What is a Master’s Degree?

| TBS Staff

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Master's degrees are advanced graduate degrees that can improve earning potential and professional advancement for students and working professionals.

A master's degree is a postsecondary credential that typically takes 2-3 years to complete. Master's programs may build on undergraduate knowledge or help learners from other disciplines enter a new field.

Certain jobs require a graduate degree, such as professor and survey researcher. In professions that don't require it, an advanced degree may help individuals progress to managerial or leadership roles. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that master's graduates in 2019 earned a median of $249 more per week than professionals with only a bachelor's degree.

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This guide outlines important information for students considering a master's degree, including types of master's degrees, common master's degree requirements, and answers to frequently asked questions.

Types of Master's Degrees

A master's degree differs from a graduate certificate in terms of content depth, credit requirements, and career options. For instance, master's degrees typically require 30 or more credits, while graduate certificates require 20 or fewer credits. The additional courses required in a master's program mean master's graduates qualify for more advanced positions than certificate-holders.

Details for what a master's degree is, though, vary by master's type. Some of the most common options are explored in detail below.

Master of Arts (MA)

Students in humanities and arts disciplines, such as English, communication, performance, and geography can earn an MA. These programs may also focus on social science topics, like psychology and sociology. MA programs typically use research, writing, and lecturing as primary instruction methods. These degrees may include a thesis and are often completed in two years. Graduates can pursue a variety of careers depending on their field of study. For instance, an MA in communication can lead to public relations and journalism careers, while an MA in geography positions graduates for careers in areas like urban and regional planning.

Master of Science (MS)

MS degrees focus more on scientific and technical topics, such as chemistry, computer science, and engineering. MS degrees may take two or more years to complete. Depending on their field of study, graduates can pursue jobs such as political scientist, speech-language pathologist, economist, and computer and information research scientist. However, some of these professions may require additional licensure, certification, or experience. Graduates can also pursue doctoral study.

Master of Business Administration (MBA)

MBA programs focus on developing business knowledge and skills in areas such as organization, management, finance, and leadership. These degrees often include concentrations in areas such as healthcare, human resources, project management, and supply chain management. Most MBA programs take about two years to complete. Graduates can work in roles such as human resource manager, top executive, market research analyst, and computer and information systems manager. Certain careers, though, may require additional certification or experience. MBA-holders can also open their own businesses or pursue a doctor of business administration.

Master of Education (M.Ed.)

M.Ed. programs explore curriculum and teaching strategies for education careers inside and outside of classrooms. These programs usually require teaching licensure or certification for admission. They often offer specializations that allow students to tailor the degree to their interests and goals. Learners can typically earn an M.Ed. in under three years. Graduates can work as reading specialists or literacy coaches. They may also teach, design curricula for school districts, or pursue doctoral study.

Master of Fine Arts (MFA)

An MFA is a terminal degree that focuses on an artform, such as creative writing, fashion design, or photography. Learners may develop their artistic skills through studios, writing projects, or performances, depending on the discipline. For instance, learners may finish creative writing programs by completing a compilation of original short stories, while dance students may culminate the degree with a choreographed performance. These programs prepare graduates to pursue careers in the arts or as teachers, and they typically take two years to complete.

Master of Public Administration (MPA)

MPA programs prepare students for policy and administration careers in nonprofit and government settings. Learners examine concepts in areas like business, policy, finance, and psychology. These programs typically take around two years to complete. Graduates can pursue positions in areas like policy analysis, program coordination, public relations, and economics, often working for government agencies and nonprofit organizations. Graduates can also pursue doctoral study.

Master of Public Health (MPH)

MPH programs examine health concepts and trends that pertain to public health and community needs. Learners study topics like healthcare policies, community health practices, infectious diseases, and crisis prevention and reaction. These programs typically take around two years to complete and prepare graduates for careers as epidemiologists, dieticians, healthcare administrators, and social and community services managers. Graduates can also pursue doctoral study.

