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What Is a Master's Degree?

After completing an undergraduate program, students have the option to continue education by pursuing a master's degree. A master's degree is an advanced degree that offers students the opportunity to become experts in their field. Whether you want to advance in your current career path, change careers entirely, or simply explore a subject you're interested in for the sake of learning, opting to take on a master's program can be hugely beneficial to your life.

Typical Requirements

The first step in starting your master's degree journey is applying. Although exact requirements will vary from school to school, in most cases when you apply to a master's program, the following will be considered:

  • Past Transcripts
  • Test Scores (GRE, GMAT)
  • Interview Scores
  • Personal Statements
  • Reference Recommendations

This is not an exhaustive list, and some schools may require more or less. How easy it is to get in depends on the college itself, the competitiveness of the program you chose, and the quality of your application. Lately, as schooling becomes more about flexibility, certain schools are making applying and being accepted easier than it's been in the past.

The cost of attending a master's program varies significantly between programs and schools, and changes depending on whether a student has received scholarships or whether their current employer is paying for all or part of their tuition. In 2015-2016, 60 percent of students graduating from master's programs did so with student loans to pay off -- do keep in mind that how much each student owed varied, with some having relatively little left to pay(1). Opting for lower-cost colleges, including many accredited online colleges, can make getting a master's an affordable option.

Most master's programs take two to three years to complete, with some programs being faster. Typically 30 to 40 credits are required for graduation, and many programs require that students complete a well-researched thesis before officially graduating.

Why Earn a Master's Degree?

Though not applicable to everyone, research shows that on average, master's degree holders earn $12,948 more than their counterparts with only bachelor's degrees do annually(2). This could be because some higher up occupations require applicants to have a master's, and some companies are more likely to offer promotions to employees with them as well. Whether you want to move up in your current role or pivot to an entirely new field, a master's can make that a possibility. If you're on the fence about applying, decide what your career goals are and research how a master's degree might aid you in achieving them -- if you find that a degree would be helpful, then look into specific programs.

Aside from the benefits of higher wages and better job opportunities, earning a master's degree is a process that allows students to concentrate on one of their interests and become an expert on that topic. For many, this chance to study under expert professors and deepen their understanding of a subject is worth the effort alone. As well as an expertise in your field, taking the time to complete a master's program will likely allow you to build up other skills that are invaluable, whether that's in research, communication, or organization. The personal improvement your experience can result in will have applications in both your professional and daily life for years to come.

Master's Degrees vs Doctorate Degrees

Once students are settled on earning an advanced degree, the question often turns to whether a master's or a doctorate is the right way to go. Doctorate holders earn $20,072 more than master's degree holders on an annual basis(2). Though master's degree holders also earn significant wages, this difference may be a consideration to some. As far as job opportunities go, certain professions require or at least favor a doctorate -- anyone hoping to be a professor, physician, or research expert in a particular field may need to earn one. If you are deeply interested in any field of study, a doctorate program will allow you to devote years to studying it, along with the potential opportunity to contribute original research on the subject.

However, for many a master's degree may be the better and more convenient choice. Although some people with doctorates do go on to earn higher wages, master's degrees lead to high wages as well, without the added time, energy, and money that getting a doctorate requires(2). Most jobs simply do not require a doctorate, and as master's programs are a few years shorter and notably less expensive, opting for the latter is likely a quicker and more convenient way to get started on your career. While a master's program is still a commitment, it is a more viable choice for most people, and will likely result in still-significant increases in wages and job options.

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