A master’s degree demonstrates a person’s advanced knowledge of a particular discipline or field of study. In a master’s program, students undergo rigorous coursework that aims to develop their research skills, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills among others. As a result, people who obtain a master’s degree can improve their career options and qualify for positions with higher pay.
With these benefits, it’s not surprising why graduate enrollment has seen a 4.3% year-over-year increase this spring (Whitford, 2021). This is in contrast to the latest college statistics, which indicate an overall decline in college enrollment across the United States.
This guide aims to provide useful information on what a master’s degree is and shed light on the costs and skills required in acquiring one.
A master’s degree is a post-baccalaureate degree that individuals achieve after undertaking in-depth studies of a specific field of expertise. Graduates of master’s degrees such as affordable online MSW programs are typically expected to have advanced knowledge of theoretical and practical topics in their chosen fields.
Most degree programs also build on the knowledge students gain during their undergraduate education. As such, a bachelor’s degree is often required of students planning to pursue master’s degree programs. Aside from intensive coursework, many master’s degrees also require students to complete a thesis or internship prior to graduation (Gobler, 2021).
One unique feature of master’s degree programs is that these degrees typically offer flexible schedules for students. These programs can be pursued part-time or online, to accommodate the busy schedules of professionals who are going back to school.
Despite the downward trend in college enrollment recently, more students achieve master’s degrees year after year. According to the latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics, over 833,000 master’s degrees were conferred in 2019.
A master’s degree can provide higher chances of gainful employment. Many students pursue postgraduate studies, such as master’s degrees to achieve higher positions in their chosen fields. For instance, educators planning to work in school administration will likely need to earn a master’s degree before they advance to such positions (Education Degree, n.d.).
For some professions, a master’s degree is essential even for entry-level jobs. For instance, individuals who want to be professional archivists or librarians typically need a master’s degree to get hired (Powell, 2017).
In many cases, a master’s degree tends to be more affordable than a bachelor’s degree because the former takes much less time to complete. However, like with other types of degrees, factors such as school choice, room and board, and other on-campus fees affect the cost of getting master’s degrees.
Costs for master’s degree programs tend to vary highly, depending on factors such as the student’s choice of school, the field of study, and additional fees like housing. According to financial aid experts, for instance, pursuing these graduate degrees may cost a student anywhere from $30,000 to $120,000.
Again, master’s degree tuition costs also change depending on the field you choose to pursue. For instance, a master’s degree in English is likely to cost less than a master’s degree in STEM fields such as computer science, since the latter requires significant laboratory work (Best Value Schools, 2021).
Your choice of school can also make a significant difference in the costs of pursuing master’s programs. Like with most degrees, public institutions tend to charge lower tuition and fees compared to private colleges and universities. For instance, for the 2020-2021 academic year, getting a master’s degree in business administration (MBA) from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School can cost students more than $161,000 (MBA Today, 2021).
Source: MBA Today
According to the Sallie Mae report “How America Pays for Graduate School,” nine out of 10 graduate students believe that going to graduate school is an investment in their future. This correlates directly with Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data that indicate lower unemployment rates for people with graduate degrees (US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021a).
Similarly, the same report from Sallie Mae states that two-thirds of graduate students believe that a graduate degree (master’s or doctoral) is the “new standard for professionals.” If you’re interested in quickly advancing your professional career, you may find that the financial investment in a master’s degree is worth it.
The more lucrative master’s degree jobs available to graduates of such programs also make these advanced studies a good option for many individuals.
With the advanced knowledge and skills implied by the master’s degree definition, graduates with these degrees often make the ideal candidates for high-level positions within their chosen fields. The sections below provide detailed information on job outlook and potential careers for these graduates.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), occupations that require a master’s degree are the fastest-growing compared to other occupations. Jobs that require applicants to have a master’s degree or higher are expected to grow by 17% through 2026 (US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020).
Furthermore, Torpey (2020) states that the occupation of educational, guidance and career counselors and advisors will see the highest number of openings from 2019 to 2029, with over 33,000 openings each year.
With this information, it’s safe to say that the job outlook for holders of master’s degrees remains positive.
The salary you can earn with a master’s degree usually varies depending on the field you choose. On the whole, however, data from the BLS indicates that individuals with post-baccalaureate degrees (master’s, professional, and doctoral degrees) enjoy higher median weekly earnings (US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021).
For instance, research indicates that a graduate with a bachelor’s degree in business administration can expect a starting salary of approximately $57,133. Meanwhile, a graduate with a master’s degree in business administration can start out with a significantly higher salary of $84,580 (National Association of Colleges and Employers, 2019).
Source: National Center for Education Statistics
Master’s degrees are available in a diverse range of fields and areas of practice, similar to bachelor’s degrees. Below are some of the most common types of master’s degree programs along with courses required for completion and entry-level jobs.
