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What is a Master’s Degree?

If you’ve just graduated college, you may be thinking about continuing your education in pursuit of a master’s degree. As you probably know, earning an advanced degree can be valuable in a number of ways. Master’s degree programs are a popular option for individuals looking to advance their career or learn more about a particular subject. In this guide, we’ll talk about the ins and outs of master’s degrees. 

Definition of master’s degree

A master’s is an advanced graduate degree that students pursue after earning their bachelor’s degree. Students enter master’s programs either to build on their undergraduate knowledge or to gain the necessary qualifications to transition into a new field. These programs typically take 1-3 years to complete

Master’s degrees are beneficial in opening up career advancement opportunities. For instance, some job positions such as professors, education administrators, and survey researchers require a master’s degree. For professions that don’t require it, a master’s may help individuals progress to managerial or leadership roles. The bottom line is that a master’s degree can be a valuable tool to help you progress to the next stage of your career. 

Types of master’s degrees

Just like bachelor’s degrees, there are a wide variety of degree options at the master’s level as well. Within each program type there are typically several areas of study to choose from, each with its own unique career opportunities. Below are some of the most common types of master’s degrees: 

Master of Arts (MA)

  • Typical Program Length: 2 years
  • Areas of Study: communication, history, public administration, teaching, psychology
  • Popular Careers: urban planner, therapist, college professor, PR specialist, journalist

Master of Science (MS)

  • Typical Program Length: 2 or more years
  • Areas of Study: chemistry, computer science, engineering, economics, biology
  • Popular Careers: political scientist, speech-language pathologist, economist, computer and information research scientist

Master of Business Administration (MBA)

  • Typical Program Length: 2 years
  • Areas of Study: management, finance, leadership, organization 
  • Popular Careers: market research analyst, human resource manager, sales manager, IT manager

Master of Education (M.Ed.)

  • Typical Program Length: 3 years or less
  • Areas of Study: teaching strategies
  • Popular Careers: college professor, curriculum designer, reading specialist, literacy coach

Master of Fine Arts (MFA)

  • Typical Program Length: 2 years
  • Areas of Study: creative writing, filmmaking, photography, graphic design  
  • Popular Careers: college professor, graphic designer, creative director, UX designer, actor, video producer

Master of Public Health (MPH)

  • Typical Program Length: 2 years
  • Areas of Study: healthcare policy, infectious diseases, crisis prevention and reaction 
  • Popular Careers: healthcare administrator, epidemiologist, dietician, social and community service manager

Master of Social Work (MSW)

  • Typical Program Length: 1-2 years
  • Areas of Study: mental health, gerontology, family services, school social work
  • Popular Careers: school social worker, substance abuse counselor, marriage and family therapist 

Other Master’s Degrees 

The degrees mentioned above are not the only types of master’s programs available. There are several other kinds of master’s degrees, many of which lead to careers in specific industries. We’ve listed a few below: 

  • Executive Master of Business Administration (EMBA)
  • Divinity (M.Div.)
  • Science in Education (M.S.Ed.)
  • Engineering (M.Eng.)
  • Law (LL.M.)
  • Philosophy (M.Phil.)
  • Public Policy (MPP)
  • Teaching (MAT)

Why should I get a master’s degree?

Career development

Obtaining your master’s degree is an excellent way to gain the qualifications needed to:

  • Pursue a particular career
  • Advance in your current career 
  • Change careers altogether 

In some cases, a master’s degree is an industry requirement. For instance, a master’s degree is typically the minimum qualification for lawyers, doctors, college professors, librarians, and physicists. 

Even for jobs that don’t require a master’s degree, having that extra qualification can be extremely valuable. For instance, you’re more likely to advance to a managerial or leadership position in your desired industry with a master’s degree. Finally, going back to school and earning a master’s degree is a popular move for individuals seeking a career change. 

