Online Master’s Degree Guide

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An online master’s degree is a graduate degree that provides advanced instruction in a specific subject area while offering the flexibility, accessibility, convenience, and affordability of online classes and instruction.

Traditional universities and other respected institutions of higher learning continue to expand on the number of online masters degree options available to graduate students. This means that as a student or even a working professional, you have access to an ever-wider array of degree options. Now more than ever, you can advance your education, career, and life by earning an online master’s degree without being limited by work and life demands, income level, disabilities, or geography.

If you already know what you’re looking for, check out our top Master Degrees Programs.

Otherwise, read on to learn more.

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Online Master’s Degree Basics

An online master’s degree is an advanced graduate degree that you can earn through online coursework. Your master’s degree demonstrates advanced expertise and mastery of a particular subject area. A master’s degree typically takes around two years and 30 credit hours to complete, though some schools may offer accelerated programs that can be completed in as little as one year.

[Read here to learn about universities that allow you to bundle bachelor’s and master’s degrees into a single, accelerated program.]

While undergraduate degrees provide a general overview of a subject, master’s degrees focus on specialized knowledge and skills. This makes the master’s degree a great option if you’re seeking ways to advance professionally, earn additional qualifications, and set yourself apart from your peers.

Some fields may actually require specialized licensing for advanced positions, which can only be earned after completing a master’s degree. And if you have your sights set on a doctoral degree in your future, an online master’s degree can provide a viable stepping stone along your academic path.

An online master’s degree can help you achieve the same level of expertise in your subject area as you would in an on-campus master’s degree program, but with the flexibility of remote coursework and a personalized schedule. It’s common for individuals to pursue a master’s degree after working in the field for a few years. Online graduate courses can be an ideal choice for busy professionals working to advance their careers without interruption or undue stress.

Three Reasons to Get a Master’s Degree Online

Online master’s degrees offer major advantages over traditional master’s degree programs:

  1. Professional advancement on your own time — In most fields, earning an online master’s degree leads to higher pay and promotion. In some fields, it may even be impossible to achieve the highest position without first earning your masters. An online master’s degree allows you to work your way to the top without putting your career on hold.
  2. Personal Growth with Less of the Stress — Earning a master’s degree can be a very enriching and personally rewarding experience, but doing so in a traditional on-campus program can create a lot of stress. If you wish to go back to school, but have a demanding life that might inhibit traditional study strategies, taking grad courses online can help you earn a graduate degree without turning your world upside down.
  3. Flexible path to a doctorate degree — A doctorate degree is the highest degree that can be earned in any field, requiring years of intense study, research, writing, and commitment. If you want to earn a doctorate degree, but aren’t quite ready to take the plunge, or are worried about the quality of your application, an online master’s degree can be an excellent intermediary step on your way toward a doctorate.

Types of Online Master’s Degrees

Online master’s degrees, like traditional master’s degrees, generally fall into two primary categories.

  • Master of Arts (MA)
    Master of Arts degrees are common to liberal arts, humanities and social sciences disciplines. Students earning an MA may be studying philosophy, communications, sociology, English, modern languages, or history, to name just a few of many subjects. Online MA degree programs blend lecture courses, seminars, research papers, exams, and dissertation projects.
  • Master of Science (MS)
    Master of Science degrees cover STEM fields, including biology, chemistry, mathematics, and all forms of engineering. Online MS degree programs usually consist of lecture courses, lab or field work, exams, research papers, seminars, and a major research project.

There are numerous other master’s degrees specific to given disciplines, such as the Master of Business Administration (MBA), the Master of Fine Arts (MFA), Master of Social Work (MSW), and Master of Education (MEd). These specialized degrees come with their own unique requirements and typically prepare students for specific professions. While most can be earned through online courses, some may include brief on-campus residency components, or internship/practicum components that can be completed locally to where you are.

Are Online Master’s Degrees Respected?

Yes! Accredited online master’s degrees can be earned in many professional fields, and come with the same level of respect and reputation as their on-campus counterparts. In fact, many employers recognize the unique value of online master’s degree programs, because they can allow employees to grow their qualifications while balancing workplace responsibilities. The following fields are among the most popular for online master’s degrees.

Admission Requirements

To enter an online master’s degree program, you’ll typically need a bachelor’s degree from an accredited four year college. Your bachelor’s degree does not necessarily need to be in the same field as your master’s degree, though some fields require specific undergraduate prerequisite coursework. If you plan to change subject areas, you may need to complete some prerequisite courses before applying. This can usually be done online as well. Contact the online graduate school where you plan to seek admission for specifics.

