If you are thinking of getting a Master’s degree, you’re not alone. Currently, over 800,000 students in the United States receive a Master’s degree annually, nearly double that from 20 years ago.
A Master’s is an academic degree just above a Bachelor’s. It is considered an advanced degree and signifies that the recipient has achieved (mastered) a specific level of knowledge in their chosen field.
The “Magister” title dates back to Medieval Europe and even ancient Rome. It was conveyed upon graduates who had become teachers. Medieval universities later had Master’s degrees, but different institutions had very different takes on this. The accepted, modern Master’s degree — an advanced degree earned in a specific field — appeared in the 19th century. In the U.S., it began to take hold in the 1870s. However, the recognized value of a Master’s wouldn’t occur for several more decades.
Types of Master’s Degrees
There are many different types of Master’s degree programs collectively offered at American colleges, some of which are described below. While STEM degrees typically lead to careers with the highest pay, according to Statista.com, the top five subjects in terms of master’s degrees earned in the 2018-19 AY (Academic Year) are:
- Business (197.1K)
- Education (146.4K)
- Health professions and related programs (131.6K)
- Engineering (50.0K)
- Computer and information systems (45.7K)
In past academic years, the number of Education master’s awards granted exceeded that of Business, but that changed in the 2010-11 academic year. The total number of masters degrees awarded for 2018-19 academic year is around 833K (505K awarded to female students, 326K to male students). The majority of these are probably from MA (Master of Arts) or MS (Master of Science) programs.
Differences Between MS and MA Programs
MA programs are often focused on the humanities, while MS programs usually cover the sciences and technical subjects. Master of Arts programs are also generally course-based, as opposed to the technical and research-focused requirements of a Master of Science degree. As a result, some MAs do not require a thesis. Also, some MAs are “terminal” degrees (the highest achievable in that field). Conversely, research-focused, thesis-based MS degrees prepare students for doctoral study.
Ultimately, the differences come down to personal preference and career focus, as both types provide unique benefits to one’s career. Note: there are some topics for which both MA and MS tracks are available. There are also subjects whose masters programs fall into two or more degree types. For example, Engineering master’s programs typically offer either an MS or MEng award.
Other Common Types of Masters Degrees
Besides the MA and MS, other well-known and popular Master’s degree types include the MBA, MFA, MPA, MEd, MPH, and MSW.
MBA – Master of Business Administration
The MBA teaches how to manage various aspects of a business. Students can also specialize in a particular aspect of business knowledge by choosing a concentration/ specialization, as available. For example, some schools have MBAs for unique sectors, such as entertainment, environment, healthcare, or sports. Smaller schools may have a single track with no concentration options, while larger schools may have dozens of options.
MFA – Master of Fine Arts
The MFA is focused on artistic fields such as Creative Writing, Dance, Design, Film, New Media, Theatre, and Visual Art. Considered a terminal degree, the MFA might offer graduates the opportunity to teach at colleges and universities.
MPA – Master of Public Administration
Sometimes called the public-sector MBA, the MPA is for those seeking management careers in government, non-profits, and NGOs (non-governmental organizations).
MEd – Master of Education
The MEd offers two career paths. For those staying in the classroom, it can mean a higher salary, improved skills, and an advanced teaching license. For those going beyond teaching, it can mean administrative, counseling, consulting, leadership, or policy positions in educational organizations.
MPH – Master of Public Health
The typical MPH program may offer a wide range of specializations. That means graduates can contribute to a community’s public health by utilizing everything from analysis, assessment, or policy development to education, implementation, or management.
MSW – Master of Social Work
Similarly, the typical MSW may also have several specialization options. This allows students to choose the type of social work they want to do and know whether they’ll work with individuals, groups, communities, or entire systems.
How Long Does it Take to Complete a Master’s Degree?
For full-time students, it usually takes between 12 months and two years. For part-time students, it’s usually two to five years. The actual required time will depend on the program, whether there are practicums, internships, a thesis and defense, etc. The shorter programs are often an “accelerated” track. There are usually maximum-time restrictions on completion, which we’ve noted as being 5-10 years, depending on the institution.
An Accelerated master’s program might be an option for those who want to complete their degrees sooner. At some schools, an Accelerated Program means streamlined requirements, restricted course options, and a heavier course load on a shortened timeline (utilizing a six-, seven- or eight-week semester). For other schools, it means granting credits for previous courses, training, licenses, or provable work or life experiences. Some schools have a “4+1 Masters.” This usually allows students to take Master’s courses during their Bachelor’s program and have them count for both degrees, to reduce the overall timeline.
