Guide to Master's Degrees

Advancing your professional skill set and academic abilities with a master's degree can have a profound impact on your life. However, many prospective graduate students discover they are not prepared for the significant time, effort and financial investment required by a master's program.

This guide is designed to help you decide whether a master's degree is right for you. While some students immediately begin their master's program after earning their bachelor's, many others gain years of professional experience before returning to class. Be honest with yourself and your goals as you consider these resources.

Graduate Degree Types

In the United States, there are dozens of master's distinctions. While some may be used interchangeably, others indicate a difference in a graduate's experience level or research focus. Here are some common graduate degrees, along with their areas of focus:

What does it cost?

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), these were the average graduate degree costs at three types of institutions in the 2012-2013 school year:

Based on information pulled from the IPEDS Data Center, during the 2013 fiscal year many online graduate programs charged online students the same tuition rates regardless of their state of residence. At some colleges and universities, this price was equivalent to what in-state, on-campus students pay. Students pursuing degrees online or in hybrid format should check potential schools for additional distance learning fees.

How long does it take?

Master's degrees usually take one to two years to complete as a full-time student.

Is a Master's Degree Worth It?

There is no simple way to determine whether a master's degree is the right decision. The journey is highly personalized, and the outcomes vary greatly based on your goals, your field of study, the labor market, your return on investment (ROI) and many other contributing factors. For example, while a master's degree can result in higher income, graduates often have to grapple with the risk of higher unemployment rates, substantial student loan repayments and a low-income period while studying. Below, we examine the potential career benefits of holding a graduate degree, as well as highlight the industries currently experiencing the largest amounts of growth.

How will it affect my earning power?

Georgetown University's Center for Education and the Workforce (CEW) released "Hard Times," a thorough report of different majors, degree levels, earnings and employment rates. This data is referred to extensively in this section to illustrate different earning situations.

Earnings Increase

The CEW notes that, "staying on campus to earn a graduate degree provides safe shelter from the immediate economic storm and will pay off with greater employability and earnings." Certain fields are known for larger pay jumps. For example, those who earn a graduate degree in life or physical science can earn an astonishing 172% more than someone with only an undergraduate degree.

However, pay increases also depend on a graduate's level of work experience and the industry. For example, CEW data shows that graduate degree holders in architecture can earn $35,000 more than new bachelor's degree holders each year; the same graduates make just $7,000 more than experienced bachelor's degree holders.

Lower Earnings Change

Unfortunately, certain fields are known for very low pay increases, even for graduate degree holders. For example, those who major in film or photography experience a pay jump of 60% between a recent bachelor's degree versus a master's degree; those who major in social work only experience a 40% change.

Other ROI Considerations

It can be too easy to focus on the dollar sign while you're exploring future earnings. However, greater income may not work out in the long run, especially if your field is affected by high rates of unemployment. For example, once architecture majors graduate with a bachelor's degree, they enter a market with a staggering 13.9% unemployment rate. Even if these students pursue a master's degree, they are still faced with a 7.7% unemployment rate, rather high for graduate degree holders.

When considering future earning power, prospective graduate students must also factor in the total cost of their master's degree, program completion time and loan repayments. These factors all impact your financial situation after graduation.

Which degrees are in the highest demand?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) runs a U.S. database of valuable career information for prospective college students. They calculate future job growth by using a six-step methodology: openings by occupation, industry employment, labor force, aggregate economy, industry output and final demand. This gives you a snapshot of the fastest growing jobs in the United States.

Five graduate degrees for fields that may be in high demand before the year 2022:

Costs of a Master's Degree

Tuition, books, student fees, housing and everyday expenses, the cost of being a graduate student can quickly add up, especially if you're attending school full time without additional income. According to the NCES, graduate students spend an average of $16,435 a year attending college in the United States. However, you won't need to pay this full amount out of pocket if you act early and take advantage of the various alternative funding options outlined below.

