Best Master's Degree Programs

Oct 19, 2021

What is a Master's Degree?

A master's degree is a graduate program that is designed for advanced study and practice in a particular subject. It is typically pursued after an individual has completed a bachelor's program. While bachelor's programs provide foundational knowledge and skills, master's programs build upon those and challenge students to apply what they know to real-world situations. Master's degrees are a common requirement for many higher-level careers and can greatly benefit career advancement or even aid in a career change.

How Long Does it Take to Earn a Master's Degree?

When studying full-time, most master's degree programs take around one and a half to two years to complete, but this varies by school and program. A more precise way to measure time to completion is credits. Master's programs require between 30 and 60 credits to graduate. Each course a student takes is worth a certain number of credits. The more courses you take, the more credits you earn, so the faster you can graduate. Or if you take fewer courses, then the opposite would be true. Another factor that comes into play is the learning format. Online master's programs can be completed faster because they are not limited to meeting at the same time and place every week. Students with other commitments can take courses on their own time and may be able to fit more into their schedule than they would in a traditional program.

How Much Does a Master's Degree Cost?

The cost of a master's degree will vary by school, program, and each student's situation. The location of a school as well as if a program is online can affect the total cost. There are some statistics for the average cost of tuition for a master's degree to get an idea, though. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that the average graduate tuition for 2018-2019 at public postsecondary institutions was $12,171 per year.

Is a Master's Degree Worth It?

The importance of a master's degree is ultimately determined by each person who pursues it. There are some benefits of a master's degree that are significant, however.

First, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that higher education leads to higher salary and lower unemployment. Using 2019 statistics, those with a master's degree had median weekly earnings of $1,497 and an average unemployment rate of 2%. For comparison, those with a bachelor's degree made $1,248 per week and had an average unemployment rate of 2.2%. While the average starting salary for master's degree graduates varies by industry, your chances of earning a higher salary than those with a bachelor's degree are positive. Salary isn't the only reason to consider a master's degree, though. Many careers require or prefer graduate degrees, even for entry-level positions. A few of them include:

  • Archivists
  • Curators
  • Librarians
  • Mental health counselors
  • Nurse practitioners
  • Postsecondary art, drama, and music teachers
  • Urban and regional planners

Types of Master's Degrees

There are 4 common types of master's degrees that most subjects will fall under. They include Master of Arts, Master of Fine Arts, Master of Business Administration, and Master of Science. While some of the same subjects may be offered under these degree types, each type has a focus for its curriculum that is geared towards one particular angle, such as research, academics, theory, or professional practice. Other types of master's programs are known as professional programs, where they prepare students for professional practice in a certain career, such as a Master of Social Work. Many master's programs end with a thesis, oral exam, or capstone project to demonstrate the knowledge and skills learned.

Master of Arts (MA)

Master of Arts programs are typically humanities-based degrees with an emphasis on a broad liberal arts education, but they are still focused on a particular discipline. They are usually academic or research-based and teach skills that can translate to a broad range of areas. The social sciences and social and professional skills are commonly taught in MA programs. A few majors that can be found in these programs include anthropology, political science, psychology, and sociology. While an MA degree program may be in a particular subject, its curriculum can prepare graduates for several types of jobs.

Master of Fine Arts (MFA)

Master of Fine Arts degrees are professional degrees, meaning they prepare graduates for professional practice in a specific career and are usually more skills-based rather than focused on academics, research, or theory. The work is advanced and this type of degree is often considered a terminal degree, meaning it is the highest credential you can earn in this field. Students spend much of their time advancing particular skills. MFA degrees are creative and common majors include writing, theatre, sculpting, dance, acting, film, and illustration. Because MA degrees are primarily skills-based, many programs will request applicants to provide samples of their work or audition.

Master of Business Administration (MBA)

Like the MFA, Master of Business Administration degrees are different from traditional master's programs. They are professional and terminal degrees that prepare graduates for a more specific type of career. This degree type has many concentrations that are rooted in the world of business, including accounting, finance, marketing, leadership, human resources, and management. While the general curriculum may be in the broader business world, concentration-specific courses focus on a particular industry. While you can earn an MBA before entering a particular business career, many people earn an MBA to advance their careers, learn special skills, make a career change, or meet other business-minded people to network.

