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.
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.
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.
|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.|
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s no surprise that the top ten most-popular master’s degree programs are in fields that match the creation and rise of job specializations in the economy. While not all of these popular master’s programs guarantee high-paying jobs for graduates, they certainly reflect student interest in careers with high earnings potential in growing sectors such as business, education and healthcare. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) found that almost half of the 754,200 master’s degrees conferred in 2012 were in either business (25 percent) or education (24 percent). The remaining top degrees were, in order, healthcare-related, social services/public administration and engineering.
Master’s degree students tend to have work experience and, therefore, opt for graduate degrees that open doors to management roles or pathways into a new profession entirely. Whether they’re following their passion, the money or happily engaged in both, many students complete these popular degrees entirely online. Online programs dovetail neatly with working students’ obligations, providing opportunities to combine their advanced learning with real world business challenges.
MBA students, Boston.com reports, accounted for one-fourth of all graduate candidates in 2012, making it the first time a degree surpassed education in popularity since 1971. Degree types include one-year online accelerated MBAs, part-time programs, two-year online and traditional MBA programs and concentrated Executive MBAs for professional leaders.
Below is a glance at typical requirements for an MBA program:
Graduation requirements for a two-year MBA program vary. For example, the HAAS School of Business at U.C. Berkeley requires the completion of 51 semester units of coursework. That includes 15 in core classes, one in a team innovation project and the remainder in elective courses. Electives can be in any field supporting a business aspect such as healthcare, technology, or finance.
Despite being knocked off the top spot by business, education remains by far one of the nation’s most popular master’s degree programs. Admissions to some programs may be highly competitive and a great number of applicants are experienced educators. The most-commonly sought credentials are the Master of Education (M.Ed.), M.Ed./Credential and Master of Arts in Education (M.A.). Students can also opt to focus their skills by pursuing specializations such as education administration and management, special education, education counseling and post-secondary education administration. In general, a graduate degree in education involves the following:
Graduation requirements vary by school, but the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA requires that students complete 36 units of graduate coursework, with 20 concentrated in education studies and the balance in related electives or specializations. A passing score on the final comprehensive examination is also a must.
With a steady advancement of technology – particularly in the wireless space – comes a rising call for IT professionals to lead organizations in cloud network security, mobile communications and technology assessment. Online master’s degrees in information systems management are popular advanced-degree options for computer professionals seeking management credentials to lead enterprise-wide technology initiatives. The Master’s of Information Science (MIS) degree is an in-demand credential for leaders across all sectors including business, education, technology, healthcare and public and governmental organizations. Graduates of a MIS degree can go on to pursue jobs such as chief information officer (CIO), chief technology officer (CTO), IT manager, or IT director of security.
Graduation requirements usually involve core and elective courses, with some programs requiring a thesis/capstone project or internship. For example, one major university program requires the completion of 21 hours in the major and 21 hours of electives in fields such as information architecture, database design, strategic information management and leadership and systems analysis. Students must also complete an internship and of all MIS programming and technology literacy requirements.
The combined fields of homeland security, law enforcement and fire science had the single-greatest percentage increase in the number of awarded master’s degrees during the 2001-2010 decade. The NCES reported a 186 percent spike in degrees in this sector of public service and security. Regular and predictable promotions and increased wages for these careers, along with job security and new hiring trends in national law enforcement organizations, account for the rise in popularity. There are accredited online programs leading to master’s degrees in fire science, criminal justice and homeland security. Typically degrees are designated as a master’s of science (MS) in areas such as professional studies, fire science, criminal justice and law enforcement.
Graduation requirements vary by specific program. A master’s degree in homeland security can require students to complete 33 units of graduate-level classes, with a core concentration in areas including public policy, public health preparedness, intelligence and information security. Completion of a major research project is also required.
According to Forbes, it could be the median annual wage of $97,000 and a projected 38 percent increase in job openings (2012-2022) that lie behind the popularity of a master’s of science degree in physician assistant studies. Physician assistants are rigorously trained, licensed and can often perform many of the duties commonly handled by a doctor. They take jobs in physicians’ offices, hospitals, outpatient care centers and clinics. Accredited online master’s degrees in physician assisting programs usually take two years to complete.
