What is a Master’s Degree?

April 19, 2023

what is a master's degree

Are you ready to start thinking about getting a Master’s degree? Whether you’re dreaming about a 20% increase in salary, or want to spend your time taking specialized courses, now could be the time. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the total number of master’s degrees conferred in the United States has increased by 22% in the last ten years. Our detailed answer to the question, “What is a master’s degree?” will help see which fits your interests the most.

Whether or not to get a master’s degree actually depends on its type. In a competitive job market, it’s worth it to commit fully and excel in your chosen field. Also, a master’s degree can be a great excuse to spend all your time focusing on your favorite subject, including Manga Studies or Directing Circus.

The key is understanding which type of master’s degree will be worth it for you. Bloomberg reports that the income gap is narrowing between Master’s and Bachelor’s degree holders. The Wall Street Journal shows that certain Master’s degrees can leave you with enormous debt. Either way, it’s important to research which degrees are the most worth your time and money, not just now–but for the future. This list will show you which degrees are most necessary, and most worth the price tag.

What is a master’s degree?

A master’s degree is a postgraduate degree that typically takes one to two years. These degrees tend to require a bachelor’s or the equivalent for entry. These degree programs are designed by universities to provide students with advanced knowledge or skills in a given subject (for Directing Circus, which is an actual Master’s, that could be anything from clown choreography to where to find sword swallowers in the vicinity.)

There are master’s degree programs available in a huge range of academic disciplines. You can find programs that range from the general to the ultra-specific in fields including business, education, engineering, humanities, natural sciences, social sciences, and the arts. Some professional jobs require a Master’s degree to get hired. For others it is recommended, or sometimes not necessary at all. For the financially minded, it could be a good strategy to look at occupational salaries, see which professions interest you, and then at which require master’s degrees.

What’s certain is that earning a Master’s degree is a major academic achievement. It can allow you to pursue a doctorate degree, or symbolize to employers a deep knowledge of your field. No matter what, a Master’s degree will open up doors to advanced positions both in the workplace and the academy. Above all, having a Master’s earns you respect. That’s why basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal paid for 15 of his friends to get one alongside him.

Why should I get a master’s degree?

For some professions, you might not need a master’s degree. For others, like being a librarian, it is required. Here are some general reasons why it might be a good idea:

  1. A master’s will help you advance in your career
  2. A master’s will help increase your earning potential: as mentioned, you can earn on average 20% more with a master’s degree, and much more than that in certain fields.
  3. Master’s study is great professional development: you’ll improve your critical thinking, research skills, and knowledge of your field
  4. Enrolling can help you meet more people in your field, which will help you network (or at least meet like-minded friends)
  5. A master’s degree can help you smoothly make a career change

What are the requirements of a master’s degree?

  • A bachelor’s degree or the equivalent: most master’s degrees require applicants to already hold a bachelor’s degree–which makes sense, since it’s good to have a foundation before starting
  • Minimum GPA: Usually 3.0 or higher, depending on the school or program
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Test scores: some programs require GRE or GMAT scores for entry
  • Statement of purpose: Most programs require a statement explaining why you want to get this master’s degree

Once you’ve gained admission, many programs require:

  • Internships or research
  • Completion of course requirements
  • A thesis or capstone project

How Long Does it Take to Get a Master’s Degree?

A lot depends on whether you are entering a full-time or part-time master’s program. Some master’s programs can be completed in as little as 12-18 months, while others may allow you up to five part-time years to complete all credits/requirements. For a far more detailed answer, visit our blog entitled How Long Does It Take to Get a Master’s Degree?

What is a Taught vs. Research Master’s Degree?