Master of Science (MS)

Master of Science degree programs have a curriculum that is divided between theory, research, and technical skill, with a larger focus on the latter two than other degree types. As the name suggests, these degrees are more science-based, but some liberal arts courses may still be taken, and technology is a large focus as well. They have a narrower focus in terms of subject matter and career preparation, and students may spend more time learning and developing specialized skills. Majors in MS programs include chemistry, computer science, genetic counseling, chemical engineering, environmental science, and project management.

Degree Type Description
Master of Architecture (MArch) A Master of Architecture is a professional degree designed to train students at the highest level of architectural skill. Students with a bachelor's degree in any educational background can apply, but those in the arts, sciences, and humanities are given preference. Programs are intensive and require a thesis or project as well as a residency, and last 3 years.
Master of Letters (MLitt) Similar to an MA degree, these degrees are liberal studies programs with coursework that improves communication, writing, and speaking skills. They usually last 2-3 years. Majors and courses can include humanities, literature, media studies, theology, organizational leadership, and family life education.
Master of Laws (LLM) A Master of Laws degree is designed to learn law theory; it does not qualify students to become practicing lawyers, although it may be a step in their educational path. LLM degrees teach both US and international law students and professional lawyers alike. The curriculum is highly individualized with opportunities to study and research several types of law, such as business, environmental, and criminal law, among others. LLMs take around 1 year to complete.
Master of Public Administration (MPA) Master of Public Administration degrees are designed to prepare graduates for careers in public service, such as nonprofits and government organizations. They typically take 2 years and subject areas include human resources management and public ethics.
Master of Public Health (MPH) Master of Public Health degrees typically last 1-2 years when studying full time and are designed to teach students knowledge and skills in public health topics, such as public health policy, epidemiology, and management.
Masters in Management (MiM) A Masters in Management degree is similar to an MBA degree in that it is a professional program designed for management positions in several areas of business such as retail, marketing, social media, and non-profit. They may be confused with an MS in Management; they are not the same program.
Master of Engineering (MEng) A Master of Engineering degree is a professional degree designed for advanced practice in the applications of engineer work. Different specializations such as chemical engineering, civil engineering, and computer science are available. The degree can be completed in 1 year with full-time study.
Master of Social Work (MSW) A Master of Social Work is a professional practice degree designed to gain advanced and/or specialized knowledge in areas of social work such as trauma counseling, clinical behavioral health, child and youth services, and mental health and substance abuse. Programs last 1-2 years and students spend time in a field placement gaining practical skills.

What Kinds of Master's Programs are There?

Master's programs can span across many different subjects that fall under the same discipline. For example, a master's degree in business can be in accounting, economics, or finance, and a master's degree in the visual and performing arts might be in graphic design, interior design, and theatre.

Business

Master's degree programs in business are typically Master of Science or Master of Business Administration degrees, although they sometimes can be Master of Arts. These degrees cover many subjects within the business world, with several majors or concentrations to choose from. They include accounting, finance, economics, executive leadership, and data analytics. Students in these programs learn how to become effective leaders, advance their business skills, and learn the knowledge needed to earn specific certifications, such as the Certified Public Accountant credential. Finance programs in particular prepare students to work as leading financial practitioners and economics programs teach students economic theories that can be applied to real-world situations.

Psychology

Graduate programs in psychology can be Master of Science or Master of Arts degrees and cover a variety of subjects within the psychology and mental health fields. Students have a chance to learn some foundational concepts in psychology but many programs have concentrations or majors where students can specialize their education to fit their career goals. General psychology is an option but there are also industrial/organizational psychology, youth and adolescent psychology, biopsychology, and counseling options available for study. Counseling psychology programs in particular prepare graduates to become licensed mental health counselors and biopsychology prepares graduates to perform research in behavioral neuroscience.

