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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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Quick Facts About Master’s Degrees

Why earn a master’s degree? 

Many jobs require a master’s degree, and many that don’t require the degree will pay more if you have a master’s

How long does it take?

Full time: from 1.5 to 2.5 years
Part time: up to 5 or 6 years

How much does it cost? 

Master’s degree tuition rates vary greatly, from a low of about $8,000 to a high of close to $300,000 for the most expensive brick-and-mortar programs.  Most students take out loans to complete a master’s degree. Online programs tend to be more modestly priced but still vary.

Is it worth it? 

That depends on the salary differential in the field and the cost of your education. In the vast majority of fields, the salary differential makes degree cost a great investment. Here is a tool to check to see the averages in your choice of profession: GradSense Degree/Salary Calculator.

What types of master’s degrees are there?

You name it. Almost all fields have at least a sub-specialty that offers a master’s degree program. Just to list a few areas: education, health sciences, engineering, social services, mathematics, business, management, veterinary science, biological/chemical/physical sciences, religion, computer science, arts and humanities. And more. 

How do I choose the right master’s degree program?

Consider cost, wage differential for the degree, your time, and your career goals. Make sure that your program is accredited and that it covers the specific curriculum that will help you attain your goals.

Why earn a master’s degree?

Considering whether or not to pursue a master’s degree can be complex. This article will give you an idea of all the factors you should consider before you enroll in a master’s degree program. The general trends are that more people are getting master’s degrees, more professions are requiring a master’s, and more programs are available online. Completed in about two years fulltime, or three to five years part time, a master’s degree does not take as much time as an undergraduate degree. The cost of a degree can vary widely, and depending on the salary premium in your field for the master’s, a degree can be a good investment in your future earnings. 

No matter your chosen profession, there are likely master’s degree programs to advance your career. But why would you need one? These days, it can be very beneficial to have a master’s degree so you can compete for jobs with higher salaries and more responsibility. While some professions make it mandatory to have a master’s degree, other professions may not require it. Even if your profession does not require a master’s degree, there may be a wage differential for workers that would make the degree worth the time, effort and money. 

Trends in Master’s Degree Education

In case you haven’t noticed, there are more people getting master’s degrees these days. An increasing number of professions now require or encourage a master’s degree education for workers. It is undeniable that people with a master’s degree will earn more than those with less education, and over a number of years of employment, this wage differential will add up. The median weekly wage for those with a master’s degree is about 20% higher than for those with only a bachelor’s degree. If that is not enough to make you think about getting a master’s degree, consider this: the median wage for those with a master’s degree in 2017 was $68,090, while the 2017 median for all professions was just $37,690.

Another trend is that professions that used to employ people with just a bachelor’s degree are often now requiring those entering the profession to begin with a master’s degree. This is often called “degree inflation,” which though annoying, is a fact of life that we all have to live with at this point. Not only does this mean new workers need the degree, but often, workers already in the profession may need to get a master’s degree at some point just to keep their jobs. Occupational therapists now need a master’s degree to enter the field, as do nurse practitioners. Librarians and educational administrators now usually need a master’s degree. Statisticians and urban planners, drama and music teachers, physician assistants and substance abuse social workers—all need a master’s degree for entry into the field. 

Getting a master’s degree has many benefits for those looking for jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment in jobs requiring a master’s degree will increase by 17% between 2016 and 2026, which is much faster than the average increase across all professions of 7%. Add that together with the fact that people with a master’s degree in a field where it is not strictly required also make more money and may have a leg up on job applicants with lower qualifications, and you have some very strong arguments for getting that degree. 

Mater’s programs are increasingly diverse, enrolling more students from underrepresented racial and ethnic backgrounds. There is also increasing diversity in the types of programs offered, with the number of distinct classifications of master’s programs rising from 289 in 1195 to 514 in 2017. The numbers of international students seeking graduate degrees is decreasing slightly, even while a larger percentage of programs are now offered fully or partly online. This can make graduate degrees available to students in all geographic areas and take away the hassle of moving to attend an on-campus program.

More available jobs, higher earnings, easier to access—what’s the rub? Studying takes time and money. When you consider that getting a master’s degree can take as little as one and a half years, and the increase in wages and job prospects can last your whole career, it could well be worth the investment you make. Deciding on whether or not to go for a master’s, each person needs to carefully assess their needs, their goals, their personal finances, and their particular strengths and weaknesses. 

