Online Masters Degree: Your Graduate Degree Guidebook


Master’s degrees certify certain skills and knowledge at the post-baccalaureate level. In some fields, master’s degrees are downright required; other times they simply boost employment, advancement and earnings potential. Most master’s degree programs require applicants to have a bachelor’s degree before admission, though they need not always be in a related discipline. Graduate classes tend to more in-depth or specialized than undergraduate classes, and may demand more research and group work. Online master’s degree programs can make the whole process more convenient, especially for working professionals or full-time parents whose busy schedules make traditional classes difficult to attend.

Meet the Expert

Greg Beatty earned his PhD in English from the University of Iowa. He has over twenty years of experience in higher education and has taught traditional, online and hybrid courses at the master’s level and in multiple disciplines. Greg has developed curricula for several colleges and has served on a range of committees and advisory boards. He’s also won grants for course development and awards for teaching.

What Is a Master’s Degree?

A master’s degree is an advanced degree that can be earned through public, private non-profit and private for-profit institutions. Because this is a graduate-level credential, many programs require applicants to have at least a bachelor’s degree for admission. Depending on the school and discipline, admissions to master’s degree programs can be quite competitive — especially compared to most baccalaureate programs — and may require applicants to submit their undergraduate transcripts, standardized test scores, essays and even personal recommendations from employers or former professors.

Master’s degree programs tend to be more thorough and specialized than bachelor’s degree programs. The following are just a few examples of master’s level courses offered through major United States institutions and what they entail. Programs can and do vary, however, so students are encouraged to touch base with admissions or academic counselors before enrolling in courses.

Course Name Description
History 519: Documents of Roman History An introduction to the principal documents that bear on Roman history from about the fifth century B.C. to the fourth century A.D. Documents include those written in either Latin or Greek and preserved primarily on stone or in metal.
English 500: Introduction to Old English Language and Literature This master’s level English course helps students become better acquainted with the language and prose of famous Old English poets, like Chaucer.
Chemistry 551: Biophysics Students will engage in detailed discussion of the experimental techniques used to study biological macromolecules. Course emphasizes the physical chemistry that underlies the execution of such experiments and the interpretation of their results.
Engineering: Management in Engineering Provides an overview of management issues for engineers, including the study of finance, people management and entrepreneurship. Students will read texts and case studies with an emphasis on developing management skills and tools.
Computer Science 547: Human-Computer Interaction Seminar Computer science professionals share their industry experience and research in the field of human-computer interaction. Each week a new guest will speak, including technologists, designers, activists and more.

When a Master’s Degree Makes Sense

There are a number of reasons one might pursue a master’s degree. Some jobs or employers require them. In other cases, students earn them in hopes of earning more, building job security or improving their advancement potential. Whatever the case, master’s degrees can be a valuable investment in one’s future.

Starting Point for Specialized or Advanced CareersIn some fields a master’s degree is a baseline requirement for even entry-level work, especially in managerial positions. In these cases, the credential certifies that applicants have certain skills and knowledge, even if they have very little experience in the field. Other students earn master’s degrees voluntary rather than out of necessity, showing potential employers that they are committed to their fields and have the drive to complete an advanced degree. This is precisely why some employers are more inclined to hire master’s degree holders over lesser-trained candidates, especially in a tight job market.

As noted, there are certain cases in which master’s degrees are required, especially in highly technical or specialized industries like computer engineering and management. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook can clarify whether a specific job usually requires a master’s degree.

Same Field, New Position Some students apply to master’s degree programs not because their chosen fields demand it, but because they want to move up the ladder faster, or land a new, better position in the same field. This may be particularly true with highly competitive industries or managerial positions. Graduate education also gives professionals an opportunity to acquire new, specialized skills, broadening their career opportunities.

Master’s Degree Timeline

Deciding to apply to a program is only the first step toward earning a master’s degree — the next is figuring out how these programs work (and how long they take to complete). Let’s review the process from admission to graduation or transfer.

Application and Admission

Applying to any degree program may seem daunting, and master’s degree programs are no exception. The key is to know what to expect, beginning with application deadlines and requirements. These vary from one school — and even discipline — to the next, so it pays to research and make careful note of them in each program for which one intends to apply. Keep in mind that master’s degree admissions can be more competitive than for undergraduate programs, so requirements tend to be steeper. Many programs require applicants to submit standardized test scores, like the GRE or GMAT. They may also require essays and letters of recommendation in addition to transcripts. The following is an outline of what the steps one might take when applying for admissions:

  • Research and note application and other urgent deadlines
  • Become acquainted with applications, whether submitted via mail or online
  • Become acquainted with financial aid and student lending deadlines, if applicable
  • Compile a list of admissions criteria and deadlines for each. Transcripts, test scores and recommendations may have submission deadlines that differ from that of the initial application.
  • Contact undergraduate universities and request copies of official transcripts to be sent directly to graduate institutions.
  • Contact standardized testing firms to request scores be forwarded
  • Touch base with employers, professors and anyone else who might be willing to provide a letter of recommendation.
  • Complete and submit admission essays, if applicable
  • Complete and submit final application by deadline
  • Complete and submit financial aid paperwork by deadline, if applicable

Many schools maintain a list of application steps and requirements on their websites. If not, an admissions counselor can typically help. Now let’s look at what one can expect once admitted to a program. Note that most master’s degree programs are designed to be completed in about two years of full-time study. Some programs may take a bit more or less time, and students who do not take a full load of classes will need more time to complete their educations.

