What Does It Take to Earn a Master's Degree?

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Most college students who seek a graduate degree have a master's degree in mind. What is a master’s degree and what does it entail? Although your college professors probably hold doctoral degrees and they may suggest that you apply to doctoral programs, recognize there are many more master’s degrees awarded each year than doctoral.

Why Students Pursue a Master’s Degree

Many seek master’s degrees to advance in their fields and to earn raises. Others seek master’s degrees to change career fields. For example, let’s say that you’ve earned a bachelor’s degree in English, but have decided that you want to become a counselor: complete a master’s degree in counseling. A master’s degree will allow you to develop expertise in a new area and enter a new career.

It Takes About Two Years

Typically, earning a master's degree takes about two years beyond the bachelor’s degree, but those additional two years open the door to many career opportunities that are personally, professionally, and financially fulfilling. The most common master’s degrees are the master of arts (MA) and master of science (MS). Note that whether you earn an MA or MS depends more on the school you attend than the academic requirements fulfilled; the two are different only in name — not in educational requirements or status. Master’s degrees are offered in a variety of fields (e.g., psychology, mathematics, biology, etc.), just as bachelor’s degrees are offered in many fields. Some fields have special degrees, like the MSW for social work and the MBA for business.

Requires a Higher Level of Analysis

Master’s degree programs tend to be course-based, similar to your undergraduate classes. However, the classes are usually conducted as seminars, with a great deal of discussion. The professors tend to expect a higher level of analysis in master’s classes than undergraduate classes.

Applied programs, such as those in clinical and counseling psychology, and social work, also require field hours. Students complete supervised applied experiences in which they learn how to apply the principles of their discipline.

Thesis, Research Paper, or Comprehensive Exam

Most master’s degree programs require students to complete a master’s thesis or an extended research paper. Depending on the field, your master’s thesis may entail conducting a thorough analysis of the literature or a scientific experiment. Some master’s programs offer alternatives to the master’s thesis, such as written comprehensive exams or other written projects that are less rigorous than theses.

In short, there are a great many opportunities for graduate study at the master's level and there is both consistency and variety in programs. All require some coursework, but programs vary as to whether applied experiences, theses, and comprehensive exams are required.

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Kuther, Tara, Ph.D. "What Does It Take to Earn a Master's Degree?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/earning-a-masters-degree-1685958. Kuther, Tara, Ph.D. (2023, April 5). What Does It Take to Earn a Master's Degree? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/earning-a-masters-degree-1685958 Kuther, Tara, Ph.D. "What Does It Take to Earn a Master's Degree?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/earning-a-masters-degree-1685958 (accessed June 8, 2023).