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What is a Master’s Degree?

Master's students graduating together

A master of science, of arts.  A master of nursing, public administration, social work.  Earning this first level of graduate education amounts to earning your rank in your profession, and complete knowledge and skill in a chosen field.

Where does a master’s degree sit in the lineup of graduate education?  This credential is the predecessor to a doctorate degree.  It typically requires a year and one-half to three years of study and is awarded by state or public universities.

In most cases, students in possession of their bachelor’s are applying for master-level programs.  However there are occasions where a place of work will pay for its higher level employees master’s programs to maintain efficiency and innovation.  This is seen often in the business administration field.  There are also master degree programs accepting associate’s degrees, diplomas, licensure and previous work experience for entry, seen occasionally in the nursing or psychology fields.  

Working professionals can complete a master’s degree online, in flexible formats.  Balancing a career, personal life, and education has never been more accessible.  Online master’s degrees can be found in any field, and are a growing choice for working adults who want to move forward in achieving their professional and academic goals.

There are several ways in which master degrees in the U.S. have become more attainable.  For instance, full- or part-time options, or integrated and accelerated programs.

A key element of a master’s degree program, and why most students earning their master’s can be described as, “tired a lot,” is an incredibly rigorous reputation.  General knowledge expands into specialties, developing your skills becomes advancing your skills.  You may work with a cohort, but a master’s is, overall, a much more individualized experience focused on how you see yourself utilizing what you learn in the professional sphere.

Read on to find  what is, why should you, and what happens when you earn a master’s degree below.

Quick Facts About Master’s Degrees

Why earn a master’s degree? 

Students with master’s degrees may be reaching for leadership positions, supervisory roles, executive titles, a higher salary, and perhaps independent practice in a specialized field.  

How long does a master’s degree take?

Typically, a full-time master’s takes 1.5 to 2.5 years.  Part-time programs can take up to 6 years.  Keywords for program length include accelerated, integrated, self-paced, and combined.

How much does a master’s degree cost? 

Tuition varies greatly between each school.  The cheapest programs can cost within the $2,500 to $4,000 range.   The most expensive degrees can reach over $300,000.  In many cases, accreditation is a leading factor in degree cost.

Is a master’s degree worth it? 

If researched well and utilized the way you planned, yes, the time, money and dedication to a master’s degree are worth it. To invest is to profit, ultimately.

What types of master’s degrees are there?

Almost all fields, from education and business to psychology, computer science, and more have at least a sub-specialty that offers a master’s degree program.

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

The basic considerations are budget versus cost, wage differential for the degree, the time spent, and how a program’s accredited curriculum will help you reach your ultimate professional or academic goal.

  1. The median weekly wage for those with a master’s degree in 2019 was about 20% higher than for those with a bachelor’s degree, at $1,559. The 2019 median for all professions was just $39,810.
  2. Degree inflation. This trend affects two areas of value: the cost of the degree, and the entry-level qualifications for a career. Professions that once required only a bachelor’s degree might now require a master’s degree. Not only does this mean new workers need the credential, but, often, workers already in the profession may need to get a master’s degree at some point just to remain employed.
  3. The National Center for Education Statistics states that the 2019 employment rate for those with a bachelor’s degree or higher rose to 87%. Considering that employees with a master’s degree in a field where it is not strictly required will make a better salary holds a strong argument in favor of pursuing a master’s degree.
  4. The highest trending master’s programs are found in business, education, and health sciences. In the 2017-18 academic year, over 17% of all master’s degrees were awarded in STEM fields.
  5. Online master’s degrees have been a growing trend, continuing to spike as more programs are offered 100% at a distance, in hybrid or blended formats, and in synchronous and asynchronous formats. Online degrees are currently offered by accredited universities nationwide, in private and public environments.

Researching further into trends of master-level education leads to topics from gender wage gaps and student loan debt to increasing student diversity and more.  As with any level of education, the trends are dynamic, depending on factors such as the U.S. Department of Education (USDE), job outlooks, politics and economics.

Master’s degrees often focus on a single specialty area, in many cases, expanding upon a bachelor-level concentration.  For example, a student with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing might pursue a Master of Science in Nursing (BSN to MSN).  The ability to focus on one vocation makes your graduate degree a valuable credential, especially if your focus is in a high-demand area.

One of the most popular online master’s programs is the Master of Business Administration degree (MBA).  Managers today will earn an MBA to qualify for competitive leadership positions in areas from sales or IT management to healthcare administration and international business.

According to Accredited Schools Online, the top ten most popular, marketable master’s degrees include accounting, nursing, public health, and software engineering.

