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What is a Master's Degree? Questions, Answers, and Advice

By Publisher
| Last Updated July 15, 2021

What is a master's degree, and how does it compare to other academic credentials? A master's degree is a graduate-level credential from a college or university that can lead to qualifying for a new career or advancing in an existing one.

Read on for a comprehensive breakdown of what a master's degree is, what options are available for earning one, and the benefits and drawbacks you should know about.

Note: If you're wondering whether it's "masters degree" or "master's degree," the possessive form (master's degree) is correct. It might help to remember that a master's degree is the degree of a master (or someone who has mastered a subject).


How Long Does it Take to Earn a Master's Degree?

Advances in technology and changes in education have made getting a master's degree more accessible than ever before. So, how many years is a master's degree program?

Typically, it takes about two years to earn a master's degree (if you already hold a bachelor's degree). But since the credits required range from 30 to over 60, the length of each program will vary depending on the school and area you study.

What's a realistic time frame? A 2017 Sallie Mae survey asked graduate students how long they expected to take to finish their master's degrees. Here's how they responded:

  • Less than 1 year: 1 percent
  • 1 to 2 years: 35 percent
  • 2 to 3 years: 36 percent
  • 3 to 4 years: 16 percent
  • 4 to 5 years: 7 percent
  • 5 years or more: 5 percent

It's key to know that you often need a bachelor's degree before starting a master's program. So you should account for those four years or so when adding up your total time in college or university.


How Can I Get My Master's as Quickly as Possible?

You can minimize the amount of time it takes to get a master's degree. But a lot will depend on your goals and what else is happening in your life. Here are some options that have worked for other students:

1. Online programs

Many graduate students hold established careers while they're going to school. They also tend to be older, on average, than undergraduate students, which means they are more likely to have busy family lives.

That's why online programs are popular with master's degree students. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that in the fall of 2019, more than 42 percent of graduate students took at least one distance-education course, compared to about 36 percent of undergraduate students.

Online programs offer the potential advantage of completing a master's degree more quickly than average, since the courses are often easier to fit around a packed schedule. Plus, you can learn from home or whatever location you find the most convenient and effective.

It's important to consider that online courses often also require a higher level of self-discipline and the ability to direct your own work. And while some students thrive in online programs because they experience fewer distractions than in classrooms, others find home life more distracting and may struggle to find the uninterrupted time and space to get work done. Your lifestyle and learning preferences are essential factors to consider when deciding if an online program is right for you.

2. Hybrid programs

If you are attracted to the convenience of online courses but still want to spend some time in classrooms, hybrid programs can be a good choice. These programs combine online and in-person learning. This hybrid format means you can get the specific benefits from each mode of learning, like the scheduling flexibility of online and the practicality of hands-on, in-person training.

3. Accelerated programs

If completing a degree quickly is a priority for you, an accelerated master's program might be the solution. These programs are specifically designed to enable you to finish a master's degree faster than you would complete a traditional program. Just keep in mind that this fast pace can make for an intense schedule and a heavy workload.

Accelerated programs generally come in two varieties:

  • Dual degree programs: In these programs, you can complete a bachelor's and a master's degree together, often in about five years. These are also known as "4+1" programs because the typical breakdown is four years of mostly doing work for a bachelor's degree and one year of doing work for a master's.
  • Accelerated graduate programs: These programs are designed to be completed by students who already have a bachelor's degree. They move at a faster pace than traditional master's programs. In some accelerated graduate programs, a master's degree can be completed in one year or less.

A word of caution: You might run across (and be excited to see) online ads for six-month master's degree programs. (Who wouldn't want to earn this important credential in just six months?) However, it's essential to look beyond the short time frame to ensure that you're investing your time wisely. For example, some master's programs can only be completed in six months if you already have a certain number of credits or years of work experience. And sometimes, very short programs are offered by institutions that are not properly accredited.

4. Career colleges and trade schools

Some private career-oriented schools offer the opportunity to earn a job-focused master's degree on a schedule that fits your other commitments. These schools are often good matches for working students since they tend to have many online course offerings.

Another advantage of private career-oriented schools is that you can often begin a master's program more quickly than at traditional institutions since many have more frequent and flexible start dates.


What is the Typical Process for Getting a Master's Degree?

With such a wide range of available learning options, it's impossible to describe one universal path to a master's. Online and career-oriented programs can vary significantly in their approaches, from conventional to unconventional. And even at traditional colleges and universities, the process can vary a lot.

