What Is a Master’s Degree?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics employment growth predictions for 2010 through 2020, jobs that require a master’s degree are expected to grow by 22 percent. The BLS also reported that workers with master’s degrees experienced less unemployment than workers with bachelor’s degrees as of 2011. Although the debate about the value of a master’s degree is ongoing, acquiring a master’s holds many benefits, including measurable monetary advantages and a discernible contribution to quality of life.

Master’s Degree

A master’s degree is the next stage of education following the acquisition of a bachelor’s degree. On-campus and study abroad opportunities are available as well as master’s programs completed entirely online. Usually requiring one to three years to complete, the master’s degree is often a stepping stone towards a doctoral degree. Specifically, individuals holding a bachelor’s degree in physics may enter graduate school working directly towards a doctorate. Physician assistants, community college educators and family counselors are just a few examples of jobs requiring a minimum of a master’s degree. Many international job opportunities also require a master’s degree to meet international employment guidelines for host countries outside of the United States.

Types of Master’s Degrees

Typically, one of two types of master’s degrees is awarded. A Master of Arts (M.A.) is awarded for study in the humanities, such as philosophy or history. A Master of Science (M.S.) is awarded in areas of study such as mathematics and psychology. Some master’s degrees, called tagged degrees, are specifically named to reflect the area of study. A Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.) and Master of Arts in Teaching (M.A.T.) are two examples of tagged degrees.


Individuals may pursue a master’s degree to advance in their field of experience, while other students may work towards a master’s degree with the intention of beginning a new career in an entirely different field. In addition to completing seminars or courses, master’s degree candidates customarily complete a thesis before being awarded a degree. Thesis requirements vary from program to program but usually entail extensive original research and approval by a committee. Some master’s programs administer comprehensive exams in lieu of the thesis requirement. Health-care-related master’s programs may require an internship instead of a thesis.


The cost of earning a master’s degree depends on several variables. The granting institution, the type of program and the length of program study determine the actual cost. If the student is the recipient of a fellowship or scholarships, the cost of completing a master’s program could be reduced substantially. Federal aid is also available for graduate students. Online programs are typically less expensive than on- campus programs.


Richard Vedder, a professor at Ohio University and director of the Center of College Affordability and Productivity, warns that not all master’s degrees are equal when it comes to measuring costs versus benefits. M.B.A.s and advanced engineering degrees offer lucrative rewards, while a master’s in anthropology may not yield a huge increase in income. “The lifetime earnings gains for the second degree should reach into the low six digits,” says Vedder. However, gaining the knowledge and expertise in a chosen field, even if it doesn’t equal more pay, can be very satisfying and may indirectly lead to more financial opportunities. A master’s in anthropology may not increase annual salary up front, but it may lead to lucrative speaking engagements that should be included when weighing costs against benefits.


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