What is a Master's Degree?

What is a Master’s Degree?

What is a Master’s Degree? This might just be one of the most difficult questions in the world to answer. If you ask Google, you’ll come across more than 3,210,000,000 answers. Understandably, this could be a bit discouraging. We decided to break down the world of master’s degrees for you, hoping to bring you closer to an answer.

A variety of academic disciplines

There are several types of master’s degrees, offered in all academic disciplines. Broadly classified, these disciplines are defined within business, humanities, natural and applied sciences, and social sciences.
Within social sciences, you will find degrees in:

  • Education
  • Geography
  • Law
  • Psychology

Applied sciences offer degrees in fields such as:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Medicine
  • Computer Science
  • Engineering

In humanities, you will see degrees in fields like:

  • Literature
  • Art
  • Music
  • History
  • Philosophy

Finally, the business discipline offers degrees in fields such as:

  • Accounting
  • Economics
  • Finance
  • Marketing
  • Management

It is important to note that the definition of academic disciplines can differ between different institutions. The lists of academic fields within the disciplines are also by no means exhaustive, but it gives you a sense of the types of degrees you will find in different academic disciplines.

Business discipline

We will focus only on the business discipline. Within this discipline, you will find a wide array of business fields. There are some that are traditionally found in business education and a few up-and-coming ones. As always, it is good to do your own research since there might just be a niche program out there for you not covered in mainstream explanations of master’s degrees.

Master’s of Accounting

If you wish to gain an in-depth understanding of the world of accounting and are wishing to pursue accounting jobs, this is the degree for you. It will provide you with the grounding in specialist skills and knowledge necessary to work in accounting and related fields and most Master’s of Accounting will lead you to qualify as a certified public accountant (CPA).

Master’s of Finance

Looking for a career in finance? Then the Master’s of Finance is certainly for you. As the name indicates, you will immerse yourself in the specialized field of finance. You will cover all finance-related subjects and gain the skills and network to make it in the world of finance.

Master’s of Marketing

Marketing is interwoven with and crucial to the success of every business. In a Master’s of Marketing, you will learn all the theories, principles, technologies, and skills associated with this essential business function. Learning how to create great marketing strategies with the tool kits to successfully execute them is one of the key things you will take away from this degree.

Master’s of Entrepreneurship/Innovation

There has been a rise in the number of master’s degrees related to entrepreneurship or innovation (or both!) in recent years. This degree is designed for you if you wish to develop ideas for a new business or if you wish to innovate within existing organizations. The degree often has an incubator and/or business accelerator as part of the program experience, meaning you can develop and launch your business while studying.

Master’s of Information Systems/Data Analytics/Business Analytics

 Call it what you want – this degree is becoming increasingly important in our data-driven world. It will teach you how to apply modern data science and digital tools in business. You will learn how trends such as machine learning and AI can help solve business solutions and how the analysis of business data can shape and improve business operations.

Master’s in International Business

If you are a globally-minded student wishing to learn more about the intricate workings of international business, a Master’s in International Business is an option for you. Managing across geographies, cross-border transactions, negotiation skills, global supply chain – all these and more will be covered in the program, ensuring that you will become a truly global leader.

Master’s in Management

A fairly recent, but hugely popular, degree type is the Master’s in Management (MIM) program. This program is similar to the Master’s of Business Administration (MBA) program, but unlike the MBA you do not need any work experience to enroll. You will learn the fundamentals of all the basic business disciplines, enabling you to follow a career in whichever shape or form of business you prefer. Check out the story behind the top-ranked Master in Management program in the world.

Master’s in Sustainability / Business and Society / Renewable Energy

If you share the belief that we need to do more to ensure that businesses look at more than just business alone, a program in these fields is where you can learn how to do this. There are some general programs covering sustainability issues at large while others focus on specific areas such as green energy or climate change.

Structure of a Master's degree

It is impossible to explain the structure of all master’s degrees – making the answer to “What is a master’s degree?” a bit difficult. But, in general, they tend to follow a similar “pattern.” You will start by following courses in most cases (although some programs offer flexibility in this regard – check your specific program) in what is called a “lock-step” format. This means that the degree is set up in a structured way where you need to complete specific courses and obtain the associated credits before continuing with the following courses. Once you have completed all the required courses, you could have the option to choose some elective courses to suit your specific career goals. 

A thesis, also called a dissertation, is often required as part of the program. The thesis is a research report written based on research you’ve conducted individually and independently on a topic in your subject area. An internship can also be a required part of the program. The internship is a work placement where you spend some time working for a company to gain practical experience as part of your degree.

Types of master’s degrees

General vs. specialized

General master’s degrees tend to give you a broad base in the field of the degree. This means you will learn all the basics of the field which will ensure a broader range of career options post-graduation. Specialized master’s degrees are master’s degrees that offer a very focused education in a specific field. You will go in-depth on the subjects related to the field and will most probably be employed only within that field post-graduation and beyond.