Master of Social Work (MSW)

MSW programs focus on social work research and practice. They often offer specializations in areas like gerontology, mental health, healthcare, family services, and school social work. These programs typically take 1-2 years to complete, depending on whether a student possesses a bachelor's degree in social work. Graduates can pursue jobs like school social worker, substance abuse counselor, and marriage and family therapist. However, many states require some types of social workers to hold a license, which often includes passing an exam offered by the Association of Social Work Boards.

The types of master's degrees outlined above do not constitute a complete list of the different degrees available. There are several other types, many of which lead to opportunities in specific careers or industries. For instance, a master of teaching may lead to initial teaching certification, and a master of divinity may qualify individuals for pastoral positions. We've listed some of them below.

  • Executive Master of Business Administration (EMBA)
  • Master of Divinity (M.Div.)
  • Master of Science in Education (M.S.Ed.)
  • Master of Engineering (M.Eng.)
  • Master of Law (LL.M.)
  • Master of Philosophy (M.Phil.)
  • Master of Public Policy (MPP)
  • Master of Teaching (MAT)

Admission Requirements

Master's programs require a bachelor's degree for admission. Some programs require a related bachelor's degree, while others accept students from any discipline. Master's programs may also require a minimum undergraduate GPA and/or prerequisite coursework.

Other common requirements include standardized test scores, such as the GRE or GMAT, industry certifications, and/or professional experience. Master's programs may also require recommendation letters, personal statements, writing samples, transcripts, and resumes or CVs.

Degree Requirements

Degree requirements vary by program. For instance, MSW programs require clinical experience, while MFA programs may require performances or writing projects. Many master's programs also require a thesis.

Credit requirements also vary by school, but most master's programs require 30-60 credits. Additional master's requirements may include final exams, portfolios, projects, and/or minimum GPAs for graduation.

Cost of a Master's Degree

Graduate students often pay higher tuition rates than undergraduate learners. Typically, public schools charge lower tuition than private schools. Public institutions also often offer tuition discounts to in-state students. However, some schools allow all online students to pay in-state tuition rates regardless of where they live.

Tuition rates may vary due to credit load since some schools charge part- and full-time learners different tuition rates. Additionally, students who exceed full-time courseloads may pay a course overload fee. Master's students can take advantage of financial aid opportunities to help offset the cost of their education, such as scholarships, grants, and fellowships.

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Online Master's Degree Programs

Accredited online programs offer the same quality instruction as on-campus programs, and they often result in an identical diploma. However, online programs typically offer more flexibility and affordability than on-campus programs. Many schools offer reduced tuition rates for online students, and online students often save on many of the expenses that on-campus students incur, such as housing and commuting costs. Online programs that feature asynchronous or self-paced courses typically offer the most flexibility since they do not require set login times.

How to Choose an Online Master's Degree?

Learners should consider several factors when researching prospective online master's degrees, such as delivery format, length, and cost. For instance, some online programs feature asynchronous courses, which do not require students to log on at a specific time, while others feature synchronous courses, which require set meeting times. Additionally, some online programs feature on-campus requirements. Students should ensure that they can meet these requirements before committing to a program. Other important considerations include degree type, available concentrations, and faculty qualifications.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are master's degrees hard?

The curricula for master's programs are challenging because they explore advanced concepts and push students to think more critically about issues in their field. Despite these challenges, pursuing a master's degree is rewarding because it leads to more career opportunities and offers higher earning potential.

How long does it take to earn a master's degree?

Program length varies by factors like degree type, enrollment status, and delivery format, but most master's degrees take around 2-3 years to complete.

Is a master's degree worth it?

According to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, graduates with a master's degree earned a median of $2.671 million in a lifetime as of 2009, surpassing the bachelor's median by nearly half a million dollars.

Can you get a master's degree online?

Many schools offer master's degrees online. Some of these programs may include on-campus requirements, while others feature fully online formats.

Is an online master's degree worth it?

Online master's degrees allow students to advance their careers and increase their earning potential, making these programs a worthwhile investment. Depending on the field of work, sometimes employers will even pay for students to pursue their master's degree.

What can you do with a master's degree?

Postsecondary educators, survey researchers, mathematicians, and rehabilitation counselors all typically need master's degrees to practice. Master's degrees also position graduates to pursue leadership and managerial roles in most industries.

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