Guide to Online Master’s Programs & Graduate Degrees

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Salary Projections, Resources for Finding a Program & Financial Aid

Earning a master’s degree comes with many tangible benefits, not the least of which is the potential for higher-paying jobs. While median weekly wages for all full-time workers in the U.S. was $857 in the fourth quarter of 2017, the median weekly wages for workers with advanced degrees was 74 percent higher, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Higher education pays – and it also can help workers retain jobs. Although the national unemployment rate hovered just above 4 percent throughout 2017, the BLS reports unemployment for workers with bachelor’s degrees or higher was only 2.8 to 2.5 percent for most of the year.

Read on to learn more about the benefits of earning a master’s degree online and how to choose the right graduate degree program.

Who Benefits from Online Master’s Programs?

Online master’s degree programs provide many benefits to both traditional and non-traditional students. Here’s a look at some of the primary benefits for both types of student.

  • Flexibility

    Working adults who want to further their education and boost their career options can study when it’s most convenient for them. Students also don’t have to be on campus at a specific time, giving them the option to work all day and study at night or on the weekends.

  • Better Pay

    As noted above, workers with advanced college degrees earn significantly more on average than their peers who only have bachelor’s or associate degrees.

  • Increased Program Offerings

    Students aren’t limited to geographical boundaries when enrolling in online graduate programs and can attend some of the most prestigious colleges in the nation.

  • Accelerated Study

    Some online master’s degree programs can be completed in an accelerated format, shortening the length of time spent studying – and hastening the possibilities for new career options and better pay.

  • Improved Communication Skills

    Graduate students spend a lot of time communicating online with peers and professors as they work to complete online master’s degrees. As a result, they become highly skilled in a variety of workplace communication platforms and tools, such as email, chat and video conferencing.

Why Get a Master’s Degree Online?

There are many compelling reasons to choose online study after complete a bachelor’s degree. Before committing, students must be confident they have the wherewithal and dedication for online study – it’s not the same as attending classes on campus. For those who are confident they possess the self-discipline to take the online route, here’s a look at two outcomes that they can expect from online master’s degree program, as well as insight into competency-based degree programs.

Higher Education May Lead to Higher Salaries

We’ve noted that higher salaries typically come with greater educational obtainment – as much as 74 percent over workers with bachelor’s or associate degrees. Here’s a look at median weekly wages by educational obtainment in the fourth quarter of 2017.

Median Weekly Wages by Educational Obtainment

High school graduate$714
Associate degree$800
Bachelor’s degree$1,170
Master’s or other advanced degree$1,487
Source U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

It’s one thing to look at weekly earnings, but project those numbers out over the course of 10 years.

  • Someone with a master’ degree who makes just under $1,500 a week earns roughly $77,000 annually – or about $770,000 over the course of 10 years.
  • Compare that to the worker with a bachelor’s degree, whose wages add up to just over $60,000 a year, or $600,000 over a 10-year span.
  • While that’s not such a huge gulf, consider that someone who holds a master’s will potentially earn about 85 percent more in 10 years than someone with just an associate’s degree ($416,000).
  • That’s a big difference, and these are only averages. Many people with master’s degrees make much more per week than the national median pay range listed here.

Many career paths require a minimum educational obtainment of at least a master’s degree, including: psychologists, economists, social workers, mental health counselors, urban planners, historians, political scientists, college professors and educational administrators.

Some of these jobs come with notable salaries. College-level administrators, for instance, enjoyed median annual salaries just above $90,000 in 2016, the BLS reports. Median annual salaries for economists, meanwhile, was more than $101,000 per year.

Flexibility and Accelerated Learning

The ability to learn on your own time, at your own pace is one of the hallmarks of earning a degree online. That’s incredibly important to working adults who don’t have the option of attending classes during the day.

Many campus-based and online master’s degree programs take about two years of full-time study to complete. Coupled with their undergraduate study, students spend six or more years in college. However, many colleges offer accelerated online master’s degree programs where students can complete both their bachelor’s and master’s degrees in just five years.

  • The graduate college at University of Arizona offers an accelerated master’s program for exceptional undergraduate students who plan on earning a master’s in their major or in a closely related field.
  • It’s the same at the University of Nevada, Reno with its public administration and political science programs. Students begin working on graduate-level courses their senior year and can complete 120 credits of undergraduate study and 36 credits of graduate-level coursework in five years.
  • Journalism students at Northwestern in Chicago, meanwhile, can earn both degrees in less than five years through the university’s accelerated master’s program.
  • Other colleges offer online master’s degrees that can be completed in about one year. Concordia University, for instance, offers an online Master of Education with courses that run in five-week blocs. Students who enjoy the flexibility of studying at their own pace can quickly tackle the requirements of a year-long master’s degree program and get their career aspirations underway in as few as 12 months of full-time study.