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

The time length of a master’s degree program depends on various factors.  You could finish your degree in a traditional 1.5 to 2.5 year span, or you could work on a part-time schedule, taking more time.  Whether you are a full- or part-time student, the options to customize and manage your academic schedule can be flexible.

There are usually 36-54 credits, or 60 to 90 quarter credits, in a master’s degree program.

Some graduate school programs offer flexible coursework and schedules for working professionals who pursue a master’s degree without quitting their job. Most part-time online master programs are designed with working professionals in mind, allowing for ultimate flexibility along with a curriculum supplying workplace applicable skills.

Other programs may be more efficiently completed full-time, either on a traditional campus, or partly (hybrid/blended) or fully online.  These programs may come with the recommendation that students not work full-time during the program. Online master’s programs often offer the benefits of self-scheduling and accelerated course offerings.  Studying full-time gets the degree done quickly, while studying part-time 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 completed at a student’s jobsite, or require additional time working at another site, making regular employment more difficult to fit into an academic schedule.

Pro-tip: If time commitment and money are obstacles, 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 transferable into a master’s program later.

How Much Does a Master’s Degree Cost?

Cost is often a make or break factor in choosing any degree program. When faced with financial obstacles, pursue all resource options.  These can include employer tuition reimbursement, state grants, and institutional scholarships that pay partial tuition.

According to educationdata.org, credit hours are priced verily based on whether the university is public or private, whether or not the student will reside on-campus, if the courses are taught online, and more.  The average credit hour in the United States costs $559.  If it takes up to 40 credit hours to complete a master’s program, then the average student is paying around $22,360 to earn that degree.

Online programs at state and public universities will often charge one set rate for both in-state and out-of-state students, reinforcing the affordability factor of earning your master’s degree online.  This will also depend on the school.

Consult the GetEducated affordability rankings to view the cheapest online master degrees by major.

Pro-tip: Tuition reimbursement may allow you to get a master’s degree for free. It’s in the best interest of a business to boost the collective skill sets of their employees, so inquire if your company offers tuition reimbursement.

When is a Master’s Degree Worth It?

  • When you already hold a bachelor’s degree

    Pursuing your master’s degree is a valuable option to advance your career in a field where you already have previous professional experience and you hold an accredited bachelor’s degree.

  • When your chosen career requires a master’s degree

    If you seek a leadership, supervisory, management or executive role, a master’s degree is more than likely a requirement as well as a professional leg-up. Considering degree inflation, mentioned above, it’s possible that an entry-level position in the career you pursue could require graduate studies.
    or

  • If you need a master’s degree to qualify for a higher salary grade

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

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the 2019 median weekly earnings of a full-time professional with a master’s was about $1,497, while for workers with a bachelor’s degree, the figure was $1,248; that’s about $12,950 more per year for workers holding a master’s degree. 

Pro-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, then decide to earn an MBA in management. Most master of management programs will accept any type of accredited bachelor’s degree.

Considering Your Personal Situation

A master’s degree is a way to get ahead in a competitive marketplace, promoting your skills, knowledge, and helping you to advance professionally.  While many careers require the credential, you can still earn the degree without the work requirement, and find a better salary and position.  

For example, jobs in financial services don’t explicitly require a master’s degree, but those with a master’s degree in 2013 were projected to earn an average 89% wage premium over their colleagues who held only a bachelor’s degree, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

On the other hand, there are professions requiring master’s degrees where the salary is not a driving factor. Although many jobs in education or human services do not pay incredibly to begin with, you will find that most of the positions require a master’s level education.  Salary aside, if these are fields you feel drawn to pursue, then the degree can be worth it for you to lead and contribute in a profession inspiring to you. For these careers, it is imperative to research the cost of degrees and consider student debt so you will be under less financial stress as you begin your career.

Some colleges push students from a bachelor’s degree directly into a master’s program.  This is seen especially if the profession requires a master’s as the minimum qualification for a specific job. Other times, students have explored their options during undergraduate school and choose to go straight into a master’s degree to have the best qualifications for the career they want.

Whether you are coming back to school to upgrade your credentials in your career, looking to change professions after working for a few years, or going straight from a bachelor’s degree into a master’s program, pursuing graduate study is a viable option for you.

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

There exist several categories of degree titles.  Beyond a Master of Science (MS) or Master of Arts (MA), you can find the following:

  • Master of Business Administration (MBA)
  • Master of Education (MEd)
  • 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)

Popular professions requiring a master’s degree include:

  • Postsecondary education
  • Education administration at all levels of education
  • Nurse practitioner
  • Physician assistant
  • Nurse midwifery
  • Social work
  • Library science
  • Counseling in substance abuse, family, rehabilitation, and mental health 
  • Occupational therapy
  • Cybersecurity
  • Archiving
  • K-12 education
  • Urban and regional planning
  • Political science
  • Economics

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, postsecondary, and more
  • Healthcare and social services: 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.

