What is a Master’s Degree?

Laura Leavitt picture
Laura Leavitt
Published June 24, 2021

Advancing your education may be a big goal or something you see as necessary for growing in your career. But what is a master’s degree and what are the master’s degree requirements you should know? Put simply, a master’s degree is an advanced credential that follows the work of a bachelor’s degree, usually taking about 2-3 years to complete.

In many cases, a master’s degree may follow directly on your bachelor’s degree, narrowing your focus, while in some programs, you bring past work experience to the table as you start a master’s degree. Many people find that their profession doesn’t require a master’s, but may reward one with higher pay or more interesting responsibilities. People with a master’s degree earn nearly $12,000 more per year on average than those with a bachelor’s degree, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

We’ve pulled together the key facts you should know about everything from a Master of Science degree to a Master of Arts degree so that you are well-informed when you begin your search for the right degree. 

Types of Master’s Degrees

Master’s degrees are offered in so many fields that you’ll likely see wide variation in the programs’ lengths, the percentage of coursework versus independent/group research time, and the resulting career outcomes. Here are some of the types of master’s degrees you could pursue.

Master of Arts (MA) 

MA degrees tend to be offered in the humanities and arts, from studies of languages to studies of theater, with plenty of possibilities throughout the disciplines typically thought of as the liberal arts. An MA program consists of a combination of required and elective coursework in which you develop a specific research interest.

Most of these degrees will use extensive lecturing, class discussion, and independent research to teach. Your research interest may yield a capstone project or be formalized as a master’s thesis. MA degrees can lead to teaching that discipline as a career or can be an additional specialization in a profession, like getting a Master of Arts in Political Science while continuing to pursue a career as a politician.

Master of Science (MS) 

The designation Master of Science tends to come in fields like computer engineering, biology, or a healthcare field. While they may still use lecture and coursework as a primary part of the program, there will often be a lab or practical component, such as a Master’s of Science in Nursing, requiring clinical experience as part of the program. 

Some graduates will return to a career in a field they were already working in while others will start in the working world for the first time after doing a bachelor’s and master’s degree in quick succession. MS degrees also sometimes lead into doctorate degree programs.

Master of Education (M.Ed.) 

While some MA programs help one qualify as a teacher, Master of Education degrees are specifically focused on teaching technique. They often build on past or current teaching experience, and may require student teaching, though that is more often required at the bachelor’s level. 

Graduates can pursue further studies or take on administrative roles, in addition to continuing in classroom teaching roles. There are often incentives in school districts in the form of additional pay for teachers who pursue an M.Ed.

Master of Business Administration (MBA) 

An MBA degree is a professional master’s degree that focuses on building skills and specializations that can help you advance in a company or build your own business as an entrepreneur. 

The coursework focuses on real-world applications in a specialization of your choice, varying from international business to logistics to finance. Graduates tend to take management-level roles in companies, potentially advancing over time to lead companies. 

Master of Social Work (MSW) 

To work as a social worker or counselor of many kinds, an MSW degree as well as some state licensure exams are necessary. This degree teaches social work best practices and the body of research that jobs in human and social services require. 

If you’ve been studying social work at the undergraduate level, you can look into options for accelerated programs that take as little as a year to complete.

Master of Public Administration (MPA)

This degree is somewhat of an analogue to an MBA but for government and nonprofit leadership. The concerns of these fields are different than for profit-seeking companies, so the MPA degree helps you learn many of the leadership skills necessary. 

You’ll also learn the history and practice of public administration to give you a solid background before pursuing public office, government agency work, or nonprofit executive roles. 

Master of Fine Arts (MFA) 

MFA degrees are specifically crafted around one of the arts, be it playwriting, painting, or vocal performance. These degrees combine study of theory with practical or studio classes where you’ll create art. 

These courses often include time to critique your and your peers’ work. The courses prepare students to practice their arts professionally after the program or teach at the college level and work on their artistic pursuits at the same time. 

Master of Science in Education (M.S.E.d)

Subtly different from an M.Ed., the Master of Science in Education degree is for those who already are practicing, licensed teachers to continue their advancement. 

A Master of Science in Education will focus on helping you become the best possible classroom teacher and can be a condition for renewing your license, depending on the state. They often let you specialize in your kind of teaching, be it secondary language arts or science education.

Admission Requirements for a Master’s Degree 

Master’s degree candidates thrive in the intensive, high-level study environment that a master’s degree requires. Many master’s degrees will require a related bachelor’s degree for admission, though there could be a few different four-year degrees that lead to a given master’s degree. 

Many programs will require GRE scores or another specialized exam for your field. You may also need to have a personal statement, a resume, letters of recommendation, and a minimum GPA from undergraduate studies. 

You’ll want to look at the graduate school’s general website and your program’s admissions website to get a complete list of requirements, since the individual program may have additional requirements above the general admissions standards.

How to Choose a Valuable Online Master’s Degree

It’s really important to take some time before you choose your online master’s degree school. After all, this is a major investment of both time and money, and just a few hours of research can set you on an excellent path.

The best way to evaluate online master’s degrees is to start by gathering options. Research what online schools offer the degree you are interested in—if you are choosing between 2-3 kinds of programs, check on all the available options. 

Once you have your “long list” of programs, start to fill in details. Some of the key metrics you’ll want to note include:

  1. Timing/schedule - Can you fit this program’s structure into your life?
  2. Costs and length - Accelerated programs may take a lot of time per week, but could save you money compared to longer programs.
  3. Perks and benefits - Every program will try to share their best features to help you make a decision.
  4. Rigor/requirements - Does this program require higher scores or any admissions requirements you worry you won’t be able to meet? Stretch schools are fine, just recognize the need for options.
  5. Placement rates - Talk to alumni or someone at the school to find out what people go on to do after graduation.

Using these pieces of information, you can decide what the best option is for you. Many people narrow down their options to 2-3 schools based on the programs themselves and then choose the most affordable or most convenient one to ‘break the tie.’

Answering Your Questions About Master’s Degrees 

Here are just a few more important questions to answer for yourself as you explore the master’s degrees available to you.

How long does it take to earn a master’s degree?

Some master’s degrees are combined with a bachelor’s degree or specifically accelerated to finish in a year or 18 months. However, 2-3 years is a normal length for a master’s degree when taking courses full-time. 

If you scale back to part-time, taking fewer classes, it can take as long as needed to fit into the rest of your life, unless the school places a restriction on how long you can take classes. 

When is a master’s degree worth it?

While you have to decide for yourself whether getting an advanced degree is worth it, most people say a master’s degree has been “worth it” when you enjoy the experience, make more money afterwards, or get to do a different or more fulfilling kind of work after. 

Master’s degrees are only clearly “not worth it” if they mislead you about what you’ll learn, what it will cost, or how it will affect your career prospects: if they are clear about the potential benefits, you can judge for yourself. 

How much does a master’s degree cost? 

The average cost for a year of graduate tuition and fees is $18,947. However, you can save money in various ways, whether you choose to work during your program, take a more affordable online degree, or accelerate your program to reduce how many years you’ll need to pay tuition.

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