Competency-based Master’s Degrees

Competency-based education is a relatively new model of higher education that values subject mastery over seat time.

  • Western Governor’s University and Southern New Hampshire University are two institutions that offer degrees based on this model. Their online programs allow students to work independently on educational modules and demonstrate subject mastery and competency to move forward in the program. Bachelor’s degrees can be completed in a few as three years at SNHU under this online educational model for students who can quickly assimilate subject matter.

How to Choose a Graduate Program

Students have several choices for online colleges that offer master’s degrees in standard educational pathways such as computer science, mathematics, education, business or nursing. Options become a bit more narrowed for students interested in specialty fields such as hydrology, green energy or cybersecurity.

Two factors that weigh on any enrollment decision are cost and time of study. Students should thoroughly research program costs and all available funding options prior to enrollment to ensure they have the financial wherewithal to complete the program, as well as the ability to dedicate two years or more to full-time study.

Next, students need to have the end-goal in mind. Many students enroll in college without really knowing what they want to study, but that’s not an option for graduate students who need to have a razor-sharp focus on their career path and how earning a master’s degree will get them there. It’s important because unlike undergraduate studies, master’s degree programs are highly specialized. For instance, a college’s master’s in psychology program may offer concentrations in child and adolescent development, industrial organizational psychology, or forensic psychology. Knowing the end-goal before enrollment helps students choose a program that best meets their educational objectives.

Common Educational Paths for Graduate Students

Grad schools commonly offer three educational options: master’s degrees, doctoral degrees, and graduate certificates. Here’s a closer look at the benefits of each.

  • Master's Degree

    Master’s degree programs on average take two years to complete, although some accelerated online programs can be completed quicker, and certain campus-based programs may take longer. Many colleges, such as state universities, require students to complete between 30 and 36 credits to satisfy degree requirements. Programs often include a thesis. Business and law have long been the most popular advanced degree programs, but other popular programs include electrical, electronics and communications engineering, educational administration, computer science and public administration.

  • Ph.D

    Because this is the highest level of postsecondary education students can achieve, doctoral programs are extremely rigorous and demand intense intellectual output from students. In many instances, doctoral students design their own degree plans to suit their academic goals. Coursework includes a mix of theoretical and analytical courses designed to prepare students to work as independent researchers as well as collaborate on team research projects. Students typically initiate, write, present and publish the findings of their original research.

  • Graduate Certificate

    These can be an excellent way to add specializations to undergraduate degrees, as well as save time and money. Graduate certificates often can be completed in 12 months of study, or about half the time as a full master’s degree. They also can help accelerate career growth. Graduate certificate programs can be more focused and relevant to certain skills than full master’s programs as well. Some of the most popular programs include certificates in accounting, project management, information security, business, construction management and education.

Steps to Getting Started in an Online Graduate Program

The decision to enroll in an online master’s or doctoral degree program isn’t something to be taken lightly. There typically are many more hurdles to clear than when students enrolled as a freshman in their bachelor’s degree programs.

Following these five steps can help graduate students get started in an online degree program.


Research prospective schools.

Start with a list of between five and 10 colleges that offer the correct online degree. Be sure to check for proper regional and program accreditation, and also if a degree earned from that institution is accepted in the student’s home state. This is particularly important for programs such as nursing or education since most states have their own licensing requirements for professional employment in these fields.


Speak with faculty.

One of the best ways to learn more about prospective master’s degree programs is to schedule a call with department faculty. Staff members typically are student-centered and will do their best to answer your questions and determine if their institution’s program meets the student’s needs.

Stumped with the application process? There are many fee-based third-party companies that help prospective graduate students navigate the application and admissions processes. A few of these graduate-school counseling companies include Ivy CoachAccepted and Kaplan Test Prep.


Take the GRE General Test/GMAT exam.

While some online master’s degree programs have open admissions policies, most of the country’s more prestigious and competitive universities require prospective graduate students to complete an entrance exam such as the GRE or GMAT. Both tests gauge student aptitude in verbal and quantitative reasoning and analytical writing. Scoring well is crucial for entrance into these competitive programs.


Buy some GRE and GMAT study materials.

Preparation is the key to success on exam day. Experts suggest a minimum of six months of study and planning prior to taking either exam. There is wealth of study materials available from the administers of both exams, as well as from respected third-party sources such as PrepScholarMagooshVeritas Prep, and even for free on YouTube.


Apply to programs.

Many colleges require grad students to write a personal statement, get several letters of recommendation, submit undergraduate transcripts, submit a portfolio of work and sit through a personal interview. There are a lot of boxes to check, and incomplete applications can delay acceptance.

