Master’s Degree Programs: Types, Costs & Requirements

Master’s Degree Programs: Types, Costs & Requirements
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

In the past, obtaining a Master’s degree was an excellent way to progress in one’s chosen field. Be it a Master of Education (MEd) for teaching roles, a Master of Business Administration (MBA) for business-related careers, a Master of Arts (MA) for graduates of humanities and liberal arts, or a Master of Science (MSc) for engineering, medicine, and other science-related fields.

Today, however, you’ll find dozens of programs in the offing that choosing the right one for your intended career path is daunting. In engineering, for instance, you have a slew of master’s programs for mechanical engineering, civil engineering, aerospace engineering—these on top of broad majors as Master of Engineering Management or Master of Science in Engineering. If that’s not confusing enough, there are also plenty of one-year master’s programs online that you can choose from. 

It is important that you get in the right major early on as a wrong choice of a degree may prove costly, if not fatal, to your future professional life. Hence, this guide will help you set yourself on the right foot and your sight towards the coveted goal by understanding the different types of master’s degrees, their varying requirements, and other key factors to consider before getting a major.

Master’s Degrees: All You Need to Know

  1. Key Master’s Degree Statistics and Trends
  2. What is master’s degree?
  3. 3 Reasons to Get a Master’s Degree
  4. What are the types of master’s degrees?
  5. How long does a master’s degree take?
  6. How much does a master’s degree cost?
  7. What are the requirements to study a master’s degree?
  8. Factors to Consider before Getting a Master’s Degree
  9. Most Popular Master’s Degree Majors

Key Master’s Degree Statistics and Trends

The following figures and trends reveal a pattern where more people are getting a master’s degree, that a master’s degree has a clear wage benefit and that students tend to gravitate towards 3-5 majors only. 

  • Over 42% of college graduates now pursue a master’s degree (The James Martin for Academic Renewal, 2019). 
  • Those with master’s degrees tend to earn 16% more, at the minimum, than those with only a bachelor’s degree. Conversely, if you only have a master’s degree, you stand to earn roughly 20% less than someone with a doctoral degree (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018).
  • While no national databases track the actual degree completion rate for master’s degree students, the few studies of master’s student persistence have found that degree completion rates for master’s students range from 63% to 78%, depending on the number of years of study and the type of academic program (Girves & Wemmerus, 1988 cited in Cohen, 2012). 
  • Business-related degrees are the most popular master’s programs in the world. But it used to be education degrees until the school year 2010-11, when business surpassed education and, since then, has dominated the master’s field.
  • The highest jumpers in nearly the last 20 years are health-related degrees (187% increase), computer and information sciences (175% increase) and engineering majors (105% increase) (NCES, April 2020).
  • By sex, Females dominate Male in health-related master’s programs at 82% share versus 18%, respectively. Conversely, Male dominate Female in engineering degrees with the former clocking at 74% versus the latter’s 26%. Where the two sexes have nearly an equal share is in business; Male (52%) versus Female (48%) (NCES, April 2020).
  • By ethnicity, Asian dominates the master’s degree landscape. There are as much number of degrees conferred to Asian (22%) as the combined numbers of the next top ethnic groups: White, Black and Hispanic (total of 25%) (NCES, April 2020).

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

What is master’s degree?

A master’s degree, sometimes called an ms degree, is the first level of postgraduate education one can take after earning a bachelor’s degree. An undergraduate degree, often a bachelor’s degree, is a typical requirement to enrol in a master’s program. In the hierarchy of degree levels, a master’s degree sits atop associate degree and bachelor’s degree and a level below a doctoral degree.

A master’s degree focuses on theoretical and applied topics and disciplines the learner in strategic analysis and critical thinking.
It can also pursue a specialization in a given profession to solve complex problems using technical skills and knowledge culled from relevant disciplines. For example, a Master of Public Health (MPH) consolidates the different fields of epidemiology, health research and biostatistics, among others, to focus on the health of populations and communities as opposed to individual patients. MPH prepares a healthcare worker—even a doctor—assigned to a public health position conduct in-depth public health analyses, health service research, and develop communicable disease control programs, to name a few.

Generally, a master’s degree demands up to two years of full-time study depending on the type and country. It is common for undergraduates to take a master’s degree right out of college especially those who already have a field of specialization in mind. On the other hand, those who prefer taking in work experience first before diving into a postgraduate program usually want to gain a clearer picture of what the industry needs before deciding to focus on a master’s program. 