Increase your earnings 

It’s no secret that with more education comes the potential for a higher annual salary. The median annual salary of master’s degree holders is $81,848. Meanwhile, the median annual earnings of bachelor’s degree holders is $69,368. Students should weigh out the cost of a master’s degree in relation to potential lifetime earnings. Here’s a list of the master’s degrees that lead to the highest paying jobs:

Master of:

  • Science in Nursing (MSN)
  • Public Administration (MPA)
  • Science in Computer Science
  • Economics (M.Econ., M.Ec., MS in Economics)
  • Finance
  • Engineering (M.Eng.)
  • Business Administration (MBA)
  • Science in Biomedical Engineering (BME)
  • Science in Speech-Language Pathology
  • Education (M.Ed.)
  • Science in Mathematics

Love of academia

For college graduates who can’t get enough of university life, pursuing a master’s degree is an attractive option. If you want to continue studying a certain subject, attending graduate school is a fantastic way to do exactly that. Enrolling in a master’s program gives you the chance to further your knowledge in the subject, specialize in a particular area, and perform in-depth research. If you wish to stay in academia professionally, you can even gain the qualifications necessary to become a professor!

How much do master’s degrees cost? 

The cost of a master’s varies greatly depending on the:

  • Field of study   
  • School / Institution
  • Credit load

In general, going to grad school is typically more expensive than undergrad because there are fewer financial aid options. However, it’s certainly not impossible to secure scholarships and financial aid to help fund your master’s degree

Prospective and current graduate students may be able to qualify for federal student loans by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA.

Some working professionals may also receive financial support from their companies to pay for graduate school. You can check with your company’s human resources department for more information about these opportunities. 

See also: Scholarships for graduate students

Don’t forget graduate assistantships

Although grad students don’t have access to resources such as the Pell Grant, they do have some alternative ways to help pay for school. Graduate assistantships are a great option, especially for students who are looking to continue in academia. Becoming a research assistant or teaching assistant helps you earn money towards your tuition while gaining experience in your field and making connections.

Tuition reimbursement

Another common method of reducing the financial burden of a master’s degree is to try for tuition reimbursement. Oftentimes, companies will put money towards their workforce development by paying for employees to return to school. So, if you land a job in your field of interest after completing undergrad, you might be able to pursue a master’s while working.

Students working service jobs can also qualify for tuition reimbursement. If you find a service job at a large corporation that offers tuition reimbursement, you might be able to help subsidize your master’s degree. Check out careers at Chipotle, Starbucks, and Amazon to investigate these options.

Key Takeaways

Key Takeaways

  • Master’s degrees are a great way to deepen your knowledge of a specific subject, or transition to a new field after receiving your bachelors
  • While there are fewer funding options for master’s programs, that doesn’t mean that paying for a master’s program is impossible
  • If you are already working for a company, inquire within about if they will help cover the costs of your master’s degree
Key Takeaways

Frequently asked questions

Is a master’s degree worth it?

It depends. Earning a  master’s degree can be costly, with the average debt being $64,950. If you plan on a career where you know you will get a significant increase in salary from earning your master’s degree, it might be a smart financial investment. Otherwise, carefully think about your goals before taking out loans.

How many years is a master’s degree?

Program length varies based on the degree type and enrollment status, but most master’s programs are completed within 2-3 years. 

How do I apply to a master’s degree program?

Master’s programs require that applicants have their bachelor’s degree. Some programs require a specific bachelor’s degree, while others accept students from any discipline. Additionally, master’s programs may also require a minimum GPA, prerequisite coursework, standardized test scores, recommendation letters, writing samples, and personal statements.

Are master’s degrees hard to earn?

If you enroll in a master’s program, you can expect a challenging curriculum that pushes you to think critically about advanced concepts. Additionally, master’s programs often come with a heavy workload that requires a big time commitment. Despite these challenges, many students find that earning their master’s degree is worth it because it leads to more rewarding career opportunities.