So, in general, how do you get a master's degree? Here's a basic overview (but keep in mind that not all the following information is relevant to every program):

1. Apply to a master's program.

Be sure to carefully research all the steps you may need to follow when applying for a master's program. It's often a more complex process than applying for undergraduate study. Depending on the school and program, you may have to:

  • Prepare a portfolio
  • Complete an interview
  • Create a research proposal for a dissertation or project
  • Submit scores from a standardized test such as the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) or Graduate Record Examinations (GRE)

Many schools prefer to accept students who had excellent grades as undergraduates. But others will also consider your life and work experiences when making admission decisions. You don't necessarily need to have a stellar academic record for those programs, so don't assume you can't get a master's degree if you didn't get top grades when you were an undergrad.

Sometimes it's even possible to get a master's degree without earning a bachelor's degree first. For example, in some "bridge" nurse practitioner programs, you can go from an associate degree in nursing to a master's degree. And some MBA programs will admit students who don't have bachelor's degrees if they have extensive business experience and good GMAT scores.

2. Do your best work.

Many master's degree programs center on an independent research project or dissertation and include classes that add up to a certain number of credits. But some programs involve only classroom work and don't require a dissertation or research project.

But no matter what the exact requirements are, one thing you expect from graduate school is an emphasis on developing independent ideas and drawing your own conclusions. In a good program, you should also have opportunities to dive into the subject matter at a deeper level than you did as an undergraduate.

Some graduate programs also include opportunities to gain real-world experience through internships or other professional arrangements.

Although getting a master's degree isn't necessarily "hard" if you are interested in the subject you're studying, you will likely be exposed to new concepts while learning how to think "out of the box."

And because you have more independence as a master's student than as an undergraduate, you need to plan your time carefully. Although your study time will depend on your course load, a general rule of thumb is that, in graduate school, you should study about three hours a week for every course credit.

So, for example, even if you're a part-time student taking two classes that are three credits each, you should spend about 18 hours a week studying.


Which Subjects Can I Get a Master's Degree In?

You're not alone if you've ever wondered, "What is an MA degree?" or "What is an MPM degree?" When you see a master's degree abbreviation after a name, it's sometimes hard to tell what kind of education it represents. That's because different degrees have their own master's degree abbreviations, and several types of master's degrees exist.

Some of the many types of degrees are:

  • Master of Arts (MA)
  • Master of Science (MSc or MS)
  • Master of Philosophy (MPhil)
  • Master of Business Administration (MBA)
  • Master of Library Science (MLS)
  • Master of Public Administration (MPA)
  • Master of Public Policy (MPP)
  • Master of Public Health (MPH)
  • Master in Management (MIM)
  • Master of Urban Planning (MUP)
  • Master of International Affairs (MIA)
  • Master of Social Work (MSW)
  • Master of Fine Arts (MFA)
  • Master of Laws (LLM)
  • Master of Music (MM or MMus)
  • Master of Education (MEd)
  • Master of Human Resource Management (MHRM)
  • Master of Engineering (MEng)
  • Master of Interior Design (MID)
  • Master of Architecture (MArch)
  • Master of Counseling (MC or MCouns)
  • Master of Project Management (MPM)
  • Master of Information Technology (MIT)
  • Master of Journalism (MJ)
  • Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)

The range of master's degree subjects continues to grow more and more diverse. Although you can't get a master's in anything, it is now possible to get a master's degree in almost any subject, from accounting to zoology (including unconventional areas like fermentation sciences, puppetry, and popular culture).

But some subject areas are clear favorites among students. For example, the NCES reports that in the 2017-2018 academic year, more than half of all master's degrees were awarded in:


Is a Master's Degree Worth Pursuing?

Deciding whether to get a master's degree is often a more complex process than deciding whether to earn a bachelor's degree. After all, bachelor's degrees are explicitly required for many career opportunities, whereas master's degrees are often seen as optional credentials.

However, master's degrees are required for some career opportunities. For example, in most cases, a master's degree is necessary if you want to work as a:

  • Private clinical counselor
  • Speech-language pathologist
  • Nurse practitioner
  • Archivist
  • Librarian
  • Physician assistant

A master's degree isn't required in many other occupations, but having one can help you get ahead. Often, with a master's degree, you can get jobs with more responsibilities and better pay.

That's why, in today's competitive job market, a master's degree is becoming increasingly popular. More and more workers are seeing the advantages of furthering their education. Some people even say that a master's degree has become the "new bachelor's degree." The U.S. Census Bureau reports that about 21 million American adults over the age of 25 now hold a master's as their highest degree—an increase of 100 percent over 18 years.

A master's degree can also often be a necessary milestone on the path to a Ph.D. For example, to work as a psychologist, you generally need to have a Ph.D. But first, you need to earn a master's degree. (After earning your bachelor's degree, a master's degree program in psychology is often about two years of study. Then, after completing your master's, it typically takes anywhere from three to six years to get a Ph.D.)


How Much Does It Cost to Get a Master's Degree?

When it comes to the cost of pursuing a master's, a lot depends on where you go to school and the program you enroll in. But according to the earlier referenced Sallie Mae report, master's degree students spent an average of $22,496 on their education for one school year.