3 Reasons to Get a Master’s Degree

Masters programs give you some bragging rights, one level up in a society self-aware of the role of good education in projecting one’s success. But there is more to getting this degree than feeding one’s ego; the reasons to get one are clear, and to many professionals, the bridge to take their careers from stagnation to success.

It is mandatory

There is no going around a job that requires a master’s degree and, today, it is not a happenchance that you encounter successive job interviews asking for your postgraduate credentials. Where before a masters degree is seen by many as a door to a management role, today’s professions require it even for entry-level roles, a wake disturbance caused by “degree inflation (Fuller, J.B. and Raman, M. 2017).”  This inflation is the trend towards the increasing demand for a college degree for positions that previously did not require it. And this trend is replicated all the way up to jobs that previously didn’t require a master’s degree. For instance, librarians, statisticians, occupational therapists and urban planners now require a master’s degree.
Studies have yet to pinpoint the cause of degree inflation, but the general consensus is, employers can be selective today because, quite simply, there are more people getting master’s degrees. This is reflected in the Bureau of Labor Statistics report that indicates jobs with a master’s degree requirement will shoot up by 17% through 2026 compared with 7% across all jobs. 

To advance your career

A master’s degree can tilt the balance towards the one holding it when it comes to recruitment even for positions that do not require this degree. A master’s degree tells the recruiter that you can bring to the company strategic thinking and specialized discipline, as opposed to the broad education one receives in a bachelor’s degree. A master’s degree also signals to the company your passion to learn, which may be a factor for positions that require continuing education. This is true for most jobs to help keep the company updated with the trends, not just licensed professions such as engineers, lawyers, doctors and financial advisers.
Recruiters understand that having a master’s degree does not automatically raise productivity, but indicates to them that degree holders have certain important unmeasured characteristics such as motivation and commitment that will make them good employees (Corliss et al., 2015).

Earn more

Having a master’s degree brings with it a higher salary compared to having a bachelor’s degree only. The U.S. Department of Labor presents a very broad figure: those with advanced degrees, of which a master’s is a part, earned between 159% and 175%  of the earnings of all workers, including those with only a bachelor’s degree to show from 2000 to Q3 2019 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, October 2019).
While the wage differential varies across professions and industries, with all things being equal, someone with a master’s degree stands to get paid more. For example, a survey found out that in the Class of 2019, a graduate with an MBA degree is estimated to earn a starting wage of $84,580 vs. a bachelor’s degree in business administration graduate without an MBA, whose starting salary is estimated at $57,133.

No doubt, a master’s degree sounds like a valid investment to one’s career advancement. It is time to check its underhood and know more about the options for you.

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Payscale, 2107

What are the types of master’s degrees?

From the Master in Arts that dates back to the medieval era as a Papal bull-mandated licensing program for university teaching across western Europe, the master’s degree has since spawned more programs that focus on a sub-specialty in almost all the major fields of study: science, education, engineering, social services, business management, computer science, arts and humanities and more. Today, there are dozens of master’s degrees worldwide, as universities are given free rein to develop their own programs to help students specialize in a given field. Below, you will come across the more popular and established degree programs classified by the approach in teaching and purpose for taking the degree. 

Taught vs. Research Master’s Degrees

Master’s degrees can be classified by their approach to training: taught program or research program. Depending on the school, a program can be designed in both types, or either, but traditionally, specific master’s programs fall under one consistent type. 

  1. Taught master’s degrees. They follow the typical structure of an undergraduate course. You sit in an educator-led class and follow a calendar of lectures, seminars and related activities to complete the modules and earn your credits. The schedule may allow you to dictate your learning pace but, almost always, you stick to a given timetable. Most master’s degrees are designed in this mold; in fact, many would probably think of this type when they talk about a master’s degree.
    Examples of taught master’s degrees include Master of Arts (MA), Master in Business Administration (MBA) and Master of Science (MS or MSc).
  2. Research master’s degrees. This type usually revolves around a project (a research) where credits are earned based on your output. Many research programs do not follow a specific timetable, allowing for more independence in completing the units. While you are not likely to sit in a class and listen to a professor, an expert supervisor is typically assigned to guide your research work.
    Examples of research master’s degrees are Master of Research (MRes), Master of Philosophy (MPhil) and to some extent, Master of Letters (MLitt) programs that are designed for research.

Master’s degrees can also be classified by their purpose. Generally, you take a master’s degree to advance your academic knowledge or hone your professional competencies or manage a business better. The following are the more popular programs categorized by purpose. 