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. 

Pro-tip: There are also what are called executive master’s degrees, which are designed for mid-career professionals. These are often shorter programs, as credit is given for experience, and they are designed to be flexible around a busy work schedule.

How to Choose a Master’s Degree Program

With everything in mind so far, the next step in considering a master’s degree is to examine the requirements of each program, narrowing your search based on your personal needs and preferences.

Pertinent questions:

  • 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 master’s program be a better fit?
  • What internships or practicums are offered, and will they help build my professional network and real-world skills?

Pro-tip: Because graduate school involves an in-depth and theoretical look at subjects, group discussion and debate are important. Today’s online discussion forums provide an inviting environment for students to engage their peers and professors.

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 U.S. Department of Education. 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 of credential is programmatic, or, specialized accreditation. For each subject or degree, there is an agency which oversees the specific programs that grant degrees in the field. Both the USDE and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation approve programmatic accreditation agencies.

For instance, for an MS in Health Informatics, the programmatic accrediting agency would be different from the one which approves master’s programs in engineering.

You want your college or university to be accredited, as well as your specific master’s degree program,  by the right specialized body for the career or profession of your degree. 

Further reasons to pursue an accredited degree program include:

  • Wider availability of financial aid
  • Higher quality of education evaluated by a third party
  • Ease of transferring credits 
  • Employer recognition of the degree
  • Ability to sit for certification or licensure exams

Applying to Graduate Degree Programs

Prior to filling out a master’s degree application, look for the admission requirements of your school of choice. Graduate programs normally require graduate-level standardized test scores.

Graduate exams include:

  • Graduate Record Examination (GRE)
  • Law School Admission Test (LSAT)
  • Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT)
  • Medical College Admission Test (MCAT)
  • Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL)

Each of these tests inquire on high-level subjects, assessing the aptitude of the individuals taking them. It is important to note that these tests have fees similar to the SAT or ACT. 

Pro-tip: Never let test scores deter you from enrolling in an online master’s program. Standardized test scores are often just one part of the equation. Schools will also 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.

For those holding a bachelor’s degree in a different subject from the pursued master’s degree, expect to take some prerequisite courses either before you start the program or within the first semesters.

Once your program starts, there will be foundational courses orienting you to the degree.  These courses provide an overview of your chosen field, laying the foundations of knowledge and skills to continue on with the degree.

Master’s degree programs do not require many general education courses outside of the major.  Some will require communications, writing, mathematics, or science courses that are integral to the concentration. For people who have been working in their field of study, there are options to waive these courses based on experience or testing.

Master’s programs will follow a track or specialty with particular courses offered in the latter part of the program. For instance, pursuing an MBA degree could mean choosing to specialize in business analytics, finance, entrepreneurship, marketing, risk management, or any number of other special areas of business.

Many programs host a generalist track for students without a specialty in mind. Smaller programs often have fewer specialized tracks available, but some small programs have tracks in less common specialties, like aerospace engineering. Different programs for the same degree can offer various elective or specialty areas, so it pays to research your options to find a program with a strong focus on what  you are most interested in pursuing.

It is important to note that many graduate programs— specifically those in the medical, educational, and technological fields—require practical experience, internships, and capstone projects as part of graduation requirements. In addition to writing papers, taking part in class discussions, and attending lectures, students must bring actual professional training to their program. In some cases, this can be achieved by maintaining a current career and having a supervisor sign off on that 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 for a Master of Health Administration from Capella University. Different colleges will, as previously stated, 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

Total credits required: 48 (using a quarter credits system)

Curriculum

Core Courses (32 hrs)

Collaboration, Communication, and Case Analysis for Health Care Master’s Learners (4 quarter credits)

Health Care Policy and Law (4 quarter credits)

Health Care Finance and Reimbursement (4 quarter credits)

Health Care Economics and Decision Making (4 quarter credits)

Strategic Health Care Planning (4 quarter credits)

Organizational Leadership and Governance (4 quarter credits)

Data Analysis for Health Care Decisions (4 quarter credits)

Health Administration Capstone (4 quarter credits)

Specialization Courses (16 hrs)

Health Care Quality, Risk, and Regulatory Compliance (4 quarter credits)

Introduction to Health Information Systems (4 quarter credits)

Comparative Models of Global Health Systems (4 quarter credits)

Elective #1 (4 quarter credits)

 

No matter your chosen profession, there are likely master’s degree programs available to advance you in your career. It can be beneficial to have a master’s degree in order to compete for jobs with higher salaries and more responsibility.  With this article’s information in mind, you are ready to start the process of pursuing the first level of graduate education and expand every professional opportunity.