Given the size of that investment, you might ask questions like:

  • What is a master's degree worth to me?
  • Does it make sense for me to earn one?

Ultimately, you're the only person who can decide whether you should get a master's degree. The advantages listed next may help you with your decision.


Advantages of Having a Master's Degree

Education is never a waste of time. But with rising tuition and fees, you probably want to know exactly how you might benefit from obtaining a master's degree. Here are some of the potential advantages:

1. More money

For many people, investing in a master's degree pays off in the form of a higher salary. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, median weekly earnings for master's degree holders in the U.S. are nearly 20 percent higher than for those whose highest educational credential is a bachelor's degree.

Over the course of an entire career, that difference in salary could make up for the cost of getting a master's degree.

2. Career advancement

Many employers expect more from potential hires than they used to. For some professionals, earning a master's degree is also a critical step in transitioning to a higher position or a different career. For example, a biology graduate who wants to work as an occupational therapist will need to complete a master's program in occupational therapy. In situations like this, a master's degree provides opportunities to specialize in a particular field.

3. Opportunities to add to the world's knowledge

It might sound lofty, but master's-level students can contribute to the process of making new discoveries. Granted, you will likely be under the supervision of a professor, but just imagine the excitement of playing a role in uncovering new knowledge that can help society.

4. A sense of pride and purpose

Workers in positions that require master's degrees tend to feel more connected to their work. One study from the Pew Research Center found that 77 percent of workers with graduate degrees felt that their jobs provide a sense of identity.

5. Lifelong learning benefits

Learning about something you enjoy can enrich your life (and even your health). For example, by continuing your education at the graduate level, you might reap benefits like better memory, improved interpersonal skills, and higher self-confidence.


Making the Decision to Earn a Master's Degree

The decision of whether to get a master's degree will likely come down to how you weigh the costs (in both time and money) against the potential benefits that can be easily measured.

If your main goal is to earn a higher salary, you should determine whether a master's degree typically leads to a better salary in your chosen field. (For some fields, that isn't always the case.) Talk to people who already have experience in your chosen career area so that you can gain a clearer understanding of the potential benefits of getting a master's degree.


How Can I Pay for a Master's Degree Program?

Many students find that they have more options for paying for graduate school than they did for their undergraduate education. But master's degree students often don't have the same financial support from their parents that they may have enjoyed as undergrads. Sallie Mae's research data reports that 77 percent of graduate students pay tuition with their own money (i.e., funds they've earned, borrowed, or saved). In contrast, only 30 percent of undergraduate students do.

Here are some ways to get financial help if you pursue a master's degree:

1. Employer tuition remission programs

It's always in an organization's best interests to have qualified, educated staff members. That's why many employers offer education remission programs, which help ensure that their employees have up-to-date skills and knowledge.

Under this type of program, an employer will pay all or part of your tuition when you enroll in a master's program. In return, you may have to commit to staying on as an employee for a certain amount of time after graduation. Some companies also require that you pay back at least part of the amount after finishing your degree.

Typically, the education program that your employer pays for must also be connected to your job in some way. (For instance, if you work in accounting, you may not get assistance to pursue graduate education in Russian art history. But you might get assistance to earn an MBA.)

A Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) survey of HR professionals found that 49 percent of businesses offer some tuition assistance for graduate-level studies. But even if your employer doesn't currently offer a remission program, it's still worth asking whether you can get some help paying for career-related education. Emphasize how a master's degree could help you do a better job at work and, in turn, improve your employer's bottom line.

2. Working at your school

Many schools offer master's degree students paid positions in which they assist with research or teaching. You could do things like lead seminars, teach introductory classes, mark papers, or help conduct special research in these jobs.

3. Scholarships, fellowships, and grants

These are the best forms of financial aid because they're essentially free money: You don't have to pay them back. And you don't always have to be a top student to qualify for them.

You can find scholarships for many different things. Some scholarships even go unclaimed because nobody applied for them! That's why spending a little time researching potential scholarships, fellowships, and grants can often pay off.

4. Student loans

Master's students, like other graduate students, are eligible for more significant amounts of federal student loans than undergraduate students. But it's important to be careful about how much debt you accumulate as a graduate student, especially if it will take you a while to complete your master's degree. Years of study can add up. Inside Higher Ed reports the average student debt for master's degree graduates is $42,335.

One way to avoid accumulating too much student debt is to keep tabs on how the amount you borrow compares to your realistic salary potential from earning a master's degree.

Federal government loan options for graduate students include:

  • Direct Unsubsidized Loans: These loans don't require you to show financial need. But because they're unsubsidized, the interest starts to accumulate right away.
  • Direct PLUS Loans: You can supplement other loans with these.
  • Direct Consolidation Loans: This option lets you combine multiple eligible federal loans into a single student loan.