Take note, however, the categorization is just one way to make sense of the disparate programs being offered in universities today. A program can be used for a different purpose—for example, an MBA to teach business administration—as the one taking the degree deems it fit. 

For Academic Pursuits

  • Master of Arts (MA). One of the earliest and most established master’s degrees, MA offers advanced studies in the arts, humanities and some branches of social sciences. A Bachelor of Arts degree is the ideal undergraduate prerequisite, but the program can be open to other college courses, even a Bachelor of Science.
  • Master of Science (MS or MSc). MS advances studies in the field of sciences, medicine and engineering. Programs usually focus on scientific and mathematical disciplines, but some universities may touch on areas commonly ascribed to humanities and social sciences.
  • Master of Research (MRes). A research-based program, MRes focuses on the specific research area pursued by the student. The program aims to develop your research expertise with topics on research techniques and methodologies. The MRes student is not required to develop an independent study unlike in a Ph.D. program, rather, he/she can be a part of someone else’s research and earn the degree.
  • Master of Philosophy (MPhil). Somewhat similar to a PhD albeit less extensive, MPhil demands that you pursue your own research to be granted the degree. Similar to MRes, MPhil is research-based and can be a step ladder to a full doctorate title. MPhil is a specialized master’s program not readily available in many universities. It sits somewhere between a taught master’s program and a PhD.
  • Master of Letters (MLitt). Largely specific to the U.K., its roots dating back to early universities in Scotland, MLitt is a more srtructured counterpart of MPhil focusing on literature, history, law, theology or other areas of arts and humanities. Undergraduate requirements are closely similar to an MA, preferably a course in literature or humanities is a good fit. MLitt is most ideal for those planning to teach literature or a related humanities subject in a U.K. or Commonwealth university.
  • Master of Arts in Liberal Studies (MA, MALS, MLA/ALM, MLS). An interdisciplinary program, MA provides depth and breadth across the varying fields of liberal arts. These include natural sciences, humanities, behavioral sciences, and social sciences. The major helps students develop critical and contextual thinking across a wide array of subjects.

To Advance One’s Professional Knowledge

  • Master of Social Work (MSW). Targeted at social workers, this program combines taught and research approaches. In some countries, an MSW is a requirement to become a registered social worker. While it is not a job prerequisite, this degree is a step to securing a position of authority in the field of social work, training you in social work theory, research techniques and legal frameworks, among others.
  • Master of Engineering (MEng). A must-have for engineers looking to advance their career, MEng is a highly specialized program often required for a government post. The focus is usually on professional and technical disciplines, rather than academic research.
  • Master of Fine Arts (MFA). Professional designers, musicians and artists take an MFA to advance their performance and creative skills. Its practice-based work is distinct from the general focus of an MA, which touches on theories and analyses. It can serve as a prestige title, too, giving the holder an academic advantage over a non-MFA holder.
  • Master of Architecture (M. Arch). Often has a vocational tone, an M. Arch helps candidates gain mastery over detailed planning and drawing, complex problem-solving skills and solid numerical competencies. It may also include theoretical social and ethical aspects of the profession. In the U.K., this degree qualifies the holder to the RIBA Part 2 stage, a step to becoming a licensed architect.
  • Master of Education (MEd, msed, MIT, MAEd, MAT). The program is often required in postsecondary teaching, but not always in K-12. Still, many teachers take an MEd to advance their knowledge and pursue a higher position or pay rate. The program arms them with specialized skills in instruction, curriculum development, counseling, administration and school psychology.
  • Master of Music (MM, MMus). MM is the entry graduate major awarded to bachelor’s degree holders, often from conservatories. It combines academic specialization in music history, music pedagogy or music theory and practical specialization in a chosen field such as singing, composition, conducting or instrument playing. 
  • Master of Laws (LLM). LLM is usually taken by law graduates and even those holding a doctorate in law to specialize through research in a specific area of law. Where a candidate must take a law degree (and in some countries, a doctorate in law) to practice law, an LLM helps them advance their research competencies to further their specialization. 
  • Master of Library and Information Science (MLS, MLIS, MSLS). The major is a standard qualification degree to hold a professional librarian job in the U.S. It is open to college graduates of any field looking for a career in library management. MLIS is an offshoot of its older program, Master of Library Science, with the former coming to forth due to digital advances in how information is now created, organized and retrieved.