For most online masters programs, you will need to apply with official transcripts of prior coursework, and standardized test scores, most commonly from GRE or GMAT exams. However, some programs may waive test scores under certain conditions, or simply do not require scores for admission.

Some specialized degrees, such as MBAs and MSWs, may require several years of professional experience in a relevant position, as well as professional references. This requirement varies from program to program.

Online Master’s Degree Costs

The cost of an online master’s degree can vary widely from school to school and program to program. Multiple factors affect the overall cost of an online master’s degree, including the length of the program; whether the school is public or private; the type of program; and the prestige of the university.

It is also important to remember that even though a program may be online, in-state and out-of-state tuition costs still apply. Enrolling in online master’s degree programs in your state of residence can help cut down on costs. Moreover, some programs offer options for partial or total funding, such as fellowships and teaching assistantships.

Online master’s degree programs can cost as little as $10,000 per year at a public state school; in the $50,000 or $60,000 range annually at a private school; and into the six figure range for some of the most competitive online schools and programs..

Featured below are the top 10 online master’s degree programs in the most popular areas of study.

Top 10 Online MBA Programs

  1. University of Florida
  2. University of Virginia
  3. University of Minnesota, Twin Cities
  4. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  5. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  6. University of Southern California
  7. North Carolina State University
  8. University of Nebraska, Lincoln
  9. Stevens Institute of Technology
  10. George Washington University

Top 10 Online Master’s in Education Degree Programs

  1. Arizona State University
  2. Michigan State University
  3. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  4. University of Florida
  5. University of Pittsburgh
  6. Indiana University Bloomington
  7. University of Georgia
  8. Penn State World Campus
  9. George Washington University
  10. University of Nebraska Lincoln

Top 10 Master of Social Work (MSW) Online Degree Programs

  1. Columbia University
  2. University of Southern California
  3. Case Western Reserve University
  4. Fordham University
  5. Rutgers University-New Brunswick
  6. Virginia Commonwealth University
  7. Boston University
  8. Indiana University
  9. University at Buffalo SUNY
  10. Arizona State University

Top 10 Online Master’s in Psychology Degree Programs

  1. University of Southern California
  2. Penn State World Campus
  3. Missouri University of Science and Technology
  4. University of North Dakota
  5. Nova Southeastern University
  6. Pepperdine University
  7. LeTourneau University
  8. Ball State University
  9. Arizona State University
  10. Sacred Heart University

Top 10 Online Master’s in Accounting Programs

  1. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  2. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  3. University of Missouri
  4. University of Saint Francis
  5. University of Connecticut
  6. Syracuse University
  7. University of Arizona
  8. University of Oklahoma – Norman
  9. University of Massachusetts – Lowell
  10. University of Massachusetts – Amherst

Top 10 Online Master’s in Counseling Programs

  1. George Washington University
  2. Texas Tech University
  3. Northwestern University
  4. Oregon State University
  5. Wake Forest University
  6. New York University
  7. University of North Dakota
  8. Clarks Summit University
  9. University of Massachusetts – Amherst
  10. LeTourneau University

Top 10 Online Master of Criminal Justice Degree Programs

  1. University of Cincinnati
  2. Washington State University
  3. University of Missouri at St. Louis
  4. Pennsylvania State University
  5. Sam Houston State University
  6. Arizona State University
  7. University of Nebraska at Omaha
  8. University of Central Florida
  9. University of Oklahoma
  10. University of Louisville

Top 10 Online Master’s in Marketing Programs

  1. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  2. Pennsylvania State University
  3. Northwestern University
  4. The University of Alabama
  5. Yeshiva University
  6. Pepperdine Graziado Business School
  7. Michigan State University
  8. University of Cincinnati
  9. Boston University
  10. University of Massachusetts – Lowell

Find the Best Online Master Degree for You

Online master’s degrees are growing in popularity because they offer rigorous graduate education options with far greater flexibility and affordability than their traditional, on-campus counterparts. If you want to earn a master’s degree, but aren’t sure how it could fit into your life, an online master’s degree might be the right choice for you.

To learn more, check out our Master Degree Rankings, The Best Online Degrees, or The 50 Best Online Colleges & Universities 2019.

Interested in an online master’s degree program near home? Check out the Best Online Colleges By State.

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