What is a Master’s Degree?

What is a master’s degree? How much do they cost? And why should you study one? In this article, we'll explore the essence of a master's degree, its structure, and its significance. Dive in to understand how a master's degree can shape your academic and professional trajectory.

In short

What Is a Master’s Degree? The Basics

A master’s degree represents an advanced level of study in a specific academic discipline, allowing students to delve deeper into their chosen field. Master’s degrees, like other graduate degrees, generally require a bachelor’s degree in a related field. While the concept is straightforward, the nuances and benefits of pursuing a master’s degree can be vast and varied.

Let’s break down the world of master’s degrees.

Types of Master’s Degrees

Academic master’s degrees emphasize scholarly or theoretical knowledge in a specific field of study. These degrees are typically research-oriented and aim to deepen students’ understanding of their chosen subject. They often serve as a foundation for further academic pursuits, such as doctoral studies. Examples include the Master of Arts (M.A.) and Master of Science (M.S. or M.Sc.).

The other type of master’s degree is the professional master’s degree. These programs prepare students for specific professions or roles in the workforce. They emphasize practical skills and knowledge directly applicable to a particular job or industry. Rather than focusing primarily on research, these programs often include hands-on training, internships, or other practical experiences. Examples of professional master’s degrees include:

  • Master of Business Administration (MBA): Designed for those aiming for leadership roles in business.
  • Master of Social Work (MSW): For those pursuing careers in social work.
  • Master of Education (M.Ed.): For educators and educational administrators.
  • Master of Fine Arts (MFA): A professional degree for artists, writers, and other creative professionals.
  • Master of Public Health (MPH): For those aiming for public health policy, administration, or research roles.
  • Master of Public Administration (MPA): Designed for those pursuing public service or government careers.

While academic master’s degrees often serve as a stepping stone to doctoral programs, professional master’s degrees are typically terminal degrees that prepare graduates for immediate entry into the workforce in specialized roles.

Master’s Degree Subtypes: General vs. Specialized and Pre-Experience vs. Post-Experience

General master’s degrees tend to give you a broad knowledge base in a field. You will learn the fundamentals of the subject, which should ensure a wide range of career options post-graduation. 

Specialized master’s degrees offer a very focused curriculum in a specific aspect of a field. This narrows your career options after graduating but prepares you well for a career within a particular industry.

Master’s programs can also differ in their work experience requirements. Most degrees are pre-experience, meaning you don’t need prior work experience to apply. On the other hand, post-experience master’s degrees (sometimes called executive master’s degrees) require you to have a minimum number of years of work experience before you can apply. These tend to be less common than pre-experience programs.

Length of a Master’s Degree

Most master’s programs are between one and two years long. The length varies depending on the subject, school, and program location. 

Some programs allow you to study at your own pace, provided that you complete all required modules within a specific timeframe. The limit usually is around five years.

Structure of a Master’s Degree

The exact structure of a master’s program varies depending on the school and subject you study. However, they all share some characteristics.

Most programs follow a “lockstep” structure. This means you need to complete specific courses and obtain the associated credits. Once you have completed all the required courses, you may have the option to specialize in certain subjects.

Most master’s programs will also require writing a thesis or a dissertation. This report is based on your independent research into your subject area. These reports can be anywhere from 5,000 to 50,000 words long.

Many master’s students also complete an internship or work placement during their program. This is where you spend time working for a company to gain practical experience related to your degree.

Cost of a Master’s Degree

The cost of a master’s degree can vary greatly depending on the country and school. You’ll need to plan carefully to ensure you can afford to pay for your master’s degree.

In the USA, you can expect to pay between $20,000 and $30,000 in tuition fees. On the other hand, in Germany and Norway, you can often study for your master’s degree for free!

But the actual cost of a master’s degree is more than the tuition fees alone. You should also budget for the costs of learning materials such as books and a laptop. You also need to take the general cost of living into account.

Subjects You Can Get a Master’s Degree In

There are several types of master’s degrees offered across academic disciplines. While it’s impossible to list all graduate degrees, here are some examples.

