Paths Toward Graduate Education and Career Opportunities

There are as many paths toward a Ph.D. as there are Ph.D. candidates.

  • Inspirational college professors and early opportunities for undergraduate research may transform one undergraduate’s hazy and poorly understood career option into a much more definite and attractive goal.
  • Another student may experience an awakening as a result of college courses in a field previously untouched in high school and may find that the subject is so personally compelling and intellectually challenging that it demands investigation and study to the deepest possible level.
  • A third student’s early interest in a teaching career may be the foundation for a revised career goal as a college or university professor engaged in both research and teaching.
  • Other students enter graduate school only after working for a while and discovering areas of innovative thinking or specific research problems they feel compelled to pursue.

A Commitment, not a Holding Pattern

Students considering embarking on the path toward a Ph.D. need clear objectives. An advanced degree requires a profound commitment and should not be regarded as a holding pattern until something better comes along. Undergraduates should apply for graduate school only when they are certain that they want to dedicate themselves to self-motivated inquiry in their chosen discipline.

Varieties of Job Opportunities

Highly qualified new Ph.D.’s commonly are hired as assistant professors in colleges in universities. (Although those with new degrees in the natural sciences are likely to take postdoctoral fellowship positions for two or three additional years of research training before applying for a faculty position in a research university).

Increasingly specialized high schools in the arts or in mathematics and the sciences are hiring new faculty with doctoral degrees to direct very talented students in composition, performance, or research projects.

Other career opportunities for those with doctoral degrees include:

  • publishing companies and news organizations
  • chemical and biotechnology companies
  • government research institutes
  • museums and other sites for informal education
  • government organizations and firms that advise them
  • foundations and other non-profit groups involved in higher education initiatives and social reform

Types of Advanced Degrees


A Ph.D. is a research degree in any field of study. It is proof of the ability to do original and creative work in the field, and allows direct entry into research and teaching positions at universities and colleges, as well as to industry, foundations, and other institutions and organizations involved in discovery and problem solving.

A professional degree in law or medicine, by contrast, signifies completion of required and elective courses that prepare students for the certification examinations needed to practice as a physician or attorney. Members of a class in professional schools initiate training with one-three years of a common curriculum of core courses followed by one-two years of selectives/electives.

Ph.D.’s in the arts and sciences are awarded by specific departments. A student’s curriculum is planned individually with an advisor and a committee of faculty in the department. It is uncommon for two students, even in the same department, to complete the same set of courses.

Master's Degrees

Master’s programs in the arts and sciences are even less uniform than those leading to the Ph.D. A university may grant a master of arts (MA) or master of science (MS) degree automatically upon completion of the first year or a defined phase of course work toward a Ph.D. Or a university may award a master’s to students who choose not to complete the Ph.D. However, an increasing number of universities no longer accept students who are seeking the master’s degree as a terminal degree.

Many master’s degrees are actually professional degrees:

  • MBA: Master of business administration
  • MPP: Master of public policy
  • MEM: Master of environment management
  • MSW: Master of social work
  • MSE degrees in biomedical engineering, civil and environmental engineering, electrical and computer engineering, mechanical engineering and materials science, engineering management

Advice to Alumni

Deferring Matriculation

Many students inquire whether it will be acceptable to defer matriculation once admitted to a graduate program. The school or departmental web site may address this question as part of the application information. In general, however, it is wise to apply to a Ph.D. program only when you intend to matriculate at the end of that application cycle. Departments are allocated an annual fellowship budget to support a defined number of continuing and entering graduate students. Since the size of an entering graduate class in any single department is small, typically fewer than 20 students, the program is often reluctant to commit funded positions for what might be a smaller fellowship budget in the subsequent year. Thus, students who prefer a hiatus between undergraduate and graduate should wait to apply rather than expect a deferral of matriculation. There are, however, exceptions. Students who have won major national or international awards, e.g., a Rhodes or Fulbright Scholarship will be welcomed in the future. If a deferral is approved, it will be for a specific length of time, but it is not common to defer matriculation from the fall to the spring.

Applying as a Recent Graduate

Graduate departments have no preference for seniors or recent graduates as applicants. As long as you are able to demonstrate that you ready to begin advanced courses in the discipline and graduate level research, your application will receive the same attention as any other. If you prefer not to advance immediately to graduate school upon earning your baccalaureate degree, your choice for the interim period should be employment that is relevant to your chosen discipline or one that enhances the skills you will need in your Ph.D. work--employment in a lab setting for science majors, statistical analysis for the quantitative social sciences, clinical assistance for psychology, an international placement to improve language skills, or writing and editing for almost any discipline. Working in an appropriate setting often enhances a subsequent application, especially when the experience has guided the individual’s interests toward a more focused study and research plan for graduate study. The personal statement you write for the application should address the benefits of your employment, and you may want to ask a supervisor to write one of your recommendations to address the very skills

Applying to graduate school after you have completed your undergraduate degree at Duke is facilitated by a strong senior honors project and taking the GRE during or immediately after the senior year. The honors project helps students achieve a realistic understanding of the current issues in their discipline as well as the research and writing process that is fundamental to graduate education. If you did not engage in your major department’s honors program, your research experience should be made obvious in your personal statement. GRE scores are generally acceptable for 3-5 years even if the format of the exam changes. However, since the GRE General Test is undergoing substantial change, graduates who are making a new decision to apply for admission to a Ph.D. program should check the GRE web site for a description of the current exam and also check the web site for the graduate school and department to determine whether they may need to retake the GRE.

The application process for alumni and alumnae seeking admission to a Ph.D. program is the same as for seniors. Past graduates who have questions about applying to a Ph.D. program in the arts and sciences should feel free to email the Pregraduate Advising Office ( with questions or to set up a telephone appointment for conversation and advice.

International Study

There are many opportunities to earn a graduate degree in a university outside the United States although financial support may not be available.  Students often become familiar with foreign institutions when they study abroad as undergraduates or prepare applications for one of the major scholarship programs that support graduate study abroad. The latter include the Gates and Churchill Scholarships to Cambridge University, the Rhodes to Oxford, the Marshall to any British university and the Mitchell Scholarship to any university in Ireland. Rotary and Fulbright Scholarships have a much wider geographic application in the world of education. Click here for Office of Undergraduate Scholars and Fellows, the organizational and support site for all Duke students who want to apply Information on these competitive scholarships.