Average time to complete: 1 to 2 years
An MBA is a type of master’s degree program that is very popular. Through these programs, students hone their skills in business, management, and finance. Many of these programs also focus on developing students’ leadership skills. Courses typically offered during the course of study include marketing, accounting, business law, and relationship management (Kagan, 2021). Some schools also offer specialized MBA programs in healthcare management, entrepreneurship, and other fields.
Studies have revealed the popularity of an MBA among professionals in a diverse range of fields, including medicine and hospital administration. Lee et al. explored the topic in their article, “The Utility of a Master of Business Administration Degree in Plastic Surgery: Determining Motivations and Outcomes of a Formal Business Education Among Plastic Surgeons,” published in Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery – Global Open in 2018.
According to the study’s findings, “The majority enroll looking to add new dynamics to their careers, to satisfy entrepreneurial drive, and to gain credibility in business, with few entering the program in hope of increased remuneration, perhaps reflective of a prime motivation being improved patient care and not so much financial gain. The most important skills they had improved as a result of their business education were in the areas of leadership, management, and administration.”
A typical MBA requires 30 to 60 class credits, which can take students up to two years to complete. Accelerated programs, which cover heavier workloads in a shorter amount of time, can be completed in approximately a year (OnlineMBA, 2021).
High-level jobs: chief executive officer, chief financial officer, market research analyst
Average time to complete: 1 to 2 years
A Master of Education degree makes it easier for professionals in the academe to advance their careers. During the course of the program, students learn best practices for instruction as well as strategies for designing curricula.
Many of these master’s programs offer concentrations or specialties, including school counseling, special education, adult education, and educational technology (Sandoval, 2021). Courses typically vary depending on the concentration chosen by students.
Graduate-level credentials are often a requirement for educators who want to work in school administration. Master’s and doctoral degrees are also required for individuals who want to teach at the college level. Moreover, in many states, a master’s degree in teaching is necessary for maintaining licensure (Terry, 2020).
High-level jobs: curriculum designer, school principal or superintendent, program director
Average time to complete: 1 to 1.5 years
Through a master’s degree in accounting, students can pursue in-depth learning of accounting theories. In many cases, students also have the option to pursue specialties, such as forensic accounting, corporate accounting, auditing, and taxation regulation.
Courses offered by these degree programs usually vary depending on the chosen specialty and on the institution offering the program. The MAcc program at the College of William and Mary, for instance, offers the following areas of emphasis: accounting analytics, audit and assurance, taxation, and valuation and advisory services (College of William and Mary, 2020).
Many accounting graduates opt to pursue a master’s degree in accounting to qualify for taking the CPA (Certified Public Accountant) exam. To sit for the exam and get licensed, candidates must have earned at least 150 credit hours (Accounting.com, 2021). A bachelor’s degree in accounting typically provides only 120 credit hours, so a master’s degree helps ensure that CPA candidates meet requirements for licensure.
Entry-level jobs: senior accountant, risk manager, hedge fund manager
Average time to complete: 1 to 2 years
A master’s degree in public health prepares students with the knowledge and skills needed to improve the health of their community. While doing coursework, students learn about health issues at the community level while developing their skills in promoting proper healthcare practices.
The curriculum involved in an MPH degree usually varies across institutions and concentrations. However, core courses tackle disciplines involved in public health, such as public health nutrition, health policy and management, biostatistics, and epidemiology (Public Health Degrees, 2020). Students will also be trained in skills, such as conducting community assessments and writing grants.
Most of these programs require students to complete 42 to 45 credits during their course of study (Public Health Degrees, 2020). Many institutions offering a master’s degree in public health require students to complete a capstone project or internship before graduation.
Entry-level jobs: dietitian, epidemiologist, healthcare administrator, community services manager
Average time to complete: 1 to 2 years
A master’s degree in engineering tends to be more practice-focused compared to a master’s of science degree in engineering. M.Eng. programs are typically focused on exploring engineering in the context of business management, allowing students to improve practical skills and develop leadership potential.
Depending on the institution, a master’s degree in engineering can come with numerous concentrations or specialties. The University of Connecticut, for instance, offers a master’s degree in engineering with concentrations such as advanced systems engineering, data science, manufacturing, and global entrepreneurship (University of Connecticut, n.d.).
Since a master’s degree in engineering tends to be heavily practice-based, students may also be expected to complete a capstone project before graduation.
Entry-level jobs: senior electrical engineer, construction project manager, petroleum engineer
Source: National Center for Education Statistics
Requirements for master’s degrees vary depending on the program you want to pursue. Depending on the field of study, these programs may require students to have different kinds of bachelor’s degrees, a specific number of credit hours of coursework, or standardized test scores. The following sections provide more specific information on what students need to prepare before applying for a master’s degree.
Proof of Graduation and Transcripts
Like with bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees prerequisites include proof of high school graduation. However, master’s programs have the additional requirement of a bachelor’s degree. Depending on the program and institution, students may also need to have a bachelor’s degree in a field related to the master’s program of their choice (FindAMasters, 2020).
