In today’s tough employment marketplace, job applicants need any advantage they can get to distinguish themselves from competing candidates. One popular and proven means to “get ahead” of the competition is to get an additional educational credential such as a master’s degree. The popularity of master’s degrees has exploded in recent years; according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of master’s degrees awarded annually has increased from 425,000 in 1996 to 693,000 in 2010 and is projected to increase to 930,000 by 2022.

Length of Typical Master’s Degree Programs

The majority of master’s degrees awarded in 2010 were in just two fields – education and business. If the student already has a baccalaureate degree, these degrees normally can be completed through two years of full-time study. Of course, many students will not be able to devote full-time attention to their studies because of commitments to work and family responsibilities. The proliferation of online academic programs in recent years has made it easier for working adults to attend college; however, a master’s degree is academically challenging and will require significant time whether classes are attended online or in person.

Other, less popular master’s degree programs include humanities, English, computer science, the natural sciences and liberal arts. These programs often have specific educational requirements for admission (for example, a bachelor’s degree in science). The lengths of these programs vary widely but typically require one to three years of full-time study.

Part-Time Master’s Degree Programs

Many schools provide flexibility to pursue part-time studies which extend the time required to complete the program. For example, a typical Masters of Business Administration (MBA) program may require sixty credit hours (four full-time academic semesters at 15 credits per semester). A student that pursues this degree on a half-time basis (7-8 credits per semester) will take four years to complete the program. Part-time students could carry a lighter caseload, but keep in mind that most schools have rules regarding the maximum time (usually six years) allowed to complete a degree.

Joint Degree Programs

Another master’s degree option that is offered by many schools is a joint bachelor’s-master’s degree program, where students coming to college with only a high school diploma can earn both degrees with five years of full-time study. For example, a student could attain both a bachelor’s degree in Business and an MBA (Master’s of Business Administration) degree in a single five-year program.

Master’s degrees have become very popular in recent years and the trend towards getting the degree shows no sign of abating. If you think that a master’s degree is the right choice for you there are numerous options to consider. How long it will take you to complete a master’s degree depends primarily upon which program you want to pursue and whether you want to attend class on a full- or part-time basis.