Written by: Staff Writer
Published: August 21, 2020
Career goals and outcomes rarely pan out exactly as bachelor's degree students might expect. Graduates often work in fields unrelated to their undergraduate major, sometimes because they discover a new field they want to pursue.
However, many career paths require education beyond a bachelor's degree. People in this common situation often wonder, "can I get a master's degree if my bachelor's degree is in another field?" Fortunately, most students can pursue a master's degree in a field completely unrelated to their bachelor's degree, with some exceptions.
Learners who earned degrees similar to their desired master's program should not experience any difficulty. For example, a student with a bachelor's in history can easily enter into a master's in English. However, the same learner might experience difficulty enrolling in a master's in engineering program.
This resource explores what master's degrees you can get with any bachelor's degree, including reasons to get a master's degree and graduate program requirements.
What Are the Goals of a Master's Degree?
Many colleges and universities offer master's degrees, and most lead to the same outcome: helping learners master skills. Graduate program topics vary depending on the degree, the field, and whether students complete a specialization. A master's degree also allows students to conduct research and potentially get published in an academic paper.
Because master's degrees build off a student's previous education, most programs take full-time learners no more than two years to complete. However, students transitioning into a new field might need to take additional prerequisite courses to prepare for the program. Regardless of program readiness, nearly all master's programs require a bachelor's degree from an accredited institution.
A master's degree also prepares students to become leaders in their field, and many employers prefer to hire candidates with a master's degree. This makes a master's degree ideal for anyone looking to advance their career or change fields.
Why Get a Master's Degree?
Learners often wonder what benefits they might gain by completing a master's degree. While a master's degree costs time and money, the outcomes for master's programs tend to outweigh the immediate costs. The benefits of completing a master's degree include:
- Higher Wages: While conditions vary depending on field, experience, and location, a master's degree often leads to higher-paying positions. According to PayScale, a bachelor's degree graduate earns an average salary of $62,057, while a master's degree graduate earns an average salary of $74,850.
- Better Job Prospects: Many positions, including high-paying positions in fields like business and engineering, require a master's degree. A master's degree also helps candidates stand out when applying for positions, helping them secure higher-paying jobs over candidates with just a bachelor's degree.
- Opportunity to Learn More: After completing a bachelor's degree and spending time working, some professionals want to continue learning in a different field. Master's degrees allow learners to continue their education, providing them with new insights, skills, and knowledge. Anyone looking to learn more should consider a master's degree.
- Chance to Change Careers: Students who earn a master's degree unrelated to their bachelor's degree not only learn new skills, but complete a high-level degree in a new field. This serves as an excellent vehicle to change career fields, especially if learners want to pursue a specific field.
- Gain Recognition: Most master's programs culminate with a thesis or capstone project. Aside from allowing students to demonstrate their knowledge and skills, these projects allow individuals to gain recognition. A master's thesis could end up published in an academic journal, increasing the student's renown.
Bachelor's vs. Master's
Students interested in a master's degree may wonder how a master's degree differs from a bachelor's degree. A bachelor's degree represents the lowest level of higher education, though the undergraduate degree often satisfies requirements to begin most careers. Most bachelor's degrees take four years and 120 semester credits or more to complete. Colleges and universities often require a set of core courses, making up over half of the bachelor's degree. Learners complete the remaining 50 or so credits in their major.
The undergraduate major splits its required courses between lower-division courses, upper-division courses, and electives. Lower-division courses introduce the basic concepts required to complete the degree. For example, a bachelor's in mathematics might begin with algebra and statistics before moving on to advanced calculus. Upper-division courses round out the major, and students use elective courses to explore interesting concepts within the major.
Because students spend nearly half of their undergraduate credits focusing on their major, learners should pick a major that easily leads to a master's degree. Doing so increases the number of potential master's degrees, giving individuals many options that lead to different careers. However, students should not feel pressured to study within the same field as their desired master's degree. For example, learners who plan on earning a master's in education might consider completing their bachelor's degree in the field they want to teach.
After completing a bachelor's degree, students can begin a master's degree, which typically requires 30-36 credits completed over 3-4 semesters. However, because many master's students already hold jobs, schools often allow master's students to study part time. This allows learners to continue working while earning their degree, but it increases the length of the program.
Master's degrees build off undergraduate concepts, and applicants who did not earn a relevant bachelor's degree must complete prerequisite courses. Master's degree-seekers often take courses that cover similar material as undergraduate courses, only with an emphasis on higher-level topics and theories.