Graduation requirements (example from a large nursing school in California): Completion of 27 month program including core courses, 1,630 hours of supervised clinical practice and submission of a master’s thesis. While most physician assistant programs will have similar curriculum, it is important to note that requirements will vary by school.
Forbes ranks the master’s degree in electrical engineering among the top-three degrees for finding jobs. Electrical engineers can earn a median mid-career annual wage of $121,000. The degree’s popularity, however, may be directly related to a wide range of potential employers in high-growth sectors such as oil and gas energy, semiconductor design and manufacturing and consulting.
Typical master’s electrical engineering programs involve the following:
Graduation requirements vary by school and program. However, graduate students in a typical EE program must complete 30 credits of graduate-level classes, half of which must be in the field of electrical engineering. Additional courses may be approved in related fields and for independent study.
The BLS estimates that 15.6 million new jobs will be added in the healthcare sector during the 2012-2022 decade. With all the new hires, it’s not surprising that jobs for medical and healthcare service managers are anticipated to increase by 23 percent during the same decade. The popularity of traditional and online master’s degree programs in healthcare administration or MBA degrees with a concentration in the healthcare sector reflects the allure of an interdisciplinary education with widespread workplace options. Healthcare professionals can return to college to add a management degree or management professionals can concentrate graduate studies in healthcare. Graduates may qualify for roles in leading a single clinical department or managing a hospital, clinic, or medical group.
Below is information on what a master’s degree in healthcare administration usually entails:
Graduation requirements for healthcare administration graduate programs can differ, especially those that involve areas of concentration. A common path to graduate includes the completion of 60 credit hours, including 40 hours in core curriculum courses in health systems, accounting, health policy, management theory, economics, health information technology, biostatistics and a capstone course. Students must also complete required courses in managerial accounting and corporate finance.
A bachelor’s degree in civil engineering will suffice if students want to work as an engineer and hold a license. However, the BLS now reports that one in five civil engineers has gone on to complete a master’s degree to qualify for management roles. Popular graduate programs include a MS degree in civil engineering or engineering mechanics and the master’s degree in engineering management (MEM or MsEM). Depending on the traditional or online degree program, students can pursue management and core strategic knowledge similar to that of an MBA curriculum, with a focus on engineering. In general, a master’s degree program in civil engineering includes the following:
Graduation requirements of a typical civil engineering program: Completion of 24 units, including 8 hours of graduate-level courses in engineering and project management. Completion of a master’s thesis or earning a passing grade on the engineering comprehensive examination is also required for graduation. Exact curriculum and requirements vary, depending on the institution.
While earnings may not be the attribute behind the popularity of counseling psychology degrees, this master’s degree is the minimum educational requirement for those interested in becoming a psychology professional. Typical degrees in the field include Master’s of Arts (M.A.) or Master’s of Science (M.S.) in Counseling and Master’s in Counseling Psychology. Due to a hefty 19 percent projected increase in jobs for counselors and social workers (2012-2022), people drawn to the mental health professions should enjoy ample career opportunities. Online programs in counseling or social work are common and offer options to students who are already working in a public service or mental health environment to bolster their credentials.
Below is a glance at typical admission and graduation requirements for graduate level psychology programs:
Graduation requirements differ between schools and learning modes. For instance, an online M.S. in Mental Health Counseling may require the completion of 60 credit hours, a 100-hour practicum at an approved facility and 600-hour supervised internship with a public, non-profit mental health treatment facility. Completion of a two-week intensive, on-campus component is also required of online students.
Forbes ranks a Master’s Degree in Physics the 6th most-powerful degree for landing a career. Graduates take jobs with diverse titles such as gravity researcher, radar project manager, science advisor, games designer, science journalist, structural engineer, Alzheimer researcher, solar energy physicist, astrophysicist, nuclear engineer, biophysicist, physics teacher and medical physicist. Many M.S. in Physics degree programs lead directly into Ph.D. programs. Master’s degrees often must be completed in four years, with a seven-year time frame to complete the Ph.D.
Graduation requirements are different at each institution. One university’s department of physics has a minimum completion of five graduate core courses in theory and mechanics, five elective physics courses and passage of a final compressive examination. Students may elect to write a thesis in lieu of the examination.
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.