What Is a Master’s Degree?

Ginger Abbot

Jan 25, 2023

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A master’s degree is an excellent option for students interested in expanding their knowledge of a given discipline or exploring another field entirely. Individuals with undergraduate degrees may also wish to obtain a master’s degree for career advancement or salary increases.

Graduate studies are intensive learning programs that equip students with advanced conceptual and applied expertise. They also deliver highly-developed skill sets focused on research, analysis and understanding. 

Students can expect master’s degree programs to take about two to three years, depending on whether they’re enrolled part-time or full-time. While most curriculums comprise 30-36 credits, some programs require more to graduate. 

To obtain a graduate-level degree, students may also need to complete comprehensive exit exams demonstrating what they’ve learned. Other exit requirements may include a Capstone project, or a thesis dissertation and defense.

Types of Master’s Degrees

If you’ve ever wondered, “What is a master’s degree?” you’ve also probably asked if there’s more than one. There are two primary master’s degrees: Master of Arts (M.A.) and Master of Science (M.S.). An M.A. is designated for the humanities and arts, while an M.S. applies to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs of study.

Alternative master’s degrees are more specialized for working professionals. For example, business majors may want a Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.), while social workers are likely to obtain a Master of Social Work (M.S.W.). Likewise, government workers might hold a Master of Public Administration (M.P.A.) just as teachers acquire a Master of Arts in Teaching (M.A.T.).

Students may pursue a master’s degree immediately upon completing their undergraduate studies. Many people also choose to enroll in graduate programs after starting their careers. Thankfully, these programs typically offer more scheduling flexibility for students to fit their studies around their work hours. 

Some schools may offer distance learning master’s programs, in which students can enroll in classes or complete their entire curriculums online. 

Part-time learning is another option for students with busy schedules, with the addition of weekend or evening courses offerings. 

What Is a Master’s Degree Good For?

A master’s degree is an investment in your academic and professional career. Master’s degrees usually cost between $30,000 and $120,000, depending on the school and major. As such, it’s essential to weigh the pros and cons of a master’s degree and make your decision after careful consideration. Here are five reasons you might want to enroll in a graduate program. 

1. Deepen Learning

Students gain comprehensive knowledge of their chosen major throughout their undergraduate studies; however, a master’s degree program provides an opportunity for them to dive even deeper into their subject area.  

Let’s say you decide to enroll in a computer science graduate program. Then you may choose to concentrate on a specific subfield of computer science for your graduate studies, such as data analytics, software development, or health information science.

Although more in-depth knowledge is excellent for one’s career, some students simply prefer the mental stimulation they receive from challenging coursework.

2. Career Development

The workforce evolves and advances regularly, so acquiring higher education is vital to stay abreast of industry trends. A graduate program may be the best route for individuals who want to brush up on their skills or work up the career ladder. 

Individuals should always ensure they are enrolling in an accredited program that meets industry standards and provides top-notch education to boost their qualifications and reputation in the field. This is particularly true for those who may need to pursue post-graduate studies, such as lawyers, doctors, and research scientists.

3. Employment Opportunities

Pursuing a master’s degree may open doors for more employment opportunities and higher pay. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 86% of degree holders with at least a bachelor’s degree had the highest employment rate in 2020. 

The job outlook is even better for those with master’s degrees. In 2021, the unemployment rate was 2.6% for master’s degree holders, while undergraduates with four-year degrees had a higher unemployment rate at 3.5%.

Some positions require a master’s degree at minimum to be considered, such as mental health counselors, statisticians, and librarians.

4. Career Change

It happens all the time: You majored in one subject for your bachelor’s degree and decided that you no longer want to work in the field. You may have even picked a program of study with few employment opportunities or lower salaries. 

Of course, you’re not alone. Surveys show that approximately 29% of people change their field entirely since starting their first job. 

A master’s degree can help you transition from one industry to another. Other times, individuals may choose a different field that they can leverage with their undergraduate learning, making them unique job candidates with broader expertise in two subjects. 

5. Work In Higher Education

Some people simply love learning and wish to teach their subject area at the college level, in which a master’s degree is required for gainful employment in higher education.

Remember that a master’s degree will most likely make you eligible for adjunct positions, which often don’t replace a full-time salary. If you wish to become a full-time professor and academic researcher, you’ll have to go for your doctorate.

Regardless, adjunct positions are an excellent starting point as you build your academic reputation and become recognized as a field expert. 

Deciding Whether a Master’s Degree Is Right for You

Is a master’s degree the right path for you? That’s something only you can decide for yourself. However, graduate school may be an obvious choice if you’re committed to furthering your education to enhance job prospects or make a significant career change. 

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