What is a Master’s Degree?

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A master’s degree is an advanced graduate degree that shows a high level of mastery in a particular subject area. You may choose to pursue a master’s degree in order to improve your opportunities for advancement in a particular field, to increase your earning potential, or to improve your appeal as a job candidate.

Some jobs and leadership roles may require a master’s degree as a minimum qualification for employment. For instance, in many states, a master’s degree is required to earn a license to teach in public school or become a practicing social worker. As a graduate student, you’ll work to improve your knowledge and technical skills in a specialized area, whether your focus is the arts, humanities, healthcare, the natural sciences or a host of other fields.

Your advanced degree may also enable you to bypass entry level jobs in your chosen field and immediately land in higher paying roles with greater opportunities for professional growth. Most senior management and senior professional jobs require an advanced degree.

In addition, if you plan on eventually earning a doctorate in your field, earning a master’s degree first may help reduce your credit requirements on the way to a doctoral degree. That said, you typically won’t need a master’s degree to enter into a doctoral program.

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

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Master’s Degree Basics

A master’s degree is a graduate level education program that gives you an opportunity to focus on specific subjects within your concentration. The typical master’s degree program will require you to complete between 30 and 60 credits, which usually amounts to a commitment of between one and two years.

Some schools also offer programs that allow you to bundle your bachelor’s and master’s degree programs into a single integrated program. Admission for such programs can be quite competitive and completion will usually entail an accelerated work schedule in advanced classes. However, if your school offers this option and you’re up for the challenge, you may be able to complete both degree programs in approximately four to five years. This is a great way to save time and money on your way to an advanced degree.

However you approach it, you master’s degree program will include demanding coursework, research, an internship, comprehensive exams and possibly a thesis, dissertation or capstone project. Some programs allow students to take written comprehensive exams or other types of writing projects instead of providing a master’s thesis. Service-oriented programs such as a social work or public administration may also include a practicum or an internship.

If this sounds like the path for you, start your search by checking out our top Master Degrees Programs..

You can also jump to this year’s list of the 50 Best Online Colleges & Universities 2019 and see who’s offering a master’s degree in your concentration.

Types of Master’s Degree

Most master’s degrees fall under one of two categories:

Master of Arts (MA)

The Master of Arts encompasses most liberal arts, humanities and social sciences. This can include subjects like English, sociology, political science, communications, education, and history, to name just a few of many options. You’ll typically approach your concentration through a combination of lectures, seminars, exams, and dissertation work.

Master of Science (MS)

The Master of Science encompasses most STEM field subjects, including mathematics and the “hard sciences,” like chemistry, physics and engineering. Your program will typically include a significant research component, and may combine lecture-based courses with laboratory or field work.

There are also innumerable discipline-specific master’s degrees. Some, like a Master of Linguistics or a Master of Economics, may fall under one of the two categories above. Others, like a Master of Business Administration (MBA), a Master of Fine Arts (MFA), or a Master of Social Work (MSW), fall into their own specialized categories, and carry their own unique requirements.

Degrees Awarded

Nearly every professional field offers an advanced degree. In most cases, earning this degree can create greater opportunities for organizational leadership, career advancement, and earning potential. The following are a few of the most popular master’s degrees awarded:

What can you do with a master’s degree?

The master’s degree is often a pathway to greater advancement and opportunity. Some career paths may require a master’s degree as a minimum qualification for employment and practice. Among the fields that usually require an advanced or graduate degree are public education, professional engineering, social work, public accounting, occupational therapy, and an array of jobs in nursing and healthcare.

In other fields, like business, computer science, or fine arts, your master’s degree will at once provide a concentrated education in your chosen field and a credential that can gain you access to administrative, leadership, and research roles. In these fields, earning a master’s degree can unlock greater long-term earning potential.

And if you plan on continuing your education at the doctoral level, you’ll likely need a master’s degree first. In most cases, this is a basic threshold for admission to a Ph.D. program.

Admission Requirements

Individuals interested in enrolling in a master’s degree program will typically need a bachelor’s degree. Your bachelor’s degree doesn’t necessarily have to be in the area that you plan to study at the master’s level. However, some programs do require candidates to complete specific undergraduate prerequisite courses.

Many schools also require candidates to send their transcripts (with grades), provide an essay, sit for an interview and take the GRE or GMAT exam. The GRE tests basic knowledge, including math, verbal, analytical and experimental sections. Many business schools prefer the GMAT exam, which includes math, verbal and analytical writing sections.

For some master’s degrees, you may also be required to have amassed some amount of professional experience to earn admission. For instance, many MBA and Masters of Engineering programs require you to have spent between two and three years honing your craft in the field before submitting an application.

Master’s Degree Costs

The cost of your master’s degree can vary significantly based on a number of factors, including the type of school you choose to attend, the type of degree you pursue and how long it takes to complete your studies. As with undergraduate school, you can save significantly on the cost of a master’s degree by attending schools that are public, in-state and/or online.

On the low end, you could pay roughly $10,000 a year for a solid public, online or in-state master’s degree program, whereas a vaunted private graduate school could cost you as much as $50K or $60K per year. In fact, some of the most competitive programs, like Wharton’s 2-year executive MBA program, will cost you nearly $200,000.

Online Master’s Degree Programs

Online master’s degrees have risen in popularity over the past decade, and cost is definitely one major reason why. Online master’s programs are typically just as rigorous as their on-campus counterparts, and the convenience and flexibility of distance learning allows students to complete a degree while advancing a career, an especially attractive option for many grad students. If your online master’s degree program includes an internship requirement, you would likely be allowed to complete your service hours at a location hear your home. jump straight to our ranking lists and find the best master’s degree in your field.


To learn more, check out The Best Online Degrees or take a look at the The 50 Best Online Colleges & Universities 2019.

And if you’re interested in checking out grad school programs close to home, take a look at our Best Online Colleges By State.


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