Careers That Require a Master’s Degree
Jobs requiring a Master’s degree have increased and are forecasted to see larger increases than jobs requiring any other degree level. A 2018 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics OOH (Occupational Outlook Handbook) identified 38 occupations that require a Master’s degree for entry. These occupations include:
- Anthropologists and archeologists
- Marriage and family therapists
- Mental health counselors
- Nurse anesthetists, Nurse midwives, Nurse practitioners
- Physician assistants
- School principals
- Speech-language pathologists
- Urban and regional planners
When applying for a Master’s program, make sure that you identify your deadlines well in advance and plan for your financing. Next, focus on your GPA, scheduling a standardized test, confirming letters of reference, obtaining transcripts, and updating your resume. And if you are eligible for Federal funding, you may want to complete and submit a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) application. If your employer has an educational program, they may also reimburse or pay for some or all of your educational costs. Remember to factor this into your entire search-and-apply process.
Most Master’s programs require a minimum 3.0 GPA, but some accept 2.5 to 3.0, and a few are okay with 2.0. Obviously, the higher-prestige universities expect a higher GPA.
Many schools require or recommend that applicants take a graduate assessment exam. One example is the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), which is a standardized test that looks at analytical writing, quantitative reasoning, and verbal reasoning. Schools may request both the General Test and Subject Tests.
For business and management programs (usually MBAs), the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) is often required. This computer-adaptive standardized exam tests a student’s analytical writing, integrated reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and verbal reasoning abilities.
For any standardized test, choose an exam date that ensures schools will receive your scores before their application deadlines.
Letters of reference
If letters of reference are required, give your contacts advanced notice (one month minimum). Have alternates available just in case. Requirements vary, with reference sources including any or all of the following: professors; employer/past employer; and others
Bachelor’s Degree – Related or Unrelated?
All Master’s programs require the previous or concurrent completion of a Bachelor’s degree. Some want it in the same or a related field. Others only need any completed Bachelor’s. If you are a strong candidate, many programs provide options to make up for missing prerequisite courses.
Be sure to request your undergraduate transcripts ahead of time and arrange to have them sent directly to the graduate schools to which you’re applying.
Careers that require a Master’s degree sometimes require work experience to apply for a relevant Master’s program. So, make sure to have an updated resume with relevant work and volunteer experiences listed.
Master’s degree requirements vary based on the field of study and type of Master’s.
Most masters programs require 24 to 60 credit hours, but there are some – typically in health or teaching fields – that have practicum/ clinical requirements that may increase this to 80+ credits. Some business programs offer optional certificate programs with no limit, pushing past 60 total credits.
A Master’s thesis is typically the culmination of your program. This 60-to-100 page academic paper usually requires at least one semester to complete – with some taking the entire program length, or conducted after the completion of coursework. Doing a thesis involves significant amounts of research and should be good enough in quality to be published in an academic journal. As daunting as this sounds, you will have the help of a thesis advisor or committee throughout the process. A completed thesis is typically orally defended – which might be conducted online or in person, depending on the school.
Capstone or Special Projects
In place of a thesis, some programs require a capstone project (or a choice between this and a thesis). This utilizes the knowledge and understanding you’ve gained and tests your ability to do research and create solutions or offer new insights for real-world concerns.
Alternately, some non-thesis Master’s programs have smaller special projects or reports. This might be followed by a comprehensive oral or written exam as the final requirement.
Clinical experiences, practicums or internships are typically independent of thesis requirents. This is field or on-site experience where the student applies the knowledge and skills gained in their program to a real-world clinical setting. This might be teaching a class, attending to patients, etc., depending on the subject and program.
Cost of a master’s degree
The cost of a Master’s degree falls into a very wide range and depends on the program, school, delivery method, credit requirements, and several other factors. However, it generally falls into the $20,000 to $60,000 range, with some exceptions. A 2017 report from SallieMae stated that Master’s students spent on average about $22,500 a year, including program costs and living expenses.
Part-Time or Full-Time?
The decision to complete your degree full- or part-time can be complex. Full-time students spend more annually but may spend less overall. They also have better access to grants and scholarships. And, full-time students can get into a higher-paying job quicker. Conversely, part-time students can maintain their full-time jobs. Since many part-time students are older, these jobs may be financially lucrative.
State of Residence
For public colleges and universities, in-state students pay far less than out-of-state students. The latter can sometimes pay two to three times as much as in-state students. However, there are often ways to qualify for in-state rates or a discount. Some schools have a reciprocal agreement that denotes students from neighboring or regional states as in-state. Some require only a year of residency in their state. Others waive residency requirements if a student lives on campus. Note that for private institutions (non-profit or for-profit), the tuition and fees are usually the same.
Some schools may offer a limited number of merit-based fellowships that can reduce the overall cost. Check with the admissions department of colleges that you are applying to, if you do not find the information on their website.
Some schools provide teaching or research assistantships – though usually only for on-campus programs, rarely for online degree programs. These assistantships provide students with wages and a tuition waiver. Some also provide housing, health insurance, and meal plans.