Within social sciences, you will find degrees in:

  • Education
  • Geography
  • Law
  • Psychology


Applied sciences offer degrees in fields such as:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Computer Science
  • Engineering
  • Medicine


In humanities, you will see degrees in fields like:

  • Art
  • History
  • Literature
  • Music
  • Philosophy

Business Master’s Degrees

There is also a massive range of different business master’s programs available. Here are some of the most popular.

Accounting

A master’s in accounting will prepare you for a career in accounting and related fields. Many programs will help you become a chartered or certified public accountant.

Entrepreneurship / Innovation

There has also been a rise in master’s degrees in entrepreneurship and/or innovation. This degree is for those who want to start a new business or work in the innovation department of existing organizations.

Finance

Master’s in finance programs have expanded in recent years to include the emerging trends in the world of finance. These include sustainable finance, fintech, and blockchain.

International Business

If you want to learn more about the workings of international business, a master’s in international business could be for you. You’ll learn to work across borders and become a global business leader.

Information Systems / Data Analytics / Business Analytics

Analytics are an increasingly important element of business. A master’s in business analytics will teach you how to apply modern data analytics tools in business. You will also learn how machine learning and AI trends can help solve business problems.

Management

The master’s in management (MiM) has emerged as a precursor to an MBA in recent years. A MiM is similar to an MBA, but you do not need any work experience, among other distinctions. In a MiM program, you will learn all business fundamentals, such as management, marketing, leadership, and finance. It prepares you for a wide range of business-related roles.

Marketing

Marketing is interwoven with and crucial to the success of every business. In a master’s of marketing, you will learn the theories, principles, technologies, and analytic skills associated with this key business function.

Sustainability / Renewable Energy

Master’s programs that combine business and sustainability have grown in popularity in recent years. Now, business schools are developing more programs to meet the growing demand to tackle climate change. They include general degrees about the industry as a whole and some devoted to more niche topics.

Master’s Degree Formats

You can study for a master’s degree in several different formats, which are outlined below.

Full-Time

A full-time master’s program typically occurs on campus, although some may have online elements. Depending on the school and subject, they tend to be between one and two years long.

Part-Time

A part-time master’s program normally takes place on campus in the evenings and/or weekends, outside of regular working hours. This allows you to work while studying for your degree. It can take longer to complete a part-time master’s than other formats because you can take the modules over several years.

Online

You can also study many master’s programs 100% online. This means you can join classes from anywhere in the world. Studying online offers more freedom and flexibility than other types of master’s programs.

Hybrid or Blended

A hybrid or blended master’s is a mixture of online and in-person study. In a hybrid program, you normally take classes online and then visit your campus for study weekends.

Some programs make a distinction between hybrid and blended. In this case, a hybrid program means that all classes can be attended either in person or online, while blended means that students take some classes online and some in person. 

Hybrid and blended master’s programs became increasingly popular during the COVID-19 pandemic.

How To Choose a Master’s Program

With abundant master’s programs available, selecting the one that aligns with your needs can pose a challenge. Fortunately, several methods can assist you in streamlining your choices and determining the most suitable program for you.

Decide on the Format and Location

The format of the program, as outlined above, should be a key consideration in your search. Do you prefer to be on campus and immersed in student life? Do you want to stay where you are and study entirely online? Would you rather get a master’s degree in the US or Europe?

You’ll also have to think long and hard about where you want to study. If you’re thinking of studying for a master’s degree abroad, it’s worth asking:

  • Can international students find jobs in the country?
  • Do you need to speak the local language to find a job there?
  • Does the country provide a solid base for your future career?

These are all critical factors to consider when deciding on the location of your master’s program.

Check the Rankings and Accreditations

Master’s program or school rankings are an excellent place to start in your search for a master’s degree. However, it’s important to remember rankings can never tell you everything about a program. You should combine the rankings with your own research.

Some important rankings for master’s degrees in business include the Financial Times, Times Higher Education, and QS. Some rankings are subject-specific (e.g. finance and management), while others rank the business school or university as a whole.