To Gain Business Competencies

  • Master of Business Administration (MBA). The degree is typically offered to candidates with professional business experience. These include business owners and managers. The program combines practical training and theoretical concepts and often includes insights and even mentorship from business experts and industry leaders. 
  • Masters in Management (MIM). The program is designed for recent graduates who want to pursue business acumen right out of college. MIM aims to address the growing demand by new graduates in pursuing an MBA, for which a professional experience is recommended. An MIM program may cover broad business topics such as accounting, economics and organizational theory. A university offering an MIM may design the program as a stepping stone to an MBA.

For Public Governance 

  • Master of Public Administration (MPA). MPA is the MBA counterpart for public governance, especially in the executive branch. It is ideal for public officials serving in the capacity of management, policy-making and decision-making roles. MPA is also popular among nonprofit organizations for its focus on public policy, developmental principles and organizational theories. Many MPA degrees offer interdisciplinary programs that cover microeconomics, statistics, accounting and project management, among others.
  • Master of Public Health (MPH). Although a popular postgraduate degree among health professionals in the government, MPH is ideal for anyone who promotes community health via research, education and policy-making. MPH focuses on communicable disease prevention and emergency response at a macro-level. As such, expect to specialize in areas as epidemiology, health services administration and environmental health with the program.

How long does a master’s degree take?

You can only get a broad picture here as the answer depends on the major, school and program, plus whether you are enrolling on a full-time or part-time basis. Generally, a master’s degree requires 30 to 60 credit hours per semester. Some even put it at 36 to 54 semester credits or the equivalent of 12 to 18 units in college. Roughly speaking, a master’s degree can take up to 1.5 to 2.5 years on a full-time schedule and up to 6 years on a part-time basis.

Tip: When deciding on how long you should take a master’s degree, focus on your goal instead of time. If a degree is essential to a promotion or job, then by all means, getting a master’s at the soonest possible time makes sense. On the other hand, it is not always recommended to rush a master’s degree. In fact, having work or hands-on experience before or while taking a master’s is usually recommended as it allows you to link theoretical concepts with applied disciplines. 

How much does a master’s degree cost? 

Given the disparity in credit requirements, program design and school prestige, master’s degrees vary in tuition fees as, perhaps, there are different wine types. While some put the cost between $8,000 to $300,000 in the U.S., which doesn’t help you much get a handle on the cost, it is perhaps more useful to break the cost into ranges and the number of programs being offered per range:

Source: StudyPortals Masters

Across the different master’s degree programs, the most number of programs are offered at $5,000 or under per year, followed by over $20,000 per year. The numbers suggest that, when getting a master’s, most students go for cheap or really expensive.

What are the requirements to study a master’s degree?

When you browse through the different master’s degree programs in different schools, you will see a pattern in their requirements. While they drastically vary based on the specialization, university policy and the program’s reputation, you’ll find that they will expect many of the following requirements from enrollees:

  1. Undergraduate degree. All masteral programs require a bachelor’s degree and many majors demand a relevant college course. For instance. A standard prerequisite for a Master of Fine Arts is a bachelor’s degree in studio art or equivalent. Where you are allowed to take a master’s that is remotely relevant to your college degree, you may be asked to take extra credits to get up to speed with the program.
  2. Grade Point Average (GPA) of 3.0. Your average GPA in college tells much about your ability to complete a master’s degree with good marks, hence, program administrators use it as a major metric for admission. Many programs especially in top universities have strict GPA threshold. A bachelor’s degree with a 3.0 GPA is a standard benchmark, but some may require a higher weighted score, especially for highly coveted programs with limited slots. For example, Wharton University of Pennsylvania’s globally popular MBA program requires an average GPA of 3.6.  
  3. Transcripts. The admission committee will want to see the details of your college performance, your strengths, and weaknesses, which your transcript of records (ToR) can reveal. If you have gone through different college courses and even postsecondary schools, make sure to submit their respective ToRs to the committee.
  4. Qualifying exam. Common admission tests to expect in the U.S. include the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE), which assesses reasoning, verbal reasoning and critical thinking, the Graduate Management Admissions Test for those applying for a management program, the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) for law program applicants and the Miller Analogies Test (MAT) for verbal evaluation. Without bias to your GPA and work background, the admission committee will use your test score to weight your admission chance, so do not take these tests for granted. Keep note that there are also schools that do not require GRE requirements.  
  5. Letter of Intent or Essay. It is common to be asked to submit a personal essay stating your rationale for enrolling in the program and the chosen school. Your essay may be assessed for clarity of thought, clear expectations of the program and school and even the ability to follow instructions on the mechanics of the essay.
  6. Work experience. This requirement greatly varies across master’s degree programs and university policies. Generally, business degrees in reputable programs require a professional experience and, even so, they may have disparate prerequisites. Some universities may expect an extensive work background where others accept minimal experience. For degrees that are more focused on theories like health and science, professional experience may not be required. 
  7. Research proposal for research-based programs. For research master’s degrees, a proposal or proof of on-going research work is required. As noted above, research-based programs involve applied work mostly and less of classroom-based teaching. So you are expected to have a research work to complete the degree.
  8. Letters of recommendation. You may be asked, too, to submit up to three letters of recommendation from your manager or business owner, established professionals or professors depending on the program you are enrolling in.
  9. Language proficiency. This applies to foreign students with English as a second language. You may be required to submit any of the standard tests for English proficiency, such as TOEFL, IELTS, SAT or PTE. If you fail in this area, a university may put you in an English proficiency program as a pathway to being accepted into the program.