Online vs Traditional Master’s
Online includes both online or hybrid degree programs. Typically, hybrid programs have online or mixed class sessions with some sort of on-campus or onsite residency requirements for:
- Oral defenses
Pros and Cons
Online Learning – Pros:
- Lower overall costs
- Take classes from anywhere – ideal for military personnel and other non-traditional college students
- Better potential for school-life balance
- Learn on your own schedule – although some require synchronous class attendance
- Course materials always accessible
- Content collaboration and curation
- Limited face-to-face communication
- Reduced networking opportunities
- Must be self-motivated and disciplined
- Potentially limited course availability
- Technology interruptions
On-Campus Learning – Pros:
- Opportunity for active learning
- Face-to-face interaction
- Greater networking opportunities
- Immediate feedback
- On-campus activities and facilities
- Potentially has less distractions than studying from home or elsewhere
- Increased costs and fees
- Less school-life balance
- Stricter class scheduling and potential time conflicts
Master’s for Working Adults
Non-traditional master’s program delivery options for working adults include the aforementioned online, as well as hybrid, night, and weekend programs.
Hybrid programs combine online and on-campus learning to provide the best of both worlds. For some programs, a single course can have both online and on-campus components. Hybrid programs sometimes offer fully online courses with other aspects experienced in-person, on campus such as:
- Mentor sessions
- Thesis defense
Night or evening programs allow students to maintain their work and family commitments while gaining the benefits of in-person learning.
Weekend programs are often used for “Executive” programs (particularly the MBA), allowing for adults who work full-time during the week to attend classes on weekends. These are sometimes combined with online classes.
Synchronous vs Asynchronous
Synchronous courses are closer to traditional learning. Students watch and interact with a live online class at set times. Asynchronous lessons are pre-recorded so students can access them on their own time. In either case, students may be able to communicate with professors, teaching assistants and classmates through email and/or online forums. Note that synchronous courses usually require live attendance but also offer recordings for follow-up study.
Is a Master’s Degree Worth It?
Getting a master’s degree can provide multiple benefits for one’s life and career. Whether it’s worth it, however, is something only you can answer. Master’s programs are not for everyone; they require time and money and necessitate personal and professional sacrifices. Still, it’s telling that most students who undertake a Master’s see it as an investment in their future.
Return on Investment (ROI)
Calculating the ROI of a Master’s degree can be complicated. From a financial perspective, the key variables are:
- Program and living costs
- Fees for applications, standardized tests, and prep courses
- Income, investments, and pension contributions you had to forgo
- Long-term cost of student loans
- Opportunity cost of money spent on your Master’s
- Potential lifetime earning and benefit differences.
As for the intangibles, these include:
- Personal growth
- Knowledge gained
- Networking benefits
Certain careers need a Master’s to advance into senior or executive positions. Others require one to maintain certifications or licensing. Some employers simply value workers with advanced knowledge. In fact, about a third of employers in one survey reported increasing their education requirements for new hires (from a Bachelor’s to a Master’s). Some master’s degrees allow grads to teach community college or lower-division college courses. If you want to teach at a higher level, consider taking a non-terminal master’s program after which you can take a suitable doctorate.
While a Master’s degree doesn’t guarantee a raise or a new job with higher pay, one study found that the median annual salary of workers with a Master’s was about 23 percent more than those with a Bachelor’s. Over a working lifetime, this can mean hundreds of thousands of dollars of extra income.
Fulfill Job Certifications in Current Career
For those professions with licensing requirements, a Master’s degree is often needed to qualify for certification. Those who entered the field with less education may eventually need a Master’s to maintain their qualifications and current position, or to seek more advanced career roles.
Change of Career
For many people, changing careers or advancing from their current role is a key reason for getting a Master’s.
Career advancement and speeding up advancement are the primary reasons most people attend grad school. For some students, it’s a known or suspected requirement; for others, it’s about adding a pedigree to one’s abilities. This is true even for students seeking a doctoral degree.
The Best Master’s Degrees
The most popular Master’s degrees (by awards granted) are in business, education, and health-related subjects. These three categories made up more than half the Master’s degrees earned in 2019. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the best, for career or pay.
For some people, the best masters degree is one that leads to an in-demand occupation (e.g., with forecasted jobs growth rate over 10 percent). For others, the best means a job where this degree is valued (i.e., where a Master’s degree is preferred, recommended, or required). Or it could also be one that leads to a high-salary occupation (e.g., over $85,000 median annual income).
If all three qualities define the Best Master’s Degree for you, here are 10 subjects to consider:
- Computer Information and Technology
- Computer Science/ Computer Engineering (or Engineering in general)
- Genetic Counseling
- Health Administration
- Mathematics and Statistics
- Physician Assistant
- Occupational Therapy
Other articles of interest:
- Best Mental Health Counseling Degree Programs (Master’s)
- Best Online Mental Health Counseling Degree Programs (Master’s)
- Best Psychology Degree Programs (Master’s)
- Best Public Health Degree Programs (Master’s)
- Best Organizational Psychology Degree Programs (Master’s)
- Best Family Counseling Degree Programs (Master’s)
- Best Project Management Degree Programs (Master’s)
- What is a Master’s Degree?