Graduate degrees encompass all advanced programs beyond a bachelor's degree, including master's, doctoral and professional degrees. Graduate programs typically take a narrow focus; an education major might choose a graduate degree in educational leadership or curriculum development, for example. Exploring all aspects of an advanced degree helps determine if the time and financial investment are worth all the work and expense.

Master's Degree

You'll need a bachelor's degree before you begin your studies for a master's -- usually in a closely related field. You can earn either a Master of Arts or a Master of Science. The main difference is your study area. Technical and science-related fields, such as information technology, biology or mathematics, are often M.S. programs. An M.A. is more common for arts or humanities programs, such as education or English. A master's degree typically takes between one and three years with a full-time course load. The master's program focuses on research, often with a thesis required for graduation. Some master's programs only require a comprehensive exam for completion, while others require both exams and a thesis.

Professional Degrees

Certain fields fall under the professional degree category and come with special letter designations behind your name. For example, M.Ed. represents a Master of Education, M.B.A stands for Master of Business Administration and M.S.W. indicates a Master of Social Work. These professional degrees prepare the recipient for a specific field. Some professional fields require a graduate degree to even enter the field. Examples include doctors, pharmacists, psychologists and lawyers. These careers require a specific graduate degree for licensure.

Doctoral Degree

A doctoral degree is the highest graduate degree you can earn. You'll need at least a bachelor's degree to start a program for a Doctor of Philosophy, or Ph.D. Some undergrads go straight to the doctoral degree, while others earn a master's degree first. The Ph.D. can take between four and six years to complete. The first few years involve taking courses and beginning the planning phases of your dissertation, followed by two to three years of actually researching and writing the dissertation.

Reasons to Earn a Graduate Degree

Even if your profession doesn't require a graduate degree, there are some benefits to earning one. A degree beyond a bachelor's often means higher pay, although the specific increase varies by field. In 2013, the median weekly income for an employee with a master's degree was $1,329, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The median for a doctoral degree was $1,623. A graduate degree may offer career advancement options within your field. A master's in education may allow you to serve as a mentor teacher, curriculum adviser, dean of students or principal, for example. Pursuing a graduate degree also provides the personal satisfaction of gaining knowledge, fulfilling curiosity and helping you to become an expert in the field.