Written by: Reese Lopez
Published: August 21, 2020
Master's students build high-level knowledge in a specialized field of study, all while developing professional skills and competencies. There are master's programs for almost every area of study. Some learners enroll in a graduate program immediately after earning a bachelor's degree, while others pursue graduate-level studies after several years in the workforce.
Earning a master's degree can lead to advanced professional opportunities. But how long does it take to get a master's degree? The amount of time required depends on factors including school, program, area of study, and the student's previous coursework. However, most students earn their master's degree in one to three years, completing an average of 32-36 credits. This guide provides an overview of master's programs, including typical application requirements, popular degree choices, and the key differences between master's and doctoral programs.
How many years is a master's degree?
Most master's programs require 1-3 years. However, degree completion times can vary based on factors such as the student's enrollment status.
Do you need a bachelor's degree to earn a master's degree?
In almost all cases, master's programs require applicants to hold a bachelor's degree. However, many graduate programs accept applicants who hold a bachelor's degree in an unrelated field.
What is the difference between a master's and an MBA?
An MBA, or master of business administration, is a type of master's degree. MBA programs maintain the same academic standards and admission requirements as any other master's program.
How much longer is a Ph.D. than a master's?
While completion times vary among programs and schools, master's programs typically require 1-3 years. Learners typically earn a Ph.D. in three to seven years.
Considering the Time it Takes to Earn a Bachelor's Degree
Earning a bachelor's degree is the first step toward pursuing a master's degree. Bachelor's programs help students build foundational knowledge in their field. Learners explore key concepts and prepare for graduate studies. Students often pursue a bachelor's degree immediately after high school, but many colleges offer flexible online and part-time programs for older students.
A bachelor's degree typically comprises 120 credits and requires about four years of full-time study. However, learners can graduate faster by taking summer courses. Some schools also offer accelerated options that enable students to graduate more quickly.
Undergraduate students who plan to pursue a master's degree can complete prerequisite coursework during their bachelor's program. Learners should research the admission and program requirements of prospective graduate programs and can contact enrollment counselors for more information.
Many colleges offer combined bachelor's/master's programs that allow students to earn both degrees with fewer total credits. These programs utilize efficient course schedules, and students can often earn a bachelor's and master's degree in as few as five years.
Completing a Master's Degree Program
Students can pursue master's degrees in nearly any academic field, and each program is unique. Factors such as subject, school, and delivery format can greatly impact a graduate student's experience. In general, master's programs build specialized, high-level skills and knowledge in a defined subject area, such as history, business, psychology, or information technology. Programs often emphasize a particular area of study. For example, a business program might focus on marketing, finance, or international business.
An increasingly popular format for graduate students, online learning can be ideal for busy students with work and family obligations. Many schools offer fully online programs that allow students to earn a degree without visiting campus. Other programs follow a hybrid format, which combines online and in-person courses. Master's programs often use a cohort format in which students complete courses in sequence with a small group of peers.
While program formats and curricula vary, master's programs typically combine advanced classroom courses with significant independent work. Students often complete an extensive graduate research project, such as a capstone or thesis, under the supervision of a mentor or advisor. Students focused on a particular profession, such as learners in business or education programs, may investigate practical problems during their final project. Programs in strictly academic fields, such as philosophy or English, often focus on high-level research.
Is a Master's Degree Worth It?
Many students pursue a graduate education to increase their professional opportunities and salary potential. While earnings vary significantly by field, a graduate degree typically leads to increased earning potential. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, master's degree-holders earn a median weekly salary of $1,497, while bachelor's degree-holders earn a median weekly salary of $1,248.
A master's degree is a common requirement for positions in many fields, including psychology, academia, and certain healthcare sectors. In fields that do not typically require a master's degree, such as business and information technology, a graduate degree often helps professionals advance to high-paying leadership roles more easily.
How to Pay for a Master's Degree
Graduate students commonly fund their education through scholarships and student loans. Learners should complete the FAFSA form to determine their eligibility for various types of federal and private aid. Many scholarships are reserved for students from specific backgrounds or those pursuing certain fields of study.
Graduate students may have access to additional funding options, such as fellowships and grants. Many of these opportunities are specific to individual schools or programs. Graduate programs often feature graduate teaching opportunities or research assistantships, which provide tuition funding and a stipend to cover living expenses. Although assistantships are often competitive, they can provide valuable funding for master's students.
