What is a Master's Degree?

Masters degree graduatesA master’s degree is the first level of graduate study. To apply for a master degree you usually must already hold an undergraduate degree (a bachelor’s degree).

A master’s degree typically requires a year and one-half to two years of full-time study.

To earn a master’s degree you usually need to complete from 36 to 54 semester credits of study (or 60 to 90 quarter-credits). This equals 12 to 18 college courses. Most master’s degrees are awarded by public or state universities.

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The number of professionals with master’s degrees increased by 63 percent from 1996 to 2010. The National Council for Education Statistics projects added growth of another 34 percent by the year 2022.

Even more promising, twenty-first century technology has expanded opportunities to provide many flexible online master's programs.

When choosing a master’s program, consider your professional career needs then target academic goals. Master’s degrees often focus on a single specialty area. For example, you may earn a Master of Science in Addiction Counseling or a Master of Science in Reading and Literacy. The ability to focus on one niche makes your graduate degree a good credential if you want to focus your career in a high-demand niche area. 

TIP: One of the most popular online master’s programs is the Master of Business Administration (MBA). Many managers today earn the MBA to qualify for competitive management positions in areas as diverse as technology management and healthcare records administration.

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How Long Does It Take to Get a Master’s Degree?

Here’s the short answer: a master’s degree program typically requires a year and one-half to two years of full-time study spanning 36 to 54 semester credits.

Some graduate school programs offer flexible coursework for working people who still want to pursue a master’s degree without quitting their job. Some might choose to apply to traditional brick and mortar programs. Others prefer to get their master’s online for the benefits of self-scheduling and accelerated course offerings.

Tip: If time commitment and money are obstacles, then consider the post-graduate certificate. Post-graduate certificates provide focused specializations and may provide the necessary credentials to reach career goals. Graduate certificates typically require students to complete 3 or 4 courses, and may even be transferrable into a master’s program later.

Is a Master’s Degree Worth It?

A master degree is good choice when you…

  • Already hold a bachelor’s degree
  • Know that your chosen career will require a master’s degree
  • Need a graduate degree to qualify for a higher salary grade

Yes. Pursuing your master’s online is a best bet if you want to advance your career in a field where you already have previous professional experience and you hold an accredited bachelor’s degree. Certain organizations in fields like education, medicine, and engineering may even require their top level employees to have master’s degrees. 

TIP: You don’t have to hold a bachelor’s degree in the same major area you wish to study at the master’s level. Example: You may hold a bachelor’s degree in sociology but decide to earn a Master of Management. Most Master of Management programs will accept you with any type of accredited bachelor’s degree.

Yes. If your desired career requires a master’s level education in order to get an entry-level job, then you may not have another option. For example, if your goal is to become a physician’s assistant or high school principal, then you will most-likely need to earn a master’s degree. 

Popular careers that require a master’s include:

  • Postsecondary educators
  • Education administrators at all levels of education
  • Social workers
  • Librarians
  • Counselors, such as marriage, family, rehabilitation, and mental health 
  • Nurse practitioners and physician assistants
  • Nurse midwives
  • Healthcare positions, including occupational therapists and speech pathologists
  • Statisticians and mathematicians
  • Psychologists
  • Historians, including archivists and curators
  • Urban and regional planners
  • Political scientists
  • Economists

Yes. If your potential salary will outpace the cost to get a degree and if the job prospects are promising, then the cost of a master’s degree is worth it. 

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the 2013 median salary of a full-time professional with a master’s was about $68,000 annually; $12,000 more per year than the median salary of workers with bachelor’s degrees at $56,000. 

Securities, commodities, and financial service sales agents with master’s degrees had a wage premium 90 percent greater than counterparts holding a bachelor’s degree. 

Popular careers where salaries are much higher with master’s degrees include:

  • Business: financial, sales occupations, accountants, auditors, general and operations managers, and human resource professionals
  • Education: administrators, preschool, and kindergarten teachers
  • Healthcare and social service workers: physician assistants, nurse practitioners, midwives, and clinical lab technicians
  • STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math): mathematicians, statisticians, computer system analysts, and computer programmers.
  • Librarians 
  • Public relation specialists
  • Fitness and recreation workers 
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No. If you career does not require that you have a master’s degree and the growth and earning potential is based on knowledge and experience not a degree credential, then a master’s may not be worth it.

For example, the BLS finds that engineers specializing in petroleum, mining, and geology, along with chemical engineers, reported median wages that was actually 7 percent less than workers with bachelor degrees. Urban planners and actors with master’s degrees also failed to show significant earnings above that of workers with bachelor’s degrees.

How Much Does a Master’s Degree Cost?

