Learn How to Choose the Right Master’s Degree

At first, the only distinction between a master’s and a doctorate was that master’s degree holders were teachers of the arts and doctors taught divinity, medicine or law.


But since the Master of Arts title became the prerequisite for earning a doctorate in many subjects, students and employees began to consider the master’s degree a halfway point between the bachelor’s and the Ph.D. in all subjects.

Today, you might want to obtain a master’s degree on your way to becoming a doctor in a subject. Or you might just want to acquire an advanced education to supercharge your career.

What is a master’s degree?

After the completion of a four-year college or university program, the next step is a master’s degree. In some professions, a master’s is the final certification that is necessary. On the other hand, some students skip the master’s entirely and enroll in a Ph.D. program.

The master’s program usually requires two years of study, but this varies with the course load and the length of the academic year. Also, some prospective degree holders might need to take additional prerequisite courses or complete research in related fields before they enter this program.

Master’s degrees are common in the business world, as well as the areas of health and medicine, engineering, social services and public administration. The titles associated with a master’s degree include a Master of Arts (MA or AM) or a Master of Science (MS or SM). There are other titles in different subjects though.

Schools have different ways of arranging a master’s program. An engineering program, for example, might have a collection of courses and projects that involve a great deal of research. Business master’s degrees, however, are focused on preparing students to work in their fields.

A Master’s in Business Administration (MBA) usually requires you to take courses, seminars and professional exercises focused on business. It also might require a major project instead of an academic thesis. These degrees may also involve an internship in which you receive hands-on experience in the working world while supervised and graded.

Discover What Are the Program Requirements for a Master’s Degree

Master’s programs have different requirements. One program at Harvard University’s extension school, for example, blends the master’s degree and the bachelor’s degree into one four-year set of courses, so that students who didn’t complete college can accelerate their education. MIT has a program for students without a bachelor’s in a related field who are interested in learning data analysis to help reduce poverty and aid developing countries. Generally, however, a bachelor’s in a related field is the first step to acquiring a master’s degree.

If you don’t have this, you usually take additional coursework to qualify for the master’s program. This is why it’s important to first review the program that interests you and spot the gaps in your learning.

Then you can find a community college or online program with courses that qualify and get the required education under your belt at a lower cost. In addition, check with the admissions to the office to see if the prerequisites are required or simply recommended.

It might be possible that you can get some of the requirements waived because you have real-world experience that makes it unnecessary to take the classes.

Once you are in the master’s program, you must complete a set number of hours of coursework over the semesters. Usually, the program’s courses are harder and more complex than those offered to undergrads at a four-year college or university.

You must also often attend seminars. The required courses and seminars meet different criteria. Some are in your major area of concentration, while others are general courses to give you a thorough grounding in your field.

After completing your classes, you must pass exams in several different areas of your subject. You also may need to finish a long report, called a master’s thesis, and then defend it under questioning from a group of professors. Sometimes students complete a project or a collection of smaller research papers instead of completing a thesis.

Find Out Where to Get a Master’s Degree

There are many graduate schools that can help you get a master’s degree. But which one should you choose?

To make the decision easier, the first group the different schools you are considering by how likely you are to get admitted. You might remember doing this when you first applied to your undergraduate school. Have at least two prospective schools you know you will be accepted by and two that might be a bit harder. Have one master’s degree program that is possible to enter, but almost out of your reach. This last one should be your ideal.

For a good master’s program, research the professors who will teach you, their training and their professional accomplishments. You are not looking for one individual mentor – that would be something to consider for your Ph.D. program. Instead, try to consider the general quality. Don’t just try to find rock star professors who are at the top of their fields. Find a program with professors who work in the specific kind of work you want to do.

It’s important to reach out and email or talk to professors and grad students in the program. Ask about their level of satisfaction, and whether they feel like the program has enough structure and guidance to guarantee success. This improves your chances of getting into the program also helps you make that final choice about which program really fits your goals and interests. Look through the course catalog as well.

Finally, consider whether the school has the kind of facilities you need. Do you require a program with good labs or research libraries? Will you require a teacher assistant position or a summer fellowship to get your degree? Write a list of your ideal qualities and compare that to your choices. Ask a friend or mentor who has gone through the process about the kinds of resources they leaned on or wished they’d had to make sure you aren’t omitting anything.

Learn How to Apply for a Master’s Degree

Before you start the process, know that many master’s programs require references from teachers or work supervisors as part of the application. Contact two or more of these colleagues immediately and ask if they are willing to recommend you. Send them the information on what they have to do once you know – sometimes the master’s program will contact them directly – but giving them notice early helps reduce everyone’s stress level. Have their contact information ready and you can’t go wrong.

The program often has a page on its website that walks you through the process. Sometimes you are required to create an account with a pin number. This is an extra step at first, but it makes things easier when you need to have documents added to your application. The program will want your official transcripts from previous schools and possibly the results of standardized tests like the GMAT or GRE.

Sometimes you can have the documents sent by email and sometimes mail delivery is necessary. Usually, there is an application fee required.

The application is an extensive form with essay questions. It might also require a personal statement of a few hundred words and a copy of your resume. This is all familiar if you have a bachelor’s degree.

Take plenty of time to complete the process and don’t hesitate to call the admissions office of your program to have someone answer your specific questions. This is a chance for you to get an idea of how responsive the program is to your needs. It also helps you make your decision about which school you want to attend.

Discover Why You Should Choose to Pursue a Master’s Degree

In many industries, commentators have said that the master’s degree is the new bachelor’s. In other words, this is the advanced degree that shows employees are ready to enter their fields and eventually rise to a commanding position.

For many kinds of work, a master’s is necessary to show employers, clients and colleagues that candidates have the expertise and critical thinking skills to get the job done. It’s worth asking mentors and others who have advanced further in the same work field whether a master’s is worth pursuing.

Also, a master’s degree is a great way to pursue advanced learning in a subject that you are passionate about as you decide whether to finally go for a doctorate. It is a way of getting credit for the work you’ve already done so that if you decide to go into the private sector without a Ph.D., you are still recognized as an expert.

A master’s degree is also a way of giving you deep learning so that you can think strategically about the big, long-term issues facing your company and your industry. This helps you advance because it makes you a truly valuable member of your team.

Finally, education is an end in itself. A master’s degree helps you earn more money and garner more respect, but nothing beats the thrill of simply learning new things about your field. Getting a master’s degree is an adventure of the mind. It might be the start of an exciting new chapter of your career and of your life.

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