Collegebound Network

Since 1987, America's Trusted Resource on Higher Education

A Crash Course in Masters Degree Programs

You've earned your bachelor's degree, so now what? Some students -- especially in tough economic times -- choose to further their education by earning their master's degrees. Others head to the workforce and then return to school because of the potential to advance in their careers or boost their salaries.

There's much discussion about the worth of a costly master's degree, and it certainly depends on your industry, the type of program, and the school you're attending. If you choose to earn a master's degree, there's no doubt, however, that you will experience personal fulfillment by adding an important credential to your name.

History ofa Master's Degree
Look back to medieval Europe to trace the history of a master's degree. Back then, historians say the word "magister" was given to university graduates when they began to teach. But the American Historical Association says it wasn't until the 1870s in America that students earned a master's degree through advanced study in a specific academic discipline. At that time, 879 degrees were awarded, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Now they're offered in a wider range of industries, with 656,784 degrees awarded in 2008-2009 -- or nearly one for every three degrees earned in the U.S. at the bachelor's level and above. By 2019-2010, that number is expected to rise to 839,000 degrees. The most popular master's degrees are in education, with 176,000 awarded, and business, with 156,000 awarded. Other fields with increasing numbers of master's degrees include computer and information science, health professions, engineering, and public administration.

Benefits of Earning a Master's Degree
The ability to receive advanced graduate study in a flexible format -- either part-time, or on the weekends or evenings, or online -- appeals to students and has attributed to the increase in females earning master's degrees.

The additional expertise and training can result in more pay for workers holding the master's credential. Students also find they're able to advance into positions with additional responsibility and leadership roles -- and higher earning power.

"No matter what you do, you are coming out with a higher level of credentials," says Francesca Reed, director of graduate admissions at Marymount University, based in Arlington, Va.

A master's degree is worth about $248,000 more than a bachelor's degree over a person's lifetime. Median annual earnings for a master's degree is $58,522, compared to $48,097 for bachelor's degree holders and $36,399 for those with an associates degree, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

"Many more doors open to the person possessing a master's degree. Increased salary potential and positions with increased responsibility and authority become available to those who have developed the necessary skills through master's level work," says Jean Dyer, dean of the College of Health Sciences at Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa.

Dyer says the master's level enables an individual to focus in a specialty area of interest. For example, a baccalaureate degree in history or nursing provides the grounding in a given focus area, while a master's degree prepares the graduate to be an archivist or nurse practitioner, she says.

A master's degree also is often necessary for entry-level jobs in some industries, such as physical therapy, Reed says.

"That's one of the draws for people to go back to school is to narrow their field of discipline a little bit and do some specialties [in their studies]," she says.

Forbes has identified the best jobs for master's degrees based on job prospects and paycheck potential: physician assistant, computer science, civil engineering, mathematics, physics, IT, human resources management, economics, geology, and business (the MBA).

How to Obtain a Master's Degree
A key component of earning a master's degree, for most programs, is a thesis, research paper or project, or a comprehensive examination. You also may be required to complete an internship or practicum to demonstration your additional skills.

You will notice a difference in a master's degree program than when you earned your bachelor's degree. Professors expect their students to provide more analysis on subjects, and the smaller classes often emphasize discussion among your peers.

"At the graduate level you should not be lectured to. It should be a dynamic dialogue with your classmates and the faculty," Reed says.

Applying for a Master's Degree Program
Since it is such a huge financial commitment, you need to do your homework before deciding on a program, and it's different from when you earned your bachelor's degree, Reed says. For example, find out what people who have advanced in your the field are doing, and what specific type of master's degree program they pursued to achieve their professional goals.

"At the undergraduate program level, you are looking at the school as a whole. When you're selecting a graduate degree, you're really selecting a program," she says.

Once you have narrowed it down, don't wait to find out learn about application requirements and deadlines. Reed says some students often don't realize that steps, such as preparing for and taking standardized tests, need to occur in a certain timeframe to meet application deadlines.

When you visit the school, meet as many faculty and admissions officers as possible, to try to stand out among applicants. Reed says if you're pursuing a research-oriented program, connections with faculty are crucial because they often are looking for students to assist them. Also, build in time to acquire reference letters.

Types of Master's Degrees
One of the biggest distinctions between master's degrees is where they have a research or academic focus or a professional studies focus, which is more focused on coursework that leads to advancing in a field. It all depends on your industry and what you hope to get out of the program, and some programs combine a research and professional studies focus. Sometimes research or academic degrees are required if you are going to pursue your doctorate.

