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Pre-Enrollment: Weighing Different Types of Master’s Degrees

FAQs: The Basics of a Master’s Program

What’s the difference between academic master’s degrees (MA and MS) and professional master’s degrees, such as an MBA?

According to EducationUSA, the Master of Arts (MA) and Master of Science (MS) are considered academic degrees because they emphasize “traditional” fields. MA programs are usually concentrated in the humanities and social sciences, while MS programs tend to focus on technical fields. While curricular requirements vary by institution and department, most academic master’s programs require a significant amount of original research and fieldwork. They may also serve as a springboard for students who wish to continue their education and earn a PhD or doctoral degree. The list below includes some of the most common MA and MS fields:

Common MA and MS Degrees

 
*Click the link to learn more about the master’s program.
Master of Arts Master of Science
English Nursing
History Mathematics
Communications Computer Science
Economics Information Technology
Journalism Engineering
Political Science Biology
Design Chemistry
Psychology Finance
Philosophy Accounting
Theology Management

Professional master’s degrees, on the other hand, are explicitly designed to prepare students for the workforce immediately after they graduate. Doctoral degrees are unavailable in many professional fields, making a master’s the highest attainable credential (also known as a “terminal degree”). The U.S. Department of Education identifies more than 100 different professional master’s degrees offered nationwide. The most common professional master’s degrees include the following:

  • Master of Business Administration (MBA)
  • Master of Education (MEd)
  • Master of Public Administration (MPA)
  • Master of Public Management (MPM)
  • Master of Social Work (MSW)
  • Master of Public Policy (MPP)
  • Master of Fine Arts (MFA)

How long is a master’s degree?

Traditionally, master’s programs require two years of curricular study before the degree is awarded. However, the U.S. Department of Education notes the duration of a master’s program will depend on the following factors:

Factors Affecting the Duration of a Master’s Program

 
Factor Details
Program Structure Some master’s programs require a commitment that exceeds two years, while others are designed to be completed within one. The required number of credits for a master’s degree will vary ― sometimes greatly ― between institutions.
Institutional Timetable Some schools abide by a semester system (two terms per academic year, plus a shortened summer term), while others follow the quarter system (three terms per academic year, plus optional summer term).
Enrollment Status Although some degree programs require full-time enrollment for the entire duration (12 or more credits), most will allow students to opt for part-time enrollment (generally, eight to 11 credits). A full-time graduate student, for instance, will require no more than four semesters to complete a 48-credit program; part-time enrollees, on the other hand, may require as many as six semesters to earn the same degree.
Specializations Students earning master’s degrees in certain fields (such as nursing, business administration, and education) can earn specializations that pertain to their specific career path. Specializations greatly improve one’s odds of obtaining employment after graduation and earning a relatively high salary, but earning them can potentially extend the length of a program by at least one semester.

How much do master’s programs cost?

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the average graduate student paid the following tuition costs during the 2012-13 academic year:

  • Public university: $10,408
  • Private non-profit: $23,698
  • Private for-profit: $14,418
  • All graduate degree programs: $16,435

Like duration, the financial cost of a master’s varies school-to-school. Two factors that affect overall costs are:

FactorS Affecting the Cost of a Master’s Program

 
Factor Details
Student’s State of Residence Most colleges and universities charge a higher rate of tuition for students who claim residence in a different state compared to those who already reside in the same state.
Status of the School Tuition costs vary based on whether the college or university in question is considered:

  • Public (primarily funded by government funding)
  • Private non-profit (primarily funded by donor and grant support)
  • Private for-profit (primarily funded through student fees)

FAQs: The Value of a Master’s Program

What is a master’s degree worth?

Master’s degree recipients stand to earn significantly higher salaries than their bachelor’s degree-holding counterparts.

A 2011 study conducted at Georgetown University found the following wage disparities between those who earned a graduate degree and those who did not in different career fields:

The Master's Bump: Salary Comparison

Bachelor's Degree Holder vs Master's Degree Holder

  • Agriculture & Natural Resources

    40%
    $50K
    $70K
  • Arts

    25%
    $44K
    $55K
  • Biology & Life Science

    70%
    $50K
    $85K
  • Business

    33%
    $60K
    $80K
  • Communications & Journalism

    24%
    $50K
    $62K
  • Computers & IT

    27%
    $70K
    $89K
  • Education & Teaching

    36%
    $42K
    $57K
  • Health & Medicine

    33%
    $60K
    $80K
  • Industrial Arts & Consumer Services

    30%
    $50K
    $65K
  • Law & Public Policy

    40%
    $50K
    $70K
  • Liberal Arts & Humanities

    38%
    $47K
    $65K
  • Physical Sciences

    2%
    $59K
    $60K
  • Psychology & Social Work

    43%
    $42K
    $60K
  • Science & Engineering

    32%
    $75K
    $99K
  • Social Science

    55%
    $55K
    $85K

Is a master’s degree worth it?

The value of a master’s degree (also known as return-on-investment, or ROI) is inherently linked to both the overall cost of earning the degree and the potential salary increase that degree recipients stand to gain.

To calculate the ROI, divide the total price tag of the degree (tuition, books/supplies, and housing expenses) by the amount of money a recipient will earn each year in addition to the standard salary for a bachelor’s degree-holder. The quotient represents the number of years a master’s recipient is required to work before the ROI will kick in. Payscale.com has an excellent, and massive, collection of ROI data and a simple calculation tool to pair with it.

As noted in a 2013 article from U.S. News & World Report, some fields tend to award master’s degrees with a much less desirable ROI than others. A master’s degree in education, for instance, is currently valued at roughly $5,000 in additional earnings per year; if a grad student pays $40,000 for a master’s degree in education, then they would not see a return on investment on the advanced degree until after eight years of professional teaching.