Funding Options

Degree Types

Generally, students will notice cost discrepancies based on certain degree differences. Some common pricing tiers are based on:

Employer coverage

Many companies offer their employees special academic benefits, such as partial or full-tuition reimbursements. Business Insider has assembled a list of some well-known companies that pay for employee tuition. You might be eligible for these benefits without even knowing it. Typically, a company will invest in a student's education if they intend to use the degree toward internal advancement and plan to attend classes part-time while continuing to work. For example, a tech company might reimburse an employee for earning a master's degree in computer science so that they can pursue a software engineer position. Check with your HR department to see if your workplace provides these benefits.


Scholarships and grants are ideal funding methods because they do not need to be paid back. There are countless scholarships and grants available. Here are a few types to watch out for:

Should I Apply to a Master's Program?

Questions to ask yourself:

Personal considerations

Professional considerations

School considerations

Program considerations

*Under the Obama administration, the Code of Federal Regulations has been updated to include new higher education requirements. Schools are mandated to provide certain gainful employment data for many programs. These Gainful Employment profiles can often be found on official college or university webpages, outlining total tuition rates, book and supply costs, residence hall rates, financing options, completion timeframe and job placement rates.

Choosing a Program

Prospective students must avoid certain common misconceptions and generalizations about graduate school. For example:

Q: Aren't all master's degrees in field X the same? A: No. Levels of quality, professionalism and academic rigor vary across different graduate programs. Accreditation can be a great measurement for the quality of a degree program.

Q: Aren't online programs less reputable than traditional, campus-based programs? A: No, many online programs are identical to their traditional counterparts. Some reputable colleges, like Harvard and MIT, have adopted online learning formats to accommodate the location and schedules of students worldwide.

In this section, you'll learn how to quickly identify common accreditation agencies and recognize red flags in academic programs. We also explore the pros and cons of attending classes online or offline.


Why does accreditation matter?

Accreditation is a big deal. The accreditation status of your school or program can influence:

What are accreditation agencies?

Accreditation agencies are like the consumer watchdogs of the academic world. Many are sanctioned by the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) to monitor and measure the performance of colleges, universities and academic programs. There are dozens of agencies that can be sorted into two categories: regional accreditation and national accreditation. Additionally, different fields of study rely on different agencies. For example, nursing students should look for programs approved by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing. Future graduate students should learn how to identify the accreditation agencies unique to their field of study.

What do these agencies measure?

Every agency uses its own standards and methodologies. Here are some examples of what an agency will review:

Regional Accreditation Agencies

These organizations measure the performance of an academic institution as a whole:

National Accreditation Examples

There are countless national accreditation agencies that oversee programs in different fields of study. These are just some examples that can be found in the U.S. DOE directory of programs and accreditation agencies:

Online or offline?

Recent and future graduate students can take advantage of digital distance learning formats that have completely revolutionized higher education. Using only a laptop and webcam, you can attend courses remotely without ever having to relocate, live in a student dorm or commute to classes. Online courses are also characterized by increased schedule flexibility, so distance learners can study around their home and work commitments.

Master's programs offered online come in two formats:

Online curriculum



Offline curriculum



Applying to a Master's Degree Program

So you've decided to take a leap and cast your name out there as a prospective master's student. This is a momentous life decision, and it requires a significant amount of planning. Beginning the applications process early is important, since due dates can impact your admissions decisions, financial aid package, housing and teaching assistantships.

What do I need?


Prior coursework and professional experience are just some of the prerequisites that you might encounter while applying to graduate programs. These requirements will vary considerably depending on the field of study you plan to enter. The following are some general field specific examples. Keep in mind that not all colleges or universities have these requirements.

Letters of Recommendation

Nearly all graduate admissions departments require two to three letters of recommendation from previous supervisors or educators. Some of these letters may be submitted through digital forms, while other academic institutions expect to receive paper versions of these letters. Here are some tips to ensure that your recommendation letter goes smoothly.

Test Prep

Many academic institutions use standardized testing to gauge current knowledge and aptitude within a specific field of study. However, some colleges and universities are shucking traditional exams because some admissions departments see them as an unreliable measurement, especially among disadvantaged populations.