When researching types of master's degrees, you will find these among the options:

  • Master of Accountancy (MA)
  • Master of Architecture (M.Arch)
    Master of Arts (M.A.) Often broken down into specialized areas such as English or psychology
  • Master of Arts in Teaching (M.A.T.)
  • Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.) The M.B.A. began in the U.S. in the 19th century; programs are accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) and regional accrediting agencies.
  • Master of Education (M.Ed.)
  • Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.)
  • Master of Library Science (M.L.S.)
  • Master of Music (M.M.)
  • Master of Public Health (M.P.H.)
  • Master of Science (M.S.) Offered in fields such as environmental studies, computer science, information science, aviation, medicine, and space studies
  • Master of Science in Nursing (M.S.N.)
  • Master of Social Work (M.S.W.)
  • Master of Theology (Th.M.)
  • Master of Veterinary Science (MVS)

TypicalLength of a Master's Degree
Master's degrees typically take two to three years to complete. The number of required credit hours or courses varies by the type of degree and the field. It typically ranges, however, from 24 to 60 credit hours.

Skill SetsDeveloped in a Master's Degree Program
Five key skill sets developed at the master's level, Dyer says, are:

  • Critical thinking vs. problem solving
  • Leadership and management
  • Preparation for scholarly initiatives such as research and publication
  • Communication, including oral presentations
  • Building a strong case using data and evidence-based research

"No matter what program you're going into, you will learn to be a better researcher and writer," Reed says.

Professors expect more from master's degree student, expecting you to delve into more high-level thinking and topics of discussion and research.

If you're coming straight from a bachelor's degree, the internships or practicum's required in a graduate program will provide the real-life experience you need to make it in your chosen industry. If you already have work experience, that could enable you to bring those experiences into class discussions.

InterestingMaster's Degrees
Master's degrees often reflect workforce needs, whether by providing expertise in fields where they were is a demand for workers, providing training in emerging fields, or by evolving with an industry. Some master's degree programs also multidisciplinary programs, with students earning both at J.D. and M.P.P. (master of public policy), for example. Other master's degrees are offered in conjunction with the military or with programs such as the Peace Corps.

Here's a look at a few interesting master's degrees:

  • Master's in Computer Graphics and Game Technology, which the University of Pennsylvania began offering in 2004.
  • Master's in Health Care Informatics, which Lipscomb University in Tennessee is debuting this year, to meet the demand for workers in the electronic medical records field.
  • Master's in Development Practice at Emory University, which is part of a network of similar programs at prestigious universities around the world with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to provide state-of-the-art training for 21st century development professionals.

CelebritiesWith Noteworthy Master's Degrees

  • James Franco, master's degree in filmmaking from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts in 2011
  • Basketball player Shaquille O'Neal, M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix
  • Singer Dexter Holland, from the band The Offspring, master's degree in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.
  • Actor David Duchovny, master's in English literature from Yale University
  • Singer Kristin Chenoweth, master's degree in opera performance from Oklahoma City University
  • Comedian Bill Cosby, master's degree in education from the University of Massachusetts in 1972
  • Actress Ashley Judd, Mid-Career Master in Public Administration from Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government in 2010

How to Prepare for a Master's Degree Program
To prepare for a master's degree, you must complete a baccalaureate level of education, Dyer says. Working for a year or two in the chosen area of interest after graduation is a way to hone those skills.

"When timing is right, money is available, and one is motivated to move on to the next level, exploring relevant master's level programs is the next logical step," she says.

Earning a master's degree is a large financial commitment, so to prepare, check into whether your company has tuition reimbursement and seek out grants and fellowships. Also, master's students can receive federal loans. Students are eligible for the Stafford Loan unless they have defaulted on a prior Stafford Loan.

Also, ask if your university offers an interest-free payment plan, which could help you shoulder the cost of a master's degree program.

How to Best Leverage a Master's Degree
A master's degree provides leverage in employer interviews and networking opportunities if it supports relevant work in the chosen area of interest or specialty, Dyer says. It is essential to have work experience to support moving to the next level of expertise.

Students should leverage their master's degree experience by networking with your peers in the program and faculty. They often are already working in the field and could lead to job opportunities in the future.

"At the undergraduate level, you don't consider classmates your colleagues," Reed says. "Many times you're in a class (for a master's degree) and meet somebody who knows of an opening."

Browse All Master's Degrees By Program