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What is a Master's Degree?

A master’s degree, or graduate degree, is typically a 2-year academic program following a bachelor's degree that allows you to specialize in a subject area.

A bachelor’s degree is a significant academic achievement, but your learning doesn’t have to stop there. If you have a desire to advance your career or expand your knowledge, the next logical step would likely be to pursue a master’s degree.

Also often called a graduate degree, a master’s is typically a two-year academic program that allows you to specialize in a subject area – mastering it, if you will. This means that courses often dive deep into the subject matter and usually involve scholarly research, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

Some master's degrees require a thesis or capstone project to demonstrate your proficiency in the material.

NCES reported that of all the master's degrees conferred in the 2018-19 school year, more than half were in:

What's the Difference Between a Bachelor's Degree and a Master's Degree?

A master's degree comes after a bachelor's degree and often requires significantly fewer credits to complete. Bachelor's degrees are referred to as "four-year degrees," as it typically takes that amount of time to finish 120 credits worth of classes. Master's degrees, on the other hand, range from 30-60 credits, meaning they can be completed within two years or less.

Whether you decide to get a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or a Bachelor of Science (BS) a  bachelor's degree encapsulate general education courses in addition to foundational classes related to a chosen field, master's degrees focus primarily on advancing your knowledge of the selected discipline. 

Types of Master's Degrees

There are dozens of specialized master’s degrees in areas ranging from accounting to sports management. Whether you see your master's degree as a continuation of your field of study or an opportunity to change careers, it's important to consider your options and find one that aligns with your personal and professional goals.

The Difference Between a Master of Science and a Master of Arts

Infographic with the text MA vs MS and images depicting each degreeTwo of the most common master's degrees are the Master of Science (MS) and Master of Arts (MA). People often question the admission team at Southern New Hampshire University about the differences between an MS and an MA – and whether one is better than the other to pursue. Admission counselors are quick to point out that the choice isn’t a case of which is better as a degree but rather which is better suited to the student’s interests and goals.

An MA is a humanities-based degree designed to provide a balanced liberal arts education and general knowledge in a recognized discipline, interdisciplinary field or areas of professional study. An MS degree is a science-based degree designed to provide more scientific, technical or professional competence.

Some examples of MA and MS degrees include:

MBA, MEd and More

A research-based graduate degree is often a step toward obtaining a PhD (or doctoral degree); however, professional master's degrees prepare you for a specific occupation.

Some examples of professional master's degrees include:

  • Master of Business Administration (MBA): If you're looking to advance or pivot your career in business, an advanced business degree can help you grow a holistic perspective. Whether you want to pursue a general business education or select a specialized track from more than 15 concentrations, you can gain industry-recognized credentials with an MBA education.
  • Master of Education (MEd): Earning a master's degree in education can help educators explore leadership possibilities in their field. If your focus is advancing curriculum and instruction, your classes may delve into design theories and principles applicable to all kinds of learning environments.
  • Master of Public Health (MPH): Public health professionals use data to navigate health issues concerning all types of communities. An MPH degree can deepen your knowledge of the science, research, policy, statistics, economics and more that go into public health careers, helping you make positive changes to wellbeing.
  • Master of Science in Nursing (MSN): With hundreds of nurse specialties, there are many pathways and directions registered nurses (RNs) can take in their careers. Earning a master's degree in nursing can help you stay up-to-date in a constantly evolving profession in a track that interests you – such as nursing education, quality and safety and population healthcare.

Some professionally-oriented master’s degrees are considered a terminal degree – the highest academic credential someone can earn in a specific field. A Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing, for example, is still widely recognized as a terminal degree, said Benjamin Nugent, the director of SNHU's Mountainview Low-Residency MFA program.

What's the Point of a Master's Degree?

infographic with the text BLS projects jobs requiring a master's degree will grow 16.4% between 2020 and 2030. A master’s degree can broaden your career opportunities and command, perhaps, a higher salary. A bachelor’s degree is often a requirement for many professional entry- to mid-level jobs, so a master’s degree is sometimes the preferred credential for senior leadership roles.

In some industries, a master’s-level education is the standard prerequisite for many positions. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that from 2020 to 2030, employment in master's-level occupations is projected to grow by 16.4%, the fastest of any education level.

You may also have a higher earning potential with a master’s degree. BLS reports that the median weekly wage for full-time workers over the age of 25 whose highest level of education was a master's degree was $1,545 compared to $1,305 for those holding a bachelor's degree, a $12,000 per year wage premium. The pay difference between degree levels often depends upon the industry and position.

A BLS article states that careers where a master's degree typically pays the highest wage premiums include education, business and healthcare.

Growth in Master’s Degree Seekers

Perhaps because of the growing demand from employers, graduate programs are seeing a spike in enrollment. A report from the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) showed a 1.8% increase in first-time master’s degree seekers between 2019 to 2020 (CGS PDF source).

An infographic piece with the text CGS reports first-time graduate enrollment grew in four broad fields of study: Business: 16%, Biological and agricultural sciences: 9.1%, Health sciences: 8%, Public administration and services: 6.5%

How to Earn a Master’s Degree

Today, your options for earning a master’s degree are wider and more varied than they were in the past. For example, many who wished to pursue graduate school for a specific area of interest may have been limited by geography. Or perhaps family or work obligations prevented additional schooling because the scheduled class times conflicted with those commitments.

Flexible, online programs now allow easier access to MA, MS, MBA, MSN and other master's degrees, and coursework is more convenient to complete. The evolution of some industries – and the introduction of new ones – have led to exciting new areas of study at the graduate level. Dozens of accredited master’s degrees are available exclusively online.

How you get a master's degree depends on the school and program you pursue, but the prerequisite for most graduate degrees is a bachelor's-level education from an accredited institution.

How Many Years Does it Take to Get a Master's Degree?

The time it takes to get a master's degree depends on the number of credits in your selected program and how many classes you take each term.

Since the number of required credits varies greatly by master's degree, you'll have a better idea of how long it will take you to get a master's degree once you've selected your program. An online MBA from SNHU, for example, is 30 credits in length and can take you just over one year to complete, should you take two classes per 10-week term. On the other hand, if you get your master's in clinical mental health counseling at SNHU, then you can expect a 60-credit curriculum and two years of study with the same weekly time commitment.

While many traditional campus-based master's degrees can operate on a semester schedule, some online schools are term-based instead. At SNHU, for example, master's classes are 10-weeks long, and you can choose to take one or two courses per term. It all comes down to the pace that works for you.

Rebecca LeBoeuf ’18 is a writer at Southern New Hampshire University. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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About Southern New Hampshire University

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SNHU is a nonprofit, institutionally accredited university with a mission to make high-quality education more accessible and affordable for everyone.

Founded in 1932, and online since 1995, we’ve helped countless students reach their goals with flexible, career-focused programs. Our 300-acre campus in Manchester, NH is home to over 3,000 students, and we serve over 135,000 students online. Visit our about SNHU page to learn more about our mission, accreditations, leadership team, national recognitions and awards.