Most Popular Master’s Degree Majors

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—typical master’s degree programs require from one and a half to two years to complete.

There are usually 36-54 credits, or 60 to 90 quarter-credits, in most master’s degree programs. Length of program varies by degree subject and school. Many programs allow graduate students to attend part-time while retaining their jobs and family lives, and thus the degree could be spread out over five to six years. 

Some graduate school programs offer flexible coursework and schedules for working people who still want to pursue a master’s degree without quitting their job. Some fulltime programs are even designed with working professionals in mind, allowing for weekend and evening classes, though students will be expected to be very focused to complete a fulltime graduate program while continuing to work. Other programs may be more efficiently completed full time, either in a brick and mortar classroom on a traditional campus, or partly (hybrid online/on-campus) or fully online, with the recommendation that students not work fulltime during the program. Online master’s programs often offer the benefits of self-scheduling and accelerated course offerings.

The time to degree in each program is somewhat unique, as requirements and scheduling vaey. Studying fulltime gets the degree done quickly, while studying part time to accommodate family and current job obligations can take longer. In addition to coursework, online or in-person, many programs require hands-on work in the field. This supervised fieldwork may be able to be completed at a student’s jobsite, or require additional time working at another site, making regular employment more difficult to squeeze in. 

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.

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.

T?he 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 the GetEducated 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), 56% of employers offered tuition assistance programs. Employers can reimburse up to $5,250 per year as a tax deduction, with the employee not owing taxes on that amount either, according to the IRS.  

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. 

When is a Master’s Degree Worth It?

A master’s degree is good choice when you…
  • Already hold a bachelor’s degree
    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. 
  • Know that your chosen career will require a master’s degree
    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. 


  • Need a graduate degree to qualify for a higher salary grade
    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 2018 median weekly earnings of a full-time professional with a master’s was about $1,434, while for workers with a bachelor’s degree, the figure was $1,198; that’s about $12,300 more per year for workers with a master’s degree. 
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.
A master’s degree is not worth it in some occupations, even if the degree may be available. If the degree is not required for your desired occupation, or if you can’t earn substantially more with the addition of the degree, it will most likely not be a good choice for you. 
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.

Which Type of Master’s Degree is Right for You?

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
  • Historians, including archivists and curators
  • Art, drama, and music teachers
  • Urban and regional planners
  • Political scientists
  • Economists
Popular careers where salaries are much higher with master’s degrees include:
  • Business: financial, sales occupations, marketing and public relations specialists, accountants, auditors, general and operations managers, and real estate management professionals
  • Education: administrators; teachers of preschool, elementary, secondary, special education, and other subjects
  • Healthcare and social service workers: physician assistants, nurses, counselors, social workers, and health/social services managers
  • STEM fields mathematicians, statisticians, computer system administrators, web developers, information security analysts, and biological, chemical, or environmental scientists.
  • Librarians, editors, and designers
  • Office and administrative supervisors
  • Fitness and recreation professionals
  • Aircraft pilots and flight engineers
Even in the same basic subject, the master’s degree may be called something slightly different. The main constant is that the word “master” will be in the title. 
Popular degrees titles are:
  • Master of Arts (MA) 
  • Master of Science (MS/MSc)
  • Master of Business Administration (MBA)
  • Master of Education (MEd). 
Less common are more specialized degree titles such as: 
  • Master of Social Work (MSW)
  • Master of Public Health (MPH)
  • Master of Fine Arts (MFA)
  • Master of Library Science (MLS)
  • Master of Engineering (MEng)
  • Master of Music (MM)
  • Master of Architecture (March)
  • And so on
Many engineering fields may award an MS in a specific type of engineering, rather than the MEng degree. Similarly, there may be different degree options for other subjects like economics, which could be a specialty in an MBA program or an MS program. It really doesn’t matter which letters are in your degree title unless there is a specific requirement in the exact field you plan to go into. There are also what are called executive master’s degrees, which are designed for people who have working in the field for a number of years, and are therefore already very knowledgeable. These are often shorter programs, as credit is given for experience, and they are often flexible around a busy work schedule. 
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Considering Your Personal Situation

