Guide to Master’s Degree Programs

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:

  • Master of Arts (MA) – A degree with a concentration in the liberal arts and humanities
  • Master of Science (MS) – Generally, the MS is more research-oriented than the MA and often requires a thesis project
  • Master of Business Administration (MBA) – The predominant graduate degree in various business fields
  • Executive Master of Business Administration (EMBA) – A graduate business degree designed for professionals with several years of relevant work experience
  • Master of Public Health (MPH) – An interdisciplinary graduate degree that spans concentrations like epidemiology, health administration and biostatistics
  • Master of Education (MEd) – A graduate degree for prospective educators, school administrators or academic counselors

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:

  • Public institutions: $10,408
  • Private, nonprofit institutions: $23,698
  • Private, for-profit institutions: $14,418

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:

  • Private vs. Public: Students attending public academic institutions within their state of residence may qualify for lower in-state tuition. Generally, private colleges cost more and do not distinguish between in-state and out-of-state tuition.
  • Delivery format: Fully online or blended format distance learning is a relatively young system in the history of academia. Prospective graduate students will discover a wide variety of pricing tiers for these programs. For example, some public institutions might charge in-state students less than out-of-state students, or they might charge all distance learners identical tuition regardless of state of residence. When considering a distance learning format, be sure to check the school’s bursar for additional online learning fees and for scholarship opportunities available exclusively to online learners.

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/Grants

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:

  • Institutional scholarships/grants: These funds are provided by the school or by a specific academic department. Generally, you will be competing with your peers to receive this funding. Some colleges automatically consider all applicants for institutional scholarships, which can help you save time while applying. Other schools may require prospective graduate students to complete a separate application.
  • Field-specific or research-specific funding: Outside of individual colleges and universities, there are endowments, funds and organizations that provide scholarships and grants to students researching specific topics or pursuing a graduate degree in a particular field. For example, the Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL) offers master’s students fellowship opportunities in specialty fields like bioinformatics and infectious diseases.
  • Scholarships for minority students: Many scholarship foundations, honors societies and academic institutions offer funding opportunities for minority groups based on a variety of identification factors, such as gender, sexuality, race or ability status.

Should I Apply to a Master’s Program?

Questions to ask yourself:

Personal considerations

  • Do I already have an interest and a history of personal involvement with the field of study I plan to enter? If not:
    • Why do I want to pursue a master’s degree in this field?
  • How can I gain more exposure to this field before my master’s program begins?
  • What networking and academic goals do I want to maintain during my graduate studies?
  • How will I manage other time and financial commitments, such as family, work, etc.?
  • Do my professional and academic histories make me a good candidate for the master’s program I’d like to pursue?

Professional considerations

  • What are my realistic career options once I complete my program?
  • What does the job market look like in the locations I’d like to live after graduation?
  • Will my master’s degree fulfill the credentials I need to pursue the career I want?
  • Do I have any current professional connections in the graduate field I wish to enter? If not, who should I contact?
  • What career counseling and networking opportunities do my prospective schools provide?
  • What internship opportunities do my prospective schools provide?

School considerations

  • What would be an ideal academic setting, student lifestyle and culture for my needs and interests?
  • Would I prefer to take remote courses online, on campus or in a hybrid/blended format?
  • Where can I find resources for students with disabilities and what are my rights?
  • Is this institution accredited?
  • What kind of reputation does the school have at the local, state and national levels?
  • Has this school received accolades or high rankings, especially in the field I’m interested in?

Program considerations

  • Is this master’s degree program accredited?
  • What sets this graduate program apart from the offerings at other universities or colleges?
  • How much funding does the program department receive?
  • What types of accolades have the faculty members earned?
  • Are there any noteworthy instructors?
  • What is the gainful employment* data for this program?

*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.

Accreditation

Why does accreditation matter?

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

  • Acceptance into future academic programs (Ph.D, postgraduate, etc.)
  • Scholarship opportunities
  • Grant funding
  • Employment considerations
  • Transfer status

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:

  • The mission and goals of a program/institution
  • Financial stability
  • Whether there are enough staff and faculty to accommodate students
  • Effective administration practices
  • Compliance with state and federal laws
  • Any disciplinary actions or complaints against the institution or program

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:

  • American Speech-Language-Hearing Association
  • Council on Education for Public Health
  • National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education
  • National Association of Schools on Dance
  • Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education

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:

  • Fully online: All classes are hosted on the internet. Please note that some master’s degree programs may have in-person practicum or internship requirements, however these can often be completed in your state of residence.
  • Hybrid/Blended: These terms are used in several ways, depending on the college or university. Generally, “hybrid” or “blended” formats indicate that students will split their time between participating online and participating in-person. Some courses may use a combination of both formats, while some institutions offer a mix of fully online and fully offline courses in the same program. Most often, hybrid programs have more than 50% of courses offered completely online.