In other fields, the strength or weakness of a master’s ROI depends on the educational cost and salary increase factors. As Alexa von Tobel, founder and CEO of LearnVest, explained to U.S. News & World Report, an MBA program that costs $100,000 and enables graduates to earn a salary of $100,000 represents a relatively poor ROI ― but a degree program of the same cost that allows graduates to earn $150,000 should be considered a strong investment.

As part of the initial research process, prospective master’s students should perform a quick cost-benefit analysis of each candidate program to determine which degree represents the strongest ROI in their field. But it should be noted that salaries will ultimately depend on other factors, such as the size of the degree-holder’s company and the state and country in which the person is employed.

How do I weigh the risks and benefits of getting a master’s?

Before committing to a master’s program, students should acknowledge the distinct advantages ― and potential disadvantages ― of pursuing an advanced degree.

Advantages

In addition to higher salaries, master’s degrees have also been linked to lower unemployment rates.

Master’s degree recipients face a 3.9% unemployment rate; bachelor’s degree earners, on the other hand, are unemployed 5.9% of the time.

Another benefit of master’s-level education is advanced curriculum. Advanced degree programs allow students to “dig deeper” into their professional field by conducting original research, pursuing specializations, and working much more closely with their peers and professors than undergraduates.

Disadvantages

Students must also consider their financial means before enrolling in a program. Even with financial aid support, master’s students should expect to pay a large chunk of the tuition themselves. Morgan cautions that research assistantships and other programs that cover educational expenses are somewhat rare.

As a result, many master’s degree recipients leave school with a large amount of debt. A recent report from Slate noted that debt among master’s students in most fields has risen over the past decade. The following figures represent the amount of money borrowed by the average graduate student in their respective academic field in 2012:

  • MEd: $35,350
  • MS: $36,000
  • MBA: $36,129
  • MA: $43,109
  • Other Master’s: $38,734

Morgan also notes that some employers value professional experience over academic achievements ― and as a result, master’s recipients may lose out on job opportunities to individuals with stronger work experience. In some fields, alternatives to graduate school that require a shorter time commitment, such as professional certification or continuing education courses, may end up being a more financially fitting way to earn higher credentials. Prospective master’s students need to think long and hard about their career goals, financial standing, and their current qualification before devoting themselves to any master’s program.

The advantages and disadvantages of earning a master’s degree depend on all of the factors listed above. Those who are unsure should speak with master’s degree-holders whose pursuits are relevant to their own to determine if the advanced degree has been a good or bad investment.

What happens if I’m rejected? What are those costs?

Even students who are not accepted into a master’s program face some degree of expenses. These include:

  • Application fees: Although fee waivers may be available, most graduate programs charge an application submission fee; this amount varies, but generally each application will incur a fee of $50 to $70.
  • Entrance examinations: Candidates must pay $195 to sit for the GRE; the first four copies of the GRE score report (mailed directly to institutions chosen by the exam-taker) are free-of-charge, but additional copies of the score report cost $27 apiece. Most master’s program applications require one copy of the student’s GRE score.
  • Official transcripts: Although some schools accept unofficial transcripts, most require official, sealed transcripts. Typically, these are available from the applicant’s alma mater for $8 to $10 each.
  • Postage: Since most completed applications exceed the size of a standard letter, applicants may need to pay shipping costs.

Let’s see what the upfront costs would be for applying to eight programs.

Potential Costs of Applying to Eight Master’s Programs*

*This is an estimate and does not include required additional specialized tests, shipping fees, or additional costs that a student may encounter.
Flat Applying to Eight Programs Total
Application Fees $50-$70 $50-$70 x 8 $400-$560
GRE Related Cost $195 to sit; $27 for each score report over four (first four are free) $195 + ($0 x 4) + ($27 x 4) $303
Official, Sealed Transcripts $8-$10 $8-$10 x 8 $64-$80
TOTAL + Shipping Costs $800-$1000 + Shipping

What do I need to ask myself?

Am I qualified to get a master’s?

Some master’s programs require professional experience, while others favor applicants with a robust resume. Prerequisite courses are another important consideration; candidates may not be eligible for certain programs if their transcripts do not include passing scores for all required coursework.

Other programs reserve enrollment for candidates who have earned undergraduate degrees in specific fields. Be sure to carefully review all of the eligibility criteria for each program you are considering ― and contact school officials if you are unsure of your qualifications. Our series of specialization pages, such as our survey of the accounting master’s, identify the standard qualifications applicants are expected to have.

Am I ready to do the work?

Life in the ivory tower can be a grind. Grad programs are hard work and require much more challenging coursework.

Before signing up for two years of rigorous academic studies, you should make sure your schedule can handle the commitment. Weigh school against other important obligations in your life (such as work or childcare), and make a detailed schedule that includes all the important components of your weekly routine.

Can I be successful without a master’s degree?

You should only earn a master’s degree if it will markedly contribute to your career plans or improve your professional standing. In some fields, employees can achieve success with a bachelor’s degree (or even less). Calculate the ROI of different grad programs, and weigh the costs and benefits related to the time, money, and energy a master’s degree will require.

Does a master’s degree guarantee me a job?

No, but studies have found that most master’s degree recipients earned more money that their bachelor’s degree-holding colleagues and were more likely to advance in their careers. There is no guarantee a master’s degree will directly impact the career you end up in, but the published research, specialization studies, and additional fieldwork of a grad program will certainly bolster your resume and build your professional network.