Education

Master's degrees in education cover topics related to teaching, curriculum development, and school administration. Most graduate education programs are part of a teaching certification program, where students earn the credentials needed to teach public school. Students can choose a grade and subject area they want teacher training in, such as early childhood education or secondary science education. In particular, a Master in Education program is designed to gain teacher certification and take on leadership roles in the education field. A Master of Arts in Teaching is designed for specialized teaching education as well as first-time teaching students who want to gain certification. A master's in special education teaches students topics and skills relating to teaching children with special needs.

Humanities

Humanities programs are primarily focused on liberal arts and have a strong emphasis on interdisciplinary learning. Students learn about topics related to culture, diversity, social sciences, and the human condition. They are typically Master of Arts degrees and have a broad focus, so students can pursue career paths of many kinds. A humanities degree can be in the general subject of humanities or it can be focused on a particular area, such as English, history, and divinity. English master's programs teach critical analysis of literature and its historical and philosophical context, as well as communication and writing skills. History master's programs teach critical analysis of the past as well as research and writing skills. Divinity master's degrees cover topics relating to theology and religion and can prepare graduates to become theological leaders.

Visual & Performing Arts

Visual and performing arts graduate degrees cover a variety of subjects in the creative field such as theatre, dance, art, film, writing, and various types of design. These are typically Masters of Fine Arts degrees and are usually designed for professional practice. Most graduate visual and performing arts degrees are terminal. Different subjects can be offered as concentrations within a degree or as a major. In particular, graphic design degrees teach students design skills in 2-D mediums for visual communication. Interior design degrees teach students how to design interior spaces for commercial and residential properties. Theatre programs allow students to specialize in several areas related to working in theatre, including acting, costume design, and stage directing.

Computer & Technology

Computer and technology graduate programs are typically Master of Science degrees and cover subjects related to the use of computers and various types of technology in the world, including how they are used to gather information or benefit businesses. A few computer and technology graduate degrees include data science, information systems, and computer science. Data science programs cover the systems that gather data as well as how to interpret them. Information systems programs similarly cover those topics, but with more focus on building and maintaining software. Computer science programs cover these topics as well but also focus on more general computer topics such as programming and wireless network systems.

Nursing & Healthcare

Nursing and healthcare programs are Master of Science degrees and cover topics related to giving healthcare or working in administrative roles in the field. Many programs require clinical rounds to gain skills and experience. A few degrees in this field include nursing, public health, and healthcare administration. Nursing degrees allow students to gain advanced specialized training in areas of nursing such as nursing education, family practitioner, and nursing leadership. Public health degrees train students in healthcare advocacy and administration for populations. Healthcare administration degrees teach students how to work in leadership positions and in health care policy.

Engineering & Science

Engineering and science graduate programs teach students subjects in the life, physical, and technological sciences that can be applied to real-world situations, such as research and development. These are most often Master of Science degrees and they typically require laboratory time as well as research projects or a thesis. Some of these programs can include biology, bioengineering, and STEM. STEM graduate degrees are degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math, and they teach students skills needed to develop technologies or gather data that is valuable to societal development, such as data security or computer technology. A few STEM programs include business analytics, finance, information technology, and software application development.

Criminal Justice

Criminal justice graduate degrees teach students about various topics within the legal and criminal justice system, from studying and applying the law to working in the courtrooms and more. They're typically designed to help students take on leadership positions within the field. A few of these degrees include a Master of Laws, Master of Arts in Criminal Justice, and a Master of Legal Studies. Criminal justice covers the study of crime and its societal impact and teaches students research methods for understanding crime statistics. Legal studies programs are designed for professionals in several fields who are not practicing lawyers but need extensive knowledge of laws, regulations, and the legal process to perform their work.

What to Expect in a Master's Degree Curriculum

The curriculum for master's degrees is considerably different from undergraduate degrees. While the curriculum in a bachelor's degree usually covers more general education and foundational courses, the curriculum in a master's degree is more specialized. Foundational courses are usually still taken, just not as many. The bulk of the curriculum is directed towards one's major, with some room for electives.

Master of Science degrees such as biology, engineering, finance, and computer technology, will require more science and technology courses along with laboratory time; a thesis or research project is also usually required. Master of Arts degrees such as English, history, sociology, and teaching, are more academic and may require a thesis. Master of Fine Arts degrees, such as illustration, theatre, dance, and writing, are more practical and may require a capstone project or portfolio instead of a thesis or research assignment.