Business schools also obtain accreditations from bodies such as EQUIS and AACSB. The role of these organizations is to assess the credibility of master’s programs. They do this by looking at various factors such as the quality of faculty, curriculum, career mobility, and graduate salaries.

Reach Out to Alumni

It’s never a bad idea to reach out to university alumni. They can give you a better idea of what your master’s program is really like. And it’s probably easier than you think to get in touch with them.

Some schools will publish a list of program alumni with their contact details. You could also find them on LinkedIn. Alternatively, you can get in touch with one of our master’s ambassadors from all over the world.

Applying for a Master’s Program

Although there are standard elements of the master’s program application process, it’s still a good idea to check the specific requirements for your program, as they may differ.

Below are the steps required for most applications. You should consider these and more well before applying for a master’s to increase your chances of getting accepted.

1. Check Your Eligibility

Before doing anything, you should check if you are eligible for the program. Ensure your test scores meet the minimum requirements and whether you need specific qualifications. You should also find out if your program requires a minimum of years of work experience. 

In some cases, it is possible to get a master’s degree without a bachelor’s degree. If you don’t hold a bachelor’s in a related field, you might have to do a pre-master’s program. A pre-master’s is a foundational course that prepares you for a complete master’s program.

2. Take the Relevant Tests

Many business master’s programs will require you to take the GMAT or GRE exams. The Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) is divided into four sections: Quantitative Reasoning, Verbal Reasoning, Integrated Reasoning, and an Analytical Writing Assessment. The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is lesser-known but similar to the GMAT. 

When you apply to a master’s program, you must provide your official test results. You can include these yourself or send the results directly to the institution.

If you are pursuing a degree taught in English, you must provide proof of your English proficiency. The most recognized tests are the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). You are exempt from these tests at some institutions if your secondary and/or bachelor’s degree was taught in English.

3. Fill in the Application Form

In your application form, you will need to include details of your personal, academic, and (if applicable) professional background. You may also be asked to include information about your extracurricular activities.

4. Gather Your Supporting Documents

You’ll need to provide some supporting documents with your application. These could be degree certificates, exam results, and other related qualifications. In most cases, you’ll need to provide original copies of these documents if accepted.

5. Write Your Personal Statement

Some call it a personal statement, some call it an application essay, but they mean the same thing. This is where you outline your motivation for applying, share a bit more about yourself, and explain what you will contribute to the program. This is an important part of the application process and one you shouldn’t take lightly.

6. Pay the Application Fee

When applying for a master’s degree, some programs require an application fee to cover their administration and processing costs. The fee varies across programs.

Financing a Master’s Program

Once you have set your budget, the next question is: How do you pay for your master’s degree? Here are your main options.

Student Loans

Some countries offer postgraduate loans for master’s programs. However, they only tend to be available to citizens of that country.

You might also consider a private loan to fund your studies. There are many student loan companies that can fund your master’s degree, while many universities have partnerships with specific providers. As always, it’s best to check in advance.

Scholarships, Fellowships, and Bursaries

Most master’s programs will have a “Financial Aid” section on their website detailing scholarships, fellowships, and bursaries.

Scholarships tend to fall into two categories: needs-based and merit-based. 

Needs-based scholarships are allocated depending on the financial need of the applicant. For instance, you may win a needs-based scholarship if you can demonstrate that you’re unable to afford the program.

Merit-based scholarships are awarded based on academic or professional achievement. Some schools award these automatically upon applying, while at other schools, you’ll have to apply separately.

Company Sponsorship

In some cases, your employer may agree to cover the cost of your master’s degree. It’s worth checking with them before applying to see if this is possible. In some cases, your university may help you put together a business case for your employer to sponsor your master’s program.

Explore Master’s Degrees

We hope this guide helped in your quest to find an answer to the question: “What is a master’s degree?” If you’re starting your search for a master’s program, don’t forget to check out our articles and events and contact our ambassadors. Good luck!

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