “arts” degree means that you focused on a wide area of learning and discussion, while a “science” degree implies a deep, technical understanding of your subject.

What kinds of designations exist for doctoral students?

The highest degree you can earn in most liberal arts disciplines is a PhD, or Doctor of Philosophy. However, clinical and counseling psychologists earn a PsyD, Doctor of Psychology nomenclature; medical students earn M.D. degrees and law students can earn J.D. (Juris Doctor) degrees.

What about some of the other specialized degrees?

Distinctive nomenclature are named after applied disciplines, include Master of Social Work (MSW), Doctor of Social Work (DSW), Master of Education degree (MaEd), Master of Business Administration (MBA), or Doctor of Business Administration (DBA).

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