Some degrees, especially those in nursing and healthcare or psychology and counseling, require internships or clinical field placement. This is because the nature of these degrees involves careers that require working directly with people to provide special services, so students must gain skills and experience so they can provide them.

How to Choose a Master's Program

With so many options for a master's degree, it can be overwhelming trying to decide which one is the right fit. The first step is to think about what your academic and professional goals are, and which programs can help you reach those goals. For example, if you want to lead research teams to discover new technologies to help the medical field, then a bioengineering program with a focus on research may be right for you.

There's also the matter of cost, location, learning format, and your living situation. If you're working a lot or have other commitments, then an online or part-time degree may be a better fit. You can find schools and programs that fit all these criteria by using NCES' college navigator tool.

Once you've narrowed down schools and programs, a great way to learn more information about required classes, electives, and post-graduation opportunities is to contact a school advisor and an alumnus. A school advisor can answer your questions related to the program and an alumnus can give you a first-hand account of what it's like to study there as well as how to achieve success after graduation. Most schools have advisors' contact information and an alumni directory on their website.

Applying to a Master's Degree Program

The prerequisites for master's degree programs can vary by program type. In general, requirements for a master's program include a bachelor's degree with official transcripts, a minimum GPA, letters of recommendation, a personal essay or statement of intent, and a resume or curriculum vitae (CV). Many programs require a minimum 3.0 GPA but some schools will accept 2.75 or lower if a student takes an entrance exam. Additionally, some schools require Graduate Record Examination (GRE) or Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) scores, but this can vary by school and department.

Some programs will require specific courses, degrees, or application materials. MFA applicants usually need to submit a portfolio or other creative element with their application. Applicants to programs such as accounting, nursing, and computer science will need to have taken certain courses or even have a specific degree in order to be admitted. For example, a graduate nursing applicant will need to have a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) and be a registered nurse (RN). Likewise, an accounting applicant may need to have taken accounting and auditing courses in their undergraduate program. Sometimes a specific degree isn't required as long as a few courses in the field are taken.

Can You Get a Master's Degree Online?

It is possible to get a master's degree completely or partially online. Online master's degree programs have the same curriculum as campus degrees and are often taught by the same expert faculty. Online learning can be a great option for individuals with work, life, or family commitments, or those who just want to earn a degree from the comfort of home. The format varies by school, but much of the work done in online programs is independent, meaning you don't meet for class at a certain time the way you would in a traditional program.

Even though the coursework can be done completely online, some programs, such as nursing or psychology, will still have in-person requirements such as clinical practice or a field placement. Since online master's degrees are more flexible, it is possible to earn one in less than 2 years, which is the average amount of time for a traditional on-campus program. Lastly, while the tuition varies with each school, studying online can be cheaper. You aren't paying room and board, and some schools offer their online tuition at a fixed rate, so it doesn't increase each year.

Financial Aid & Scholarship Resources for Master's Degrees

Paying for school can be challenging, but there are ways to ease the burden. The first step is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This form allows you to see what federal aid you qualify for, such as work-study (when you work a school-provided job for tuition assistance), loans (Stafford loans or Parent PLUS), and grants. FAFSA requirements include your social security number, tax information, and household income, among others. Students must have good academic standing as well as citizenship or legal status in order to qualify for federal aid.

Federal aid isn't the only option, however. There are plenty of scholarships at the national, state, and local levels you can apply to that are specifically for graduate students. Some come directly from the school you're attending, such as the Graduate Incentive Award at the University of Cincinnati, which covers tuition and fees partially or in full. Similarly is a Graduate Assistantship, where a student receives stipends for providing teaching, administrative, or research services.

Another option that is almost exclusively available to graduate students is fellowships. Fellowships give students funds in order to study or pursue opportunities such as research or working on a skill, like filmmaking or writing. The National Science Foundation offers the Graduate Research Fellowship for master's and doctoral students who are pursuing full-time, research-based STEM degrees. The fellowship lasts 5 years and students earn an annual stipend of $34,000 as well as $12,000 towards tuition.

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