Many jobs today require a master’s degree. For other professions, a master’s degree is a way to get ahead of the competition and prove that you have all the skills and knowledge to do the job—even if a master’s degree is not strictly required. For example, jobs in financial services don’t explicitly require a master’s degree, but those with a master’s degree earn an average of 89% wage premium over their colleagues who hold only a bachelor’s degree, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics—that is almost double the salary, and it is a high salary to begin with. 
On the other hand, there are some professions that require a master’s degree, even though the salary may not be very high to begin with. Even though many jobs in education or social services do not pay huge salaries, quite a few require a master’s level education to attain the position. However, if these are fields that you feel drawn to work in, then the degree can be worth it for you to be happy in a profession that inspires you. For these careers, it can really pay long-term dividends to research costs of degrees and consider going into less debt so you will be under less financial stress as you begin your career.
The nice thing about a master’s degree for many people is that they can pursue a master’s degree after working at a lower level in their field of interest for a while first. This allows the time to find out if this field is the right fit for your interests before investing in a graduate degree. Often, if you find that your first stab at a career wasn’t satisfying to you, you can switch to another field for a master’s degree, often by taking a few prerequisite courses to give you a foundation in the new subject. Thus, after working for a few years, you may find that you are more certain in your choice of field or sub-field, and it is easier to find the motivation to continue if you know what you want.
Some college programs take students straight from a bachelor’s degree right into a master’s degree program, especially if the profession requires a master’s as the minimum qualification for the job. Other times, students have explored their options during undergraduate school and want to go straight on to a master’s degree to have the best qualifications for the career they want.
Whether you are coming back to school to upgrade your credential in your profession, looking to change professions after working for a few years, of going straight from a bachelor’s degree into a master’s program, you have many options. 

How to Choose a Master’s Degree Program

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.

Accreditation for Master’s Degrees

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 is important to enroll in a program that is offered by a nationally or regionally accrediting institution recognized by the US Department of Education (USDE). Some institutions may be accredited by both a regional and a national body, but the institution itself must be accredited to make sure that your degree and credits will be recognized widely.
A second type is programmatic, or specialized accreditation. For each subject or degree, there is an agency that oversees the specific programs that grant degrees in the field. Both the USDE and the Council on Higher Education approve programmatic accreditation agencies. For instance, for a Master of Science in Health Informatics, the programmatic accrediting agency would be different than the one that approves master’s programs in engineering.
The upshot is that you want your institution—the college or university—to be accredited and you want to make sure that the specific master’s degree program is accredited by the right specialized accrediting body for the career or profession of your degree. There are many further reasons to attend an accredited degree program, such as the wider availability of financial aid, a higher quality of education evaluated by a third party, ease of transferring credits, employer recognition of the degree, and the ability to sit for certification or licensure exams. 

Applying to Graduate Degree Programs

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.

What to Expect in a Master’s Degree Curriculum?

Each subject area and degree program will differ in the exact requirements. But for those who have a bachelor’s degree in a different subject from the master’s they want to pursue, expect to take some prerequisite courses either before you start the program or within the first couple of semesters to catch up to other students with a bachelor’s degree in the field. 
Once your program starts, there will usually be foundation courses that will help orient you to the field, give you an overview, and lay the foundations of knowledge and skills to continue on with the degree. Most master’s degree programs do not have many general education type courses required outside the major, but some will require communications, writing, mathematics, or science courses that are integral to the major. For people who have been working in the field of study, they may be able to waive some of the foundation courses based on experience or testing. 
In some master’s programs, you can follow a track or specialty by choosing particular courses in the latter part of the program. For instance, those who are pursuing an MBA degree may be able to choose to specialize in Business Analytics, Finance, Entrepreneurship, Marketing, Risk Management, or any number of other special areas of business. Many programs will also have a generalist track for those who do not a have a specialty in mind. Smaller programs often have fewer specialized tracks available, but some small programs might have a special track in a less common specialty, like Aerospace Engineering. Different programs for the same degree will offer different elective or specialty areas, so it pays to research your options to find a program with a strong focus on the area you are most interested in pursuing. 
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 some cases, this can be achieved simply by maintaining a current career and having a supervisor sign off on your “practical experience.” Other times, you may need to perform your practicum at an approved site that is separate from your paid work.

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?
What is a Bachelor’s Degree?
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