Taught master’s degrees: These degrees function similarly to undergraduate degrees, and are in fact the most common. In a taught master’s degree, you attend classes on different subjects, you stare longingly at your crush across the room, study with a range of professors, and you earn a variety of course credits according to the requirements of the program. Example: MA, MS

Research master’s degrees: These degrees are slightly more common in Europe. You apply with a proposed project, and you earn credits based on your progress and output. You typically work with an advisor on your project, but have much more independence in your work. Example: MPhil, MRes

Types of Master’s Degrees

1) Master of Arts (MA)

This is one of the most common types of Master’s degrees. It is awarded in humanities and social studies, and applies to fields including literature, history, sociology, psychology, and anthropology. These tend not to be terminal degrees, but are a great way to prepare for a PhD.

Example: Conan O’Brien has an MA in American History

2) Master of Science (MS or MSc)

Also super common, these degrees are conferred in fields that include natural sciences, mathematics, engineering, and technology. These tend to be more research-based, including the MS in Computer Science, the MS in Psychology, and the MS as a Physician’s Assistant. An MS to become a Nurse Anesthetist can lead to a $202,470 per year salary.

Example: Rowan Atkinson (aka Mr. Bean) has an MS in Electrical Engineering

3) Master of Business Administration (MBA)

This degree applies to the field of business and management. It is meant to prepare students for leadership positions in various industries. While it may not be required for a successful career as an entrepreneur or business administrator, its skills and connections can be very helpful. Also, there’s high job placement and mega salary return on investment (you’ll learn about ROI in these programs, too).

Example: Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, has an MBA

4) Master of Education (MEd)

An MEd is awarded for graduates to pursue a career in teaching, administration, and educational research. This degree is required for most leadership roles in teaching. Not only that, but it can lead to a considerable boost in your salary.

Example: Columbia professor, poet, and astrologer Dorothea Laskey has an MEd

Types of Master’s Degrees (Continued)

5) Master of Fine Arts (MFA)

This is a degree specific to the creative arts. It can include visual arts, performing arts (such as highly competitive active programs), and creative writing. An MFA is a terminal degree, meaning it will allow you to teach, open up professional opportunities, and allow you time to focus on fine-tuning your craft.

Example: Actor James Franco collects MFAs in a variety of fields

6) Master of Public Health (MPH)

An MPH trains students to improve health on a community level. In the pandemic, it became painfully clear how important these roles are. With an MPH, you study disease prevention, data analysis, public education, and health research. Think: environmental health and global health. Think: considerable salaries while saving the world.

Example: Anthony Fauci…actually does not have an MPH, but he has many honorary degrees

7) Master of Social Work (MSW)

Really this degree should be called “MVP” for how important it is towards helping people. To become a social worker in the United States, you need to earn an MSW. This means you need to study at an accredited institution in order to start the highly important job of supporting individuals, families, and groups to cope with and prevent problems. These programs tend to offer a clinical or direct practice track, with hands-on or wider community experience.

Example: Mariko Yamada, social worker, advocate and politician, has an MSW

8) Master of Library Sciences (MLS)

Alert! This master’s degree is also required in order to become a librarian. It’s also one of the coolest jobs out there. In these programs, you learn all aspects of the field, from finding information, to organizing it, to synthesizing it. It’s a growing field, and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, librarians make an average of $61,190 per year.

Example: Audre Lorde, poet and feminist icon, had a Master’s in Library Science

9) Masters in Nursing (MSN)

This degree can significantly boost earnings, and is almost guaranteed job placement. It also allows you to go into health administration, and become a nurse educator or manager.

Example: Tina Turner was a nurse’s aide–and who knows what she might have done with a Master’s!

Random questions you may still be wondering:

Which master’s degrees are the most high-paying?

If you’re all about the Benjamins, the most lucrative master’s right now are in technology, health, engineering, and business.

Is a JD a master’s degree?

Answer: NO! A professional law degree, or JD, is an advanced degree that allows you to practice as a lawyer. So while you can get an MLS (Master’s of Legal Studies) or other law-related Master’s, a JD is not one of them.

Is an MD a master’s degree?

Answer: Even though it starts with the letter “M,” an MD means Medical Doctor. It is a doctorate degree, not a master’s.

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