Most universities also require students to submit transcripts from colleges or universities they previously attended. According to Kuther (2019), students must have a minimum GPA of 3.0 or 3.3 to be accepted into master’s degree programs.
Many master’s degree programs require students to take admission tests, such as the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) and the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT).
The GRE is a standardized test that measures academic readiness for graduate programs, testing students on quantitative reasoning, verbal reasoning, and analytical writing (Educational Testing Service, n.d.). Meanwhile, the GMAT is an admissions test specifically for individuals planning to apply to graduate-level management programs, such as MBA degrees.
Minimum admission test scores typically vary according to a student’s program of choice. The table below provides the average scores of GRE test-takers in different intended fields of study, taken from the ETS Worldwide Test Taker Snapshot. Exceeding these scores can give you a higher chance of getting into the program of your choice.
|Type of Sampling||Uses or definition||Advantages||Limitations|
|Simple random sampling||Used for homogenous, accessible populations||- Each member of the population has an equal chance of being selected|
- More likely to be representative of the population
|Stratified random sampling||Used for large heterogeneous populations, this method divides heterogeneous populations into homogenous subgroups.||- Accurately reflects the population being studied|
- Provides better coverage of the population
|- Finding a definitive list of an entire population is time-consuming
- Subjects may fall into multiple subgroups
|Cluster sampling||A population is divided into clusters, and researchers randomly choose among clusters to form a sample.||- Requires less time and fewer resources|
- Increases a study’s feasibility
|More prone to bias and sampling errors|
|Quota sampling||The population is divided into subgroups with respect to certain criteria. Researchers then pick subjects from these subgroups.||- Faster and easier to carry out|
- Helps ensure that subgroups are not over-represented
|- May not be representative of the entire population
- More prone to bias
|Convenience sampling||The sample comprises members of the population who are readily available to participate in the study.||- Sampling is simple and easy|
- Data collection is faster and more affordable
|- Vulnerable to selection bias and sampling error
- Results are not generalizable
Aside from the above requirements, many universities also require master’s degree applicants to submit letters of recommendation and personal statements. For instance, the applications process for the Master of Public Health program at Brown University requires applicants to submit three letters of recommendation (Brown University School of Public Health, n.d.).
Other colleges and universities also require applicants to submit essays, such as a personal statement or a statement of purpose. These pieces of writing help admissions committees gain more knowledge about applicants and their goals and accomplishments (Muniz, 2019).
International applicants also have the additional requirement of passing language proficiency tests like the TOEFL or IELTS.
Specific skill requirements vary depending on a student’s program of choice. However, graduate students would do well to hone their skills in organization, research, and academic writing. These master’s degree skills can help individuals cope with the intensive coursework involved in pursuing a master’s program.
With approximately 4,000 degree-granting institutions in the U.S., you have plenty of colleges and universities to choose from if you want to pursue a master’s program. The following information can help you choose the right program and institution for pursuing advanced studies.
Specializations or concentrations depend on the master’s program you choose. For instance, the Master of Public Administration program at Syracuse University offers the following specialized areas of study:
Aside from the program’s curriculum, it’s also best to consider if a graduate school has accreditation. For U.S. universities offering undergraduate and graduate programs, the highest accreditation available is regional accreditation. Choosing a regionally accredited master’s program ensures not only the quality of the curriculum and teaching but also eligibility for financial aid (GradSchoolHub, 2021).
You should also consider if your program of choice has programmatic or professional accreditation. This accreditation ensures the quality of academic programs and may be required for licensure or certification in certain fields (CollegeChoice, 2021).
If you’re a professional who needs to juggle work responsibilities and master’s studies, you’d want to choose a school with flexible options in terms of program delivery and attendance. For instance, many universities offer master’s programs with online and on-campus components to save students the time and effort of traveling to campus.
Master’s programs with part-time or full-time attendance options are also beneficial to busy professionals. Students who choose to pursue master’s programs on a part-time basis often have to complete coursework within a set number of years of matriculation.
There are numerous financial aid options for students planning to pursue master’s programs, especially if these programs are at a regionally accredited university. Graduate students can apply for federal financial aid or loans to pay for their studies.
Graduate students also have the unique advantage of being able to qualify for tuition reimbursement programs where they work. Many organizations and companies offer tuition assistance to employees interested in going back to school. For instance, Deloitte employees can have graduate tuition fees fully reimbursed through the company’s Graduate School Assistance Program (Deloitte, 2020).
A master’s degree is a good option for individuals who want to deepen their knowledge of a certain field of study. It’s also a good way to advance one’s career, especially in fields such as education, business management and administration, and public health. For instance, if you’re aiming for C-suite positions, a finance degree paired with an MBA can help you get there.
The higher earning potential and positive job outlook associated with master’s degrees also make these degrees a good investment, especially for individuals interested in making the most of their professional careers.