Scholarships & Financial Aid for Graduate Students

Tuition for graduate school can be expensive, especially for students who choose to enroll in one of the more prestigious colleges in the nation. There are a number of ways students can pay for college, however. Here’s a look at some of the most common financial aid and scholarships available for graduate students enrolled in online master’s degree programs.

Federal Financial Aid

Students enrolled in graduate or professional degree programs can receive tuition aid from the federal government. In most cases, parental income thresholds don’t apply. Students who want to be considered for federal tuition assistance programs must complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

  • Direct Unsubsidized Loan
    Graduate students can borrow as much as $20,500 per year to pay for tuition.
  • Direct PLUS Loan
    Students who enroll in colleges where tuition exceeds the subsidized amount can apply for this program to cover the difference.Grad students who borrow from the federal government must sign a master promissory note, which is a legal document stating students’ intent to pay back the government for their subsidized or unsubsidized loans.
  • Teach Grant
    Students enrolled in master’s degree programs in education or education administration may be eligible for Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education grants.

Grants, Fellowships & Scholarships

Organizations across the country need highly trained specialists – especially as their senior employees approach retirement. Private, public and government organizations support graduate students through a wide range of grant and scholarship programs to help fund advanced college education. Here are a few:

Q&A With an Expert

Dr. Gary Rader is the director for online education and policy development at Missouri State University. He has been involved with online teaching and program development since the mid-1990s. Dr. Rader founded and directed Drury University’s online program in 1999.

Q: What are the main benefits of earning a master’s for people who might be debating about putting in the extra time in college.

A: The main benefit is career promotion possibilities. Twenty-five years ago, a B.A. or B.S. was the path to advancement after a high school diploma. Now, companies expect a master’s degree in order to be promoted.

Q: Why go the online route? What are the primary benefits?

A: More than 20 years of education delivered by the Internet has provided advancement for people seeking promotion and professional training in a timely manner. Online pedagogy and technology has and continues to improve content delivery for many who have been previously underserved. The greatest benefit or advantage is clearly the flexibility for family and work time. The amount of work required is the same or even more than face-to-face, but the rigidity of coming at a specific time on campus opens up a world of opportunity for advanced education.

Q: Can you address increased earnings potential and career flexibility that online education provides?

A: Most accredited institutions that offer online programs are required to reveal potential earnings and career possibilities for their degrees. Students shopping for online degree programs should familiarize themselves by visiting online education websites for institutions offering advanced online degrees. Call the contact number provided and ask questions. Be a comparative student shopper for the online degree plan that fits your schedule and professional needs.

Q: Do you have any tips for choosing a master’s, PhD or graduate certificate program. What should students look for and avoid?

A: Always do your research on the programs in which you are interested. Always check for accreditation of the institution itself and any accreditation or recognitions given for the department offering the program.

Q: What are the most important first steps to getting started in a graduate program?

A: Accreditation of the institution is foremost. Check for any additional fees that might be required beyond the tuition rate. Read the institutional website for online education and find out how they approach distance learning and the training and development of their faculty. Are there testimonials posted? Make a list of your educational needs and compare to program surveys — these sources and others rank the best online schools and programs.

Graduate Student Resources

Today’s graduate students have the benefit of a wealth of resources at their fingertips. Here are some places where students enrolled in online master’s and Ph.D. programs can find additional help and benefits to help them successfully complete their educational journeys.

  • American Historical Association
    With a large membership of graduate students, the AHA provides a comprehensive guide to beginning, navigating and completing graduate school.
  • Council of Graduate Schools
    The CGS, an organization consisting of colleges and universities that provide graduate-level education, offers a variety of resources for students.
  • Fastweb
    Site that aggregates information on scholarships, financial aid, student loans, career planning, college selections and more.
  • Master’s Thesis example
    University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign provides an excellent example of how a thesis should be formatted.
  • Grad Resources
    Faith-based non-profit provides support, crisis care and resources to help graduate students flourish academically and personally.
  • Help with writing a dissertation
    Purdue University offers insight and writing guidelines for candidates whose graduate program requires a dissertation.
  • National Association of Graduate-Professional Students
    This student-run non-profit organization offers a wide range of resources for graduate students, as well as acts as the legislative voice for graduate and professional students at the national, state and local levels.
  • Purdue Owl Online Writing Lab
    Provides online presentations about various forms of graduate school writing, including peer review, organizing arguments, effective literary analysis, persuasion techniques and more.
  • Office of Graduate Studies
    Most colleges have staff dedicated to helping graduate students, from financial aid to entrance exams to professional and community resources.
  • Federal Student Aid
    Contains information from the Department of Education regarding all types of federal financial aid.

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