What Is a Master's Degree? Here's What You Should Understand

Smiling woman with eyeglasses resting her chin in one hand with a laptop and small open notebook on the table in front of herFor some people, it's an essential qualification for advancing in a professional career they already love. For others, it's a great credential to have when searching for new career opportunities. And for still others, it's one of the milestones of being fully committed to the study of a subject that they find particularly interesting. But, at a fundamental level, what is a master's degree?

Here's a basic master's degree definition: a graduate-level credential from a college or university—usually the next step after a bachelor's degree. In most situations, you have to get a bachelor's before a master's, but there are exceptions. That's why a master's degree is a graduate degree, whereas a bachelor's degree is an undergraduate degree.

This article explains how long it takes to earn a master's degree and what you should know about the astounding variety of options for doing so. You'll also learn about the benefits of having a master's degree and discover some realistic ways to pay for your graduate education.

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 the world of education have made getting a master's degree easier than ever before. It's a realistic goal for many people today. So, generally speaking, 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). But some students need more time than that, and others aim to achieve this goal more quickly.

What's a realistic time frame? One survey asked graduate students how long they expected to take to finish their master's degrees. Here's how they responded:1

  • 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

(Remember that you often need a bachelor's degree before starting a master's program. Typically, it takes at least four years to earn a bachelor's degree. So you should account for those years 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

Just like many other students, a lot of graduate students hold jobs in 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. Consider these numbers: In the fall of 2016, nearly 37 percent of graduate students took at least one distance-education course (compared to about 31 percent of undergraduate students).2

Online programs offer the potential advantage of being able to complete a master's degree more quickly than normal, since the courses are often easier to fit around a packed schedule. Plus, you can learn from the comfort of your own home.

But online courses also require commitment and self-discipline. And while some students thrive in online programs because they experience fewer distractions than they do in classrooms, others find that the temptations at home can be too strong. In other words, the suitability of online learning can depend a lot on your lifestyle and learning preferences.

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.

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.

In general, accelerated programs come in two varieties:

  • Dual degree programs—In these programs, you can concurrently complete a bachelor's and a master's degree, 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. So 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 important to look beyond the short time frame in order 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 amount of credits or years of work experience. And sometimes a very short program is offered by an institution that isn't accredited.

4. Career colleges

Some private career-oriented schools offer the opportunity to earn a job-focused master's degree on a schedule that fits with your other commitments. These schools are often good matches for working students since they tend to have a lot of online course offerings. In fact, according to one report, about 87 percent of the master's degrees awarded by private for-profit institutions are completed through online programs.3

Another advantage of private career-oriented schools is that you can often begin a master's program more quickly than at traditional institutions.

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

Young man in a plaid shirt sitting on stone steps with a laptop between his knees and a backpack and notebooks beside himWith such a wide range of available learning options, it's impossible to describe one universal path to a master's. After all, 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 of the following information is relevant to every program):

1. Apply to a master's program.

Be sure to carefully research all of 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 particular school and program, you may or may not 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. For those programs, you don't necessarily need to have a stellar academic record, 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 solid 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.

The number of credits needed for a master's degree varies a lot by program. Most programs require at least 30 credits, and some require up to 60.

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 really dive into the subject matter, at a deeper level than you did as an undergraduate.

As well, some graduate programs include opportunities to gain real-world experience through internships or other professional arrangements.

One thing is certain: You will be challenged. 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. (To state the obvious, if you're also working, you will be busy!)

Which Subjects Can I Get a Master's In?

When you see a master's degree abbreviation after a name, it's sometimes hard to tell what kind of education it represents. Indeed, you're not alone if you've ever wondered, "What is an MA degree?" or "What is an MPM degree?" 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. In fact, over a 22-year period, the number of master's degree subjects that had at least 100 graduates each year increased nearly 78 percent—from 289 to 514.3

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, in the 2016-2017 academic year, more than half of all master's degrees were awarded in:4

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

In many other occupations, a master's degree isn't required, but having one can help you get ahead. Oftentimes, 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." In fact, 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 an 18-year period.5

Plus, for some careers, a master's degree is a necessary milestone on the path to a PhD. For example, to work as a psychologist, you generally need to have a PhD. 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 PhD.)