Online curriculum

Pros

  • Asynchronous coursework is available for students to access 24/7
  • Flexible schedules for students with additional life commitments
  • Ideal for students who are comfortable with web communications and technology (word processing, video chat, mobile apps, etc.)
  • No commuting, which can cut down on transportation or living expenses

Cons

  • Lack of face-to-face interaction, which can be immensely useful in certain fields
  • No campus experience
  • Lack of “hands-on” training such as science labs or art studio time
  • Distance learning fees charged by some colleges
  • Technology barriers (adoption/learning/costs)

Offline curriculum

Pros

  • Emphasis on in-person, face-to-face interactions
  • Some people may find it easier to network in groups with this format
  • Hands-on experience under the supervision of an instructor
  • Access to institutional facilities and equipment
  • Time management is led by the instructor

Cons

  • Meetings are synchronous, so students must plan ahead to attend classes
  • Students must invest in transportation to class
  • Out-of-state students must relocate

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?

Prerequisites

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.

  • Master of Business Administration
    • Courses in management, finance and statistics
    • 1-5 years of previous work experience
  • Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)
    • Courses in anatomy, psychology, microbiology, chemistry and epidemiology
    • State RN license
    • 1-2 years of previous nursing experience
  • Master of Education (M.Ed)
    • Courses in psychology and educational policy
    • Background check
    • Field experience
    • A valid state teaching license
  • Master of Divinity (MDiv)
    • Courses in Bible studies, ethics and theology
  • Master of Engineering (MEng)
    • Courses in engineering fundamentals, mathematics, chemistry and natural science

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.

  • Create a list of at least four to five academic or professional contacts in case you need backups
  • Ask early ― give your contacts several weeks to turn in your letter
  • Follow up ― check with your admissions departments to make sure that they’ve received the letters before the deadline

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.

  • Graduate Record Examinations (GRE): The most common graduate admissions exam accepted by multiple disciplines. This test includes three sections: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning and analytical writing. Students may also be required to take GRE Subject Tests that cater to specialized fields.
    • Fees: $195 (General Test) or $150 (subject tests)
    • Scoring timeframe: 10-15 days if the exam is taken electronically; 6 weeks if the exam is taken on paper
  • Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT): Schools of business often accept GMAT scores. Analytical writing, integrated reasoning, quantitative and verbal are the sections covered by this exam.
    • Fees: $250
    • Scoring timeframe: 20 days
  • Miller Analogies Test (MAT): This Pearson assessment can be completed within a single hour, testing critical thinking skills through a series of analogies.
    • Fees: Costs vary based on the testing center
    • Scoring timeframe: 10-15 days
  • Law School Admissions Test (LSAT): This is a long-established exam for graduate law programs. Prospective students are assessed on their logical reasoning, analytical reasoning and reading comprehension.
    • Fees: $170
    • Scoring timeframe: 3-4 weeks

Test Scores

Plan to take your admissions exams several months before your application is due, since some tests scores, like the GRE, take 10-15 days (computer exam) or 6 weeks (paper exam) to process before they are mailed to your academic institutions. Some schools allow you to update your exam scores within a certain timeframe, however, you should check with the admissions department first before re-taking an exam.

Application timeline

The following timeline is a suggestion to help students plan early; the steps may be accelerated to fit your needs. Depending on when you plan to begin your master’s degree, it’s important to submit a FAFSA after January 1 of the applicable school year. Note: some colleges operate on a rolling time frame so that you can apply at any point during the year.

A year or more before your start date:

  • Make a list of prospective master’s degree programs
  • Check the following aspects to see if these programs are the best fit for your needs:
    • Learning format/delivery method
    • Campus location
    • Degree specializations
    • Research funding
    • Campus culture
    • Total cost
    • Accolades
    • Noteworthy faculty
    • Student support and resources
    • Financial aid and scholarships
    • Admissions requirements
  • Create a calendar of deadlines
  • Email faculty members and graduate students to learn more about the programs
  • Schedule campus visits
  • Search for relevant graduate scholarships and apply according to these deadlines
  • Take necessary prerequisite courses
  • Prepare for standardized tests

3-6 months before application deadlines:

  • Schedule an examination date no later than 3 months prior to the application deadline
  • Contact your previous schools for copies of official transcripts
  • Contact your former professors and supervisors for reference letters
  • Take your admissions exam

1-2 months before application deadline:

  • If possible, submit completed applications early
  • Save all application confirmations
  • Check in with your references to make sure that they’ve submitted letters; contact your backup references if necessary

A month before your application deadlines:

  • Contact admissions offices to ensure that they have received your completed application and supplemental materials

The decision to pursue a master’s program is highly personal and should not be taken lightly. You should begin your college search and applications process early to reduce stress and put your best foot forward. Don’t go it alone; reach out to your references, current graduate students and faculty members to get a thorough idea of what prospective master’s degree programs are like. Careful planning can help you discover a master’s program that fits your personal interests and professional goals.

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