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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.

A master’s is a type of graduate degree 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 you to complete 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?

The main difference between a bachelor's and a master's is that they are different degree levels. A master's degree comes after a bachelor's degree and often requires significantly fewer credits.

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 encapsulates 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 a master's in accounting to a master's in sports management. Whatever your professional interest, a corresponding master's degree program is likely available.

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 types of 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 area of professional study. Some examples of MA degrees include:

An MS degree is science-based and designed to provide more scientific, technical or professional competence. Some examples of 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 types of MBA concentrations, you can gain industry-recognized credentials.

  • 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 terminal degrees – 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.

Is a Master's Degree Worth It?

A master’s degree can broaden your career opportunities and command, perhaps, a higher salary. A bachelor’s degree is often required 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, master’s degrees are 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.

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).

First-time graduate enrollment grew in four broad fields of study, according to the CGS report.

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%

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 $1,574 compared to $1,334 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 roles in education, business and healthcare.

How to Earn a Master’s Degree

The prerequisite for most graduate degrees is a bachelor's-level education from an accredited institution. Depending on the school and master's program you choose to pursue, there may be other requirements, too; for example, you must have an unencumbered registered nurse license to earn your master's in nursing online at SNHU. While you can earn some MBAs without standardized testing, others require the scores for entrance.

To determine exactly how you can get a master's degree, don't be afraid to contact the admission team at the graduate school you're interested in for specific program qualifications and expectations.

infographic with the text BLS projects jobs requiring a master's degree will grow 16.4% between 2020 and 2030. Today, your options for earning a master’s degree are broader 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 Many Years is 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 a timeline 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, 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. Your chosen graduate school can help you understand how long your program will take to complete and help you create a timeline that fits your schedule.

A degree can change your life. Find the SNHU master's degree that can best help you meet your goals.

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

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