Many graduate programs offer accelerated options that allow learners to take a heavier course load and graduate more quickly. Accelerated programs often condense an entire master's degree curriculum into one year of full-time study, helping students enter the workforce quickly. Pursuing accelerated learning options may also help students save on tuition expenses.
Institutions may offer accelerated master's programs in fields including business, education, information technology, and science. Students in these programs often have ample time to commit to their education. Because of the rigor and necessary time commitment, accelerated programs can be difficult for learners with significant work or family obligations. However, accelerated programs can be ideal for recent graduates of bachelor's programs and for learners willing to take time away from their career.
Students can typically transfer credits between institutions to avoid retaking courses they've already completed. However, graduate programs generally have more stringent transfer credit policies than undergraduate programs. Even within the same field of study, graduate programs often maintain different curriculum requirements. The specialized nature of graduate work means that graduate credits may not transfer as easily between programs as undergraduate credits.
Most colleges evaluate graduate transfer credits individually, and students may work with faculty and advisors to determine credit equivalencies. The transferability of credits can vary widely between institutions, but most master's programs only accept credits from regionally accredited schools. Students should choose an accredited school to ensure that other institutions and employers will recognize their credits and degrees.
Applying for a Master's Program
Applicants to graduate programs must typically submit undergraduate transcripts, test scores, an application essay, and letters of recommendation. Most schools also require an application fee, though many programs offer waivers for low-income students. Application timelines vary among schools and programs. Schools with rolling application deadlines may offer a decision within a few weeks, while some institutions require several months.
Most master's programs require applicants to hold a bachelor's degree from a regionally accredited school. The applicant's undergraduate degree may or may not need to be in the same field as the graduate program. Many schools maintain GPA requirements, though others evaluate applications holistically and do not require a minimum GPA.
Graduate programs often require applicants to submit scores from graduate-level exams, such as the GRE or MAT. These tests assess skills in verbal and quantitative reasoning, critical thinking, and analytical writing. Some programs require field-specific tests, such as the GMAT for business or the LSAT for law.
Applicants must often submit an essay and letters of recommendation. Essay topics often focus on the applicant's professional and academic goals. Letters of recommendation usually come from former teachers or supervisors who can speak to the student's preparedness for graduate studies.
Master's vs. Doctorate
Both master's and doctoral programs help learners develop high-level knowledge and skills in a specialized field of study. Master's programs usually require 1-3 years and prepare learners for a specific career path, such as business or nursing. Doctoral programs last 3-7 years and require more intensive study and significant original research. Doctoral degree-holders often pursue careers in research or academia.
For careers in many fields, such as business, a master's is the highest required level of education. However, research-focused positions in fields such as math, science, and psychology may require a doctorate. Learners often transfer credits from a master's program directly into a doctoral program. In academic fields, such as history and philosophy, doctoral programs commonly require applicants to hold a master's degree.
Popular Master's Degrees
Students can pursue a master's degree in nearly any professional or academic field. However, the most popular master's degrees focus on common career fields including business, education, and healthcare. This section outlines three of the most common master's degrees, highlighting typical curriculum requirements and career outcomes.
1. Master of Business Administration
The most popular graduate degree in the United States, the MBA is the industry standard for business education. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 23% of graduate degrees conferred in 2018 were in business. Business students explore fundamental business principles including management, economics, marketing, and ethics. MBA students can often customize their degree by choosing a concentration in an area such as finance, strategic leadership, international business, sustainability, or entrepreneurship.
2. Master's in Education
The second most popular field of graduate study, education encompasses a variety of degree options. Aspiring teachers typically choose a level of instruction, such as elementary, middle, or high school. Education students often specialize in a subject area, such as social studies, English, math, or science. Master's-level education programs may also offer concentrations in special education and teaching English as a second language.
3. Master of Science in Nursing
Many learners pursue master's degrees in healthcare-related fields, such as nursing. A master of science in nursing prepares graduates for a variety of positions, including family nurse practitioner, pediatric nurse practitioner, and gerontological nurse practitioner. Master's degree-holders often work directly with patients in healthcare settings. However, specialized graduate programs can prepare students for careers as clinical nurse researchers, forensic nurse consultants, and nurse educators.