5 Factors to Consider before Getting a Master’s Degree

There are several factors to consider when one is determining the value proposition of a graduate degree, including the obvious: tuition cost and debt load, earnings, career outcomes, and vocational preferences (Beck et al., 2020). Beyond these aspects, there are some more things to consider, such as:

  • Your academic goal should match your professional goal. Master’s degrees are about specializing in a field, hence, the more specific your career goal the better you can choose the best college major. This may sound obvious in a broad field like business or education, but in some areas like health, you have plenty of niche degrees to consider. For example, if you work in the field of addiction counseling in a community, having a Masters in Addiction Counseling makes more sense than getting a more general MPh program.
  • Go general instead of specialized. This may sound counter to the first tip, but if you do not have a clear picture yet of your career trajectory in the next five to ten years, you might want to take a degree that is more flexible. A highly specialized program may prove futile should you decide to shift career midway, while something like a broad major as an MBA or MA can adapt to more career paths down the road.
  • Gain professional experience first. It is tempting to get a master’s degree right after college considering the wage differential that comes with the title.  But you may undermine yourself in two ways: you cannot get accepted in a reputable program that requires work experience and, even if you manage to earn a master’s degree from a respected institution, you will be hard-pressed to get a job because of being overqualified. Consider your career path, making sure a master’s degree will do your career good not harm.
  • Explore programs that focus on practical experience. At the end of the day, it is all about applying in real life what you’ve learned in a master’s degree. A program that blends practical studies with theoretical concepts may give you that hands-on, on-the-ground advantage.
  • Are you pursuing a doctorate degree? If you have plans to go all the way up to the apex of the educational hierarchy, consider checking for a master’s degree program with a clear path to the doctorate title you are aiming for. Generally, getting a master’s and doctorate degree in the same university means your credits will be carried over onto the next level without a hitch.

Most Popular Master’s Degree Majors

The most popular master’s degree majors can be gleaned from The National Center for Education Satistics 2020 report, which collated statistics from the school year 2017-2018. Based on the report, a total of 820,000 master’s degrees were conferred during the period. 

Of these programs, more than half belong to the top three most popular master’s degree majors: business (23%), education (18%) and health-related programs (15%). They are followed by STEM-related majors with both engineering degrees and computer and information sciences getting a 6% share apiece. 

On the other end of the spectrum, the least popular by no. of conferred degrees on the same school year were: precision production (11), military technologies and applied sciences (355), communications technologies (529), transportation and materials moving (815) and area, ethnic, cultural, gender, and group studies (1,673).

Source: NCES 2020

Is a master’s degree worth it? 

For some, life after college days does not mean the end of their educational goals. Getting a master’s degree is a reasonable strategy to reinforce your career down the road. The specter of degree inflation, where employers seek candidates with better credentials, and the fact that you are competing in a job market awash with master’s degree holders are not going to dissipate any time. A master’s program makes you competitive in this cutthroat market.

However, there is no guarantee that a master’s degree will bring in financial success and a lucrative career. Remember, credentials are just one factor for a fruitful career. You also need experience, talent in specific cases, and the right network to nail the position you are aiming for. 

That said, all things being equal, the one with a master’s title has the leverage over those without in the long run, not just to earn more, but, more importantly, to arm oneself with more knowledge and skills so that one can perform the job better whatever field that may be.

For a more interesting read, you can also check out our list of the top colleges that pay off the most.



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