Cost is often a make or break factor in choosing a master’s program. Before you put a halt to your education goals due to financial obstacles, exhaust all resource options, including employer tuition reimbursement, state grants, and institutional scholarships that pay partial tuition.

The National Center for Education Statistics reports that the average cost for a master’s program tuition and fees is about $16,435 per the 2012-2013 school year (based on in-state residency). 

Online programs at state and public universities tend to charge one set rate for both in-state and out-of-state students so costs can be more affordable.

The best advice is to decide on a specific field of study, and then cost-compare.

  • Compare tuitions of post-graduate online degree programs at different schools.
  • Allow for added costs when deciding between an online and on-campus program, including housing, transportation, and potential childcare expenses. 
  • Factor in potential financial aid opportunities, which may or may not be school or program-specific.

Consult GetEducated’s affordability rankings to view the cheapest master’s by major.

Tip: Tuition reimbursement may allow you to get a master’s degree for free. Because it’s in the best interest of a business to boost the collective skill sets of their employees, ask if your company offers tuition reimbursement. According to a Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) survey conducted in 2013, the average maximum reimbursement allowed for continuing education expenses (including tuition) is $4,980 a year. 

The SHRM also reports that the most generous employers, concerning education reimbursement, tend to be in the technology and health care industries. These two industries also offer some of the most lucrative jobs and may be the best master’s degrees to get, in regards to pay and job security. 

Master’s Degree Requirements

The final step is to consider the requirements of each master’s degree and narrow based on your personal needs and preferences.

Ask yourself:

  • Can I commit to a full-time program or do I want to attend part-time?
  • Can I commit to a year-round program or would I prefer breaks between semesters?
  • Do I have the self-motivation to enroll in an accelerated degree program?
  • Do I prefer to progress through a program with peers or would I prefer an individual self-paced course?
  • Can I complete a hybrid program with required on-campus components or would a completely online program be a better fit?
  • What internships or practicums are required? 

Because graduate school involves more of an in-depth and theoretical look at its subjects, group discussion and debate are important. Today's online discussion forums provide an inviting environment for students to engage their peers.

As with any college degree, make sure that the program to which you apply is accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting organization. The cheapest master’s degree may look good to your wallet, but not to your future. 

It’s also important to note that many graduate programs— specifically those in the medical, educational, and technological fields—also require practical experience, internships, and capstone projects as part of the graduation requirements. In addition to writing papers, taking part in class discussions, and listening to professors’ lectures, students are required to have actual professional experience. In most cases, this can be achieved simply by maintaining a current career and having a supervisor sign off on your “practical experience.” 

A teacher pursuing her Master of Education will have to log hours in a practicum. Since she is already teaching, an administrator can supervise a lesson and sign off on practice hours.

Similarly, a nurse pursuing a Master of Science in Nursing with a concentration in Management can create a management plan and present it to his current bosses for credit towards the degree. 

Prior to filling out the application, look at the graduate school admission requirements for your school of choice. Graduate programs may require graduate-level standardized test scores.

Graduate exams include the:

  • Graduate Record Examination (GRE),
  • Law School Admission Test (LSAT),
  • Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT),
  • Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). 

Each one of these tests is on higher level subjects that assess the aptitude of the individuals taking them. It is also important to note that these tests have fees similar to the SAT or ACT. 

Never let tests scores deter you from enrolling in an online master's program. Standardized test scores are often just one part of the equation. Most schools factor in prior education successes, along with work and life experiences.

Show Me an Online Master’s Program

Below is the sample curriculum (plan of required study) for a Master of Health Care Administration from Capella University. Different colleges will require different programs of study. If you decide to major in a special area, such as business or psychology, most of your courses will be in that subject. Compare degree and credit requirements at different schools carefully when selecting an online master’s degree to suit your situation.

Capella University

Capella University logoCapella University Online Master of Healthcare Administration
Total credits required: 48 (using a quarter credits system)


Core Courses (32 hrs)

Collaboration, Communication, and Case Analysis for Health Care Master's Learners (4 hrs)
Health Care Policy and Law (4 hrs)
Health Care Finance and Reimbursement (4 hrs)
Health Care Economics and Decision Making (4 hrs)
Strategic Health Care Planning (4 hrs)
Organizational Leadership and Governance (4 hrs)
Project Management and Team Leadership (4 hrs)
Health Administration Capstone (4 hrs)

Specialization Courses (16 hrs)

Health Care Quality, Risk, and Regulatory Compliance (4 hrs)
Introduction to Health Information Systems (4 hrs)
Elective #1 (4 hrs)
Elective #2 (4 hrs)


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Related Resources
How to Find Affordable Online Master’s
Online MBA vs. Master’s in Management?
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