Graduate programs also hold students to a higher standard than undergraduate programs. For example, a graduate degree might require learners to maintain a 3.0 GPA to graduate while an undergraduate program only requires a 2.5 GPA. This standard, combined with the natural difficulty of studying advanced materials, makes a graduate degree much more difficult than an undergraduate degree. However, the rewards include career mobility, higher potential wages, and more career options.
Can You Get a Master's in Anything?
Master's degrees serve as natural follow-ups to undergraduate degrees. Students can get a master's degree in nearly anything, and some schools even allow students to create their own master's degree curriculum.
However, learners interested in a master's degree should stick to a field similar to their undergraduate degree. This removes the need to complete prerequisite courses and to learn new foundational topics. So, for students who completed their bachelor's degree within a business school, an MBA or a master's degree in marketing, human resources, or finance makes sense. For those same students, a master's degree in philosophy or aviation engineering may not make sense.
Learners who do not currently hold a bachelor's degree but want a specific master's degree should research good undergraduate degrees to complete. Sometimes, graduate students can major in a field unavailable to undergraduate students. For example, students can complete a master of nursing in adult gerontology, but cannot study toward the same major at the undergraduate level. A student in this scenario must earn a general bachelor's in nursing before pursuing the graduate level major.
Learners who apply for a master's degree unrelated to their bachelor's degree might get into the program. In this instance, students should elaborate on their interest in the program during the application process.
Requirements and Prerequisites for a Master's Degree
Master's degree applicants need a bachelor's degree. To increase the chances of getting accepted into a top master's program, learners should complete a bachelor's degree at an accredited university or college, earning at least a 2.5 cumulative GPA. Some programs prefer candidates with higher grades.
Depending on students' desired master's program, schools may require test scores. Common test scores include the GRE, GMAT, and LSAT. The GRE demonstrates a basic readiness for graduate school, the GMAT demonstrates readiness for an MBA, and the LSAT demonstrates readiness for law school. While recent trends remove the necessity for test scores, most programs still prefer at least GRE scores.
Master's programs might also require students to submit a resume or portfolio. Career-advancement programs prefer candidates with relevant work experience. For example, many MBA programs want applicants to first earn 1-2 years of business experience.
Aside from application requirements, a master's program might set prerequisites for students, especially for learners with no previous experience in the field. In this instance, learners must take prerequisite courses before the program begins. If a program requires work experience, students must earn work experience before the master's degree starts.
Other prerequisites include skills and knowledge. For example, a master's in computer science requires learners to demonstrate excellence in multiple coding languages. Because working professionals might need refreshers on some languages, schools often set mandatory prerequisite refresher courses. Learners usually complete these courses in the summer before the degree begins.
While programs might set prerequisites, prerequisites sometimes follow accepted applications. Make sure that you complete all prerequisites necessary before applying, noting which prerequisites come before submitting the application.
What Are the Top Master's Degrees?
Students know that earning one of the top master's degrees improves their chances of finding a high-paying position. However, master's degree applicants may not know how to differentiate the best programs from lesser options.
When researching master's degrees, learners should pay attention to accreditation. Accreditation serves as a gauge of academic quality, with accredited institutions consistently ranking among the best in the nation. Colleges and universities earn two types of accreditation: national and regional. While both demonstrate academic quality, all future master's degree students should only apply to regionally accredited institutions. Regional accrediting organizations hold colleges and universities to higher standards than national accrediting organizations.
In addition to college and university accreditation, programs also receive accreditation. Programmatic accreditation plays a significant role in some fields, such as nursing. Any nurses looking to earn a master's degree should apply to programs accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing. Similarly, business students should look for Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs accreditation.
Future master's degree students interested in reviewing all programmatic accreditations should consult the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). Along with the United States Department of Education, CHEA recognizes accrediting organizations.
How long does it take to earn a master's degree?
Most master's degrees take no longer than two years to complete, though some full-time learners complete their master's in just one year.
Are master's degrees harder than bachelor's?
Master's degrees build on skills and topics introduced during a bachelor's degree, and most topics are much harder to master than those at the undergraduate level.
Is it better to get a master's or another bachelor's?
A master's degree increases employability and potential salaries, making it a superior option to a second bachelor's degree.
Can you go straight to a master's degree?
Yes, some programs accept students with any bachelor's degree. Sometimes, programs even accept associate degree graduates into a master's program.