The Cost of Pursuing a Master's Degree

As master's degrees have become more common, the cost of earning one has risen. Over a 20-year period, the average tuition and fees paid by master's degree students increased 79 percent. (That compares to 47 percent for bachelor's degree students.)3

So, how much does it cost to get a master's degree? A lot depends on where you go to school and the program you enroll in. But according to one report, master's degree students spent an average of $22,496 on their education for just one school year.1

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. But while you're weighing the pros and cons, be sure to consider the advantages.

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, 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.6

Some majors are associated with even larger salary increases at the graduate level. For example, biology and life sciences majors can reap a 63-percent increase in salary with a graduate degree.7 (A master's degree is a graduate degree, but this increase also includes the difference in earnings for PhD holders, which might be even higher since the highest degree is a PhD.)

Over the course of an entire career, that difference in salary can definitely outweigh the cost of getting a master's degree.

2. Career advancement

Here's a reality of today's job market: Many employers expect more from potential hires than they used to. How much more? In one survey, 33 percent of employers said they now seek master's degree holders for positions that were formerly held mostly by people with bachelor's degrees.8 So if you plan to advance your career and move into positions with more authority, a master's degree will help you do that.

For some professionals, earning a master's degree is also a key step in transitioning to 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 that, 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 be 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

It's true: Workers in positions that require master's degrees tend to feel more connected to their work. One study found that 77 percent of workers with graduate degrees feel that their jobs provide a sense of identity.9

5. Lifelong learning benefits

Regardless of your particular career goals, 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. Just be careful how you weigh other kinds of motivations. For example, closely examine your reasons for wanting to pursue a master's degree if they include any of the following:

  • You don't want to get a job right after earning your bachelor's degree.
  • You really like being in school.
  • You're not sure what you want to do next with your life.
  • You want to gain more prestige, which seems easier to achieve by staying in school than by trying to out-perform others in the workplace.

Also, 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 when it comes to 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. In fact, 77 percent of graduate students pay tuition with their own money (i.e., with funds they've earned, borrowed, or saved). In contrast, only 30 percent of undergraduate students do.1

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 you finish 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 a graduate education in Russian art history. But you might get assistance to earn an MBA.)

One survey of human resources professionals found that 49 percent of businesses offer some kind of tuition assistance for graduate-level studies.10 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. In these jobs, you could do things like lead seminars, teach introductory classes, mark papers, or help conduct special research.

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. In fact, 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 larger 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. In fact, the average student debt for master's degree graduates is $42,335.11

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.

Government loan options for graduate students include:

  • Federal 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. You can borrow up to $20,500 per year for graduate school, and you'll pay a fixed interest rate of 6.08 percent.12
  • Direct PLUS Loans—You can supplement other loans with these. The interest rate for graduate students is 7.08 percent.12

Move Toward Your Best Future

Now that you've discovered what a master's degree really is and how it can help you achieve your ambitions, take the next step. Many career-oriented colleges and universities offer master's degree programs. And right now is a good time to find one near you. Just enter your zip code into the search tool below to get started!

1 Sallie Mae, How America Pays for Graduate School, website last visited on July 24, 2019.

2 U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, "Number and percentage of students enrolled in degree-granting postsecondary institutions, by distance education participation, location of student, level of enrollment, and control and level of institution: Fall 2015 and fall 2016," website last visited on July 25, 2019.

3 Urban Institute, The Rise of Master's Degrees, website last visited on July 24, 2019.

4 U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, The Condition of Education 2019, website last visited on July 24, 2019.

5 United States Census Bureau, "About 13.1 Percent Have a Master's, Professional Degree or Doctorate," website last visited on July 25, 2019.

6 Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Employment Projections, "Unemployment rates and earnings by educational attainment," website last visited on August 6, 2019.

7 Georgetown University, Center on Education and the Workforce, The Economic Value of College Majors, website last visited on July 24, 2019.

8 CareerBuilder, "41 Percent of Employers Are Hiring College-Educated Workers for Positions That Had Been Primarily Held by Those with High School Degrees, Finds CareerBuilder Survey," website last visited on July 24, 2019.

9 Pew Research Center, The State of American Jobs, "How Americans view their jobs," website last visited on July 24, 2019.

10 SHRM, "Education Benefits Present a Learning Opportunity," website last visited on July 24, 2019.

11 Inside Higher Ed, "Six Figures in Debt for a Master's Degree," website last visited on July 24, 2019.

12 U.S. Department of Education, Federal Student Aid, website last visited on January 13, 2020.