Year 1

  • The first year of a master’s degree program often includes some basic or general coursework, though bear in mind classes tend to be more specialized than they were in undergraduate programs: Most, if not all, courses will be directly related to one’s field of study. In other words, the general education courses typically required in bachelor’s degree programs are notably absent from graduate-level programs. Students enrolled in master’s degree programs with specialty options (think: an MBA with an emphasis on finance or technology) may be required to choose their concentration and tailor their courses toward it right from the start; other programs allow students to delay specialization until the second year. Admissions or academic counselors can help students understand what classes need to be completed, and when.

Year 2+

  • As noted, most master’s degree programs are designed to take two years to complete, but some run longer — especially programs that accommodate part-time study. Over the course of this year, courses tend to become more advanced and specialized. Many programs also require students to complete special projects, theses or comprehensive exams during this year. Students’ career and education goals may also drive course selection during year two: students preparing to go directly into the workforce may make different choices than those who intend to apply to doctorate programs. Once again, students’ academic counselors can help them figure out which courses are required to graduate, and when they tend to be offered.

Online Master’s Degree Programs

Because master’s degree programs tend to attract more working professionals than most undergraduate programs, schools tend to cater to them. Though night and weekend courses are a solid start, online master’s degree programs tend to be the most flexible option for busy students. Private for-profit institutions are known to offer more online programs than many public and private not-for-profit institutions, but that is quickly changing. According to a 2013 report from the Sloan Consortium, more colleges than ever are offering online degree options. Of course, some disciplines translate better to the online learning environment than others. Book- and writing-centric programs tend to work well on a web-based format, while hands-on subjects can be a little more difficult. In these cases, hybrid programs — programs that offer a combination of online and traditional classroom courses — can help.

Precisely how online master’s degrees work depends very much on the program or institution. Some programs are asynchronous, meaning students can access recorded lectures and other materials when convenient, without complying with a set class schedule. Synchronous classes, on the other hand, require students to stream live lectures, or coordinate with fellow students and professors online at specific times. Many programs have highly advance anti-cheating measures using things like webcams or keystroke verification software; others require students to complete exams on campus or at another designated center with proctors. It is important to research a course’s technical requirements — including computer, webcam or software requirements — before enrolling. Some programs will actually supply or lend students all required devices or software.

Online Learning Q&A

Online master’s degree programs are not precisely new, but for many students, they remain uncharted territory. Here are some of the most common questions students have about web-based learning.

Q:How do online master’s degree programs work?

As noted above, each school and program has its own online learning platform and requirements. Some allow students to complete their educations 100 percent online, on their own time, while others require some on-campus study and stricter schedules. Admissions counselors can clarify how particular programs work before students even submit their applications.

Q:How do online master’s degrees differ from online undergraduate degrees?

Programs can and do vary, but generally speaking, online graduate-level coursework translates just as well to the web-based environment as undergraduate coursework did. Note, however, that many master’s degree programs require students to complete theses that necessitate teacher mentorship, or special group projects. Students will need to coordinate with professors and peers to ensure they get the support they need. Some programs may also allow students to coordinate with local employers when completing certain projects. Programs requiring comprehensive examinations may require students to complete them on-campus or at an approved local center with proctors on staff.

Q:Can I really study anything online?

Some disciplines translate to an online learning environment better than others, but thanks to technological advancements like 3D or holographic imaging, the share of courses that have to be completed in the classroom is shrinking. For heavily hands-on subjects, like nursing, students can often take some courses online and complete others on campus or through a local teaching hospital. The same applies to any course that has a lab component.

Q:Are online master’s degree programs as credible as classroom-based programs?

In 2010, CareerBuilder conducted a survey in which 83 percent of executives said they believe an online degree is just as credible as one earned through a traditional campus-based program. As online programs have become even more familiar and mainstream, that share has likely increased. Note that in many cases, employers cannot even tell whether a candidate attended college online or on campus, especially with schools offering both modes of study.

Q:Are online master’s degree programs easier than traditional programs?

Not necessarily. Online classes may be more convenient that classroom-based classes, but as PsychCentral once noted, they can be every bit as challenging, especially with difficult subjects. Also keep in mind that online programs can also require more organization and self-discipline than traditional coursework, particularly in student-guided and non synchronous programs where students are responsible for completing their work on schedule.

Does a Master’s Degree Mean More Money?

Though master’s degrees do not always correlate with higher earnings, master’s degree holders do tend to earn more over the course of their careers than colleagues with less education. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for instance, master’s degree holders earned a median weekly salary of $1,329; bachelor’s degree holders earned $1,108 while those with associate degrees earned $777. Workers with a high school diploma alone earned $651 a week. The BLS reports that employment rates tend to improve with education, too: master’s degree holders faced a 3.4 percent unemployment rate in 2013, nearly half the 6.1 percent average for all workers nationally. Professionals working in fields that do not require master’s degrees can ask their managers or human resources representatives how investing in a degree could impact their bottom line. Prospective students can also consult online salary databases to learn how earnings within specific roles and regions shift with education.