In Canada, the Schools and Faculties of Graduate Studies are represented by the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies (CAGS) or Association canadienne pour les études supérieures (ACES). The Association brings together 58 Canadian universities with graduate programs, two national graduate student associations, and the three federal research-granting agencies and organizations having an interest in graduate studies. Its mandate is to promote, advance, and foster excellence in graduate education and university research in Canada. In addition to an annual conference, the association prepares briefs on issues related to graduate studies including supervision, funding, and professional development.
Traditionally, doctoral programs were only intended to last three to four years, and in some disciplines (primarily the natural sciences), with a helpful advisor and a light teaching load, it is possible for the degree to be completed in that amount of time. However, increasingly many disciplines, including most humanities, set their requirements for coursework, languages, and the expected extent of dissertation research by the assumption that students will take five years minimum or six to seven years on average; competition for jobs within these fields also raises expectations on the length and quality of dissertations considerably.
Under the Bologna Process, countries in the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) are moving to a three cycle (bachelor's - master's - doctorate) system of degrees. Two thirds of EHEA countries have standardised on 120 ECTS credits for their second-cycle (master's) degrees, but 90 ECTS credits is the main form in Cyprus, Ireland and Scotland and 60-75 credits in Montenegro, Serbia and Spain. The combined length of the first and second cycle varies from "3 + 1" years (240 ECTS credits), through "3 + 2" or "4 + 1" years (300 ECTS credits), to "4 + 2" years (360 ECTS credits). As of 2015, 31 EHEA countries have integrated programmes that combine the first and second cycle and lead to a second-cycle qualification (e.g. the UK integrated master's degree), particularly in STEM subjects and subjects allied to medicine. These typically have a duration of 300 – 360 ECTS credits (five to six years), with the integrated master's degrees in England, Wales and Northern Ireland being the shortest at 240 ECTS credits (four years).
The QAA released the first "framework for higher education qualifications in England, Wales and Northern Ireland" in January 2001. This specified learning outcomes for M-level (master's) degrees and advised that the title "Master" should only be used for qualifications that met those learning outcomes in full. It addressed many of the Dearing Report's concerns, specifying that shorter courses at H-level (honours), e.g. conversion courses, should be styled Graduate Diploma or Graduate Certificate rather than as master's degrees, but confirmed that the extended undergraduate degrees were master's degrees, saying that "Some Masters degrees in science and engineering are awarded after extended undergraduate programmes that last, typically, a year longer than Honours degree programmes". It also addressed the Oxbridge MA issue, noting that "the MAs granted by the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge are not academic qualifications". The first "framework for qualifications of Higher Education Institutes in Scotland", also published in January 2001, used the same qualifications descriptors, adding in credit values that specified that a stand-alone master should be 180 credits and a "Masters (following an integrated programme from undergraduate to Masters level study)" should be 600 credits with a minimum of 120 at M-level. It was specified that the title "Master" should only be used for qualifications that met the learning outcomes and credit definitions, although it was noted that "A small number of universities in Scotland have a long tradition of labelling certain first degrees as 'MA'. Reports of Agency reviews of such provision will relate to undergraduate benchmarks and will make it clear that the title reflects Scottish custom and practice, and that any positive judgement on standards should not be taken as implying that the outcomes of the programme were at postgraduate level."
In some fields, research positions are more coveted than teaching positions because student researchers are typically paid to work on the dissertation they are required to complete anyway, while teaching is generally considered a distraction from one's work. Research positions are more typical of science disciplines; they are relatively uncommon in humanities disciplines, and where they exist, rarely allow the student to work on their own research. Science PhD students can apply for individual NRSA fellowships from the NIH or fellowships from private foundations. US universities often also offer competitive support from NIH-funded training programs. One example is the Biotechnology Training Program – University of Virginia. Departments often have funds for limited discretionary funding to supplement minor expenses such as research trips and travel to conferences.
In Italy the master's degree is equivalent to the two-year Laurea magistrale, which can be earned after a Laurea (a three-year undergraduate degree, equivalent to a bachelor's degree). In particular fields, namely law, pharmacy and medicine, this distinction is not made. University courses are therefore single and last five to six years, after which the master's degree is awarded (in this case referred to as Laurea magistrale a ciclo unico). The old Laurea degree (Vecchio Ordinamento, Old Regulations), which was the only awarded in Italy before the Bologna process, is equivalent to the current Laurea Magistrale.
Master's candidates undertaking research are typically required to complete a thesis comprising some original research and ranging from seventy to two-hundred pages. Some fields may require candidates to study at least one foreign language if they have not already earned sufficient foreign-language credits. Some faculties require candidates to defend their thesis, but many do not. Those that do not often have a requirement of taking two additional courses, minimum, in lieu of preparing a thesis.
Many departments, especially those in which students have research or teaching responsibilities, offer tuition-forgiveness and a stipend that pays for most expenses. At some elite universities, there may be a minimum stipend established for all Ph.D. students, as well as a tuition waiver. The terms of these stipends vary greatly, and may consist of a scholarship or fellowship, followed by teaching responsibilities. At many elite universities, these stipends have been increasing, in response both to student pressure and, especially, to competition among the elite universities for graduate students.
Postgraduate education, or graduate education in North America, involves learning and studying for academic or professional degrees, academic or professional certificates, academic or professional diplomas, or other qualifications for which a first or bachelor's degree generally is required, and it is normally considered to be part of higher education. In North America, this level is typically referred to as graduate school (or sometimes colloquially as grad school).