Pre-experience vs. post-experience

Most master’s degrees tend to be pre-experience programs which means you will embark on the master’s straight after your bachelor’s degree without any prior work experience. Post-experience programs (often called executive master’s degrees) require you to have a minimum number of years of work experience before you can apply.

One-year duration vs. two-years

The duration of master’s degrees varies across programs. Some are intense one-year programs whereas others follow a two-year sequence. For some programs, you will complete the compulsory academic/lecture section of the program within a set amount of time after which you would need to complete your thesis and/or do your internship at your own pace, within certain deadline parameters. Some other programs allow you the flexibility to study at your own pace or on a part-time basis, granted that you complete all required modules within a certain timeframe, normally a maximum of five years.

Master Degree formats

Master’s degrees are offered in various different formats. We have outlined a few below but it is always good to check the format of the specific master’s that you are considering.

Full-Time Master's Program

The on-campus master’s is offered as an on-campus experience where you need to be physically in class every day. If you are pursuing your master’s at a different institution from where you received your bachelor’s degree, you might need to relocate to the location of the master’s degree. On-campus master’s are full-time, meaning you cannot work while you are studying.

Hybrid Master's Program

The hybrid master’s (also called blended master’s) program is a program where you follow some classes online and convene with your cohort at sporadic intervals, usually for a block of classes (e.g. a week of full classes every three months). This format allows you to be based anywhere, granted that you can make it to the campus for the on-site teaching modules. Some programs make a distinction between hybrid and blended, where hybrid entails that some students follow physical classes while others join the classes live online in real-time. Blended means that all students do some content online and some content physically. Hybrid and blended master’s programs are becoming increasingly popular, accelerated by the global pandemic.

Online Master's Program

The online master’s degree is, as the title indicates, offered fully online. This means that you, and all your classmates, follow the classes and all associated components of the program from anywhere in the world, as long as you have access to the internet and a learning device. There are several myths about online education, but there are many benefits of studying online, including flexibility and inclusion.

Part-Time Master's Program

The part-time master’s degree typically takes place on campus in the evenings and/or weekends, outside of regular working hours. This allows you to work while obtaining your degree. The time it takes to complete a part-time master’s is sometimes longer than other formats with students being allowed to complete different modules over the course of a few years. When referring to part-time master’s, we are referring to those programs where you typically have all classes taking place on campus. Sometimes blended/online master’s degrees are also classified as part-time since you can often combine them with professional work.

How to apply for a Master’s Degree

Applying for a master’s degree tends to involve a few standard elements across all programs. It is, however, always good to check the specific requirements for the master’s degree to which you are applying. Remember, there is only one way not to get accepted into your dream program: not applying.

Application form

Almost all master’s programs have an online portal where you need to create an account to access the application form. You will be able to view all master’s degree requirements and steps of the application in this portal. The application form normally requires some information about yourself and your academic history.

Application fee

When applying for a master’s degree, some programs require an application fee to cover their administration and processing costs. Whether a fee is charged and the range of fees varies across programs.

Application documents

Personal information

In most cases, you need to upload some form of identification such as a passport copy or residency card and a resume/CV. Your resume/CV is a way to showcase who you are, so apart from just your academic background, you can include extra-curricular activities, volunteer work, part-time work, etc

Education documents

You need to provide your undergraduate degree certificates and transcripts. In some cases, copies of certificates are accepted for the purpose of application, but you’ll need to provide them with originals or officially certified copies if you are accepted. Some programs will not accept an application without the originals or certified copies. Some programs also require your high school diploma. You need to check per program what their exact requirements are and check per country which type of certifications are accepted.

GMAT /GRE test results

 A lot of programs require entry tests with the GMAT and GRE being the most commonly accepted within the field of business degrees. The Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) is a computer-adaptive test with a verbal and quantitative section. The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) test is American by origin but is now accepted across the globe. There are numerous resources available to help you prepare including online resources, preparation books, and test preparation centres. When you apply, you need to provide your official test results. You can either include these yourself or use the option to send your results to the program directly.

English proficiency

If you are pursuing a degree taught in English (which is the case for most master’s degrees accepting international students), you need to provide proof of your English proficiency. This normally is through providing an English test result. The most recognized tests are the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) tests. Some universities might have country-specific English entry test requirements. At some institutions, you are exempt from these tests if your secondary and/or bachelor’s education was conducted at an internationally recognized English institution.

Personal statement / Application essay

Some call it a personal statement, some call it an application essay, but they all want the same thing: a document where you outline your motivation for applying to  the program, share a bit more about yourself, and explain how you will contribute to the program. Not all programs require you to submit a personal statement, so it’s good to check beforehand whether you have to. Tip: do not think one size fits all – normally copying and pasting your statement across different applications is not a good idea. You need to think about how a specific school will suit your profile and write your essay accordingly.


Most master’s programs tend to receive an overwhelming number of applications and as a result, they set very specific minimum requirements to be eligible to apply for the program. These often relate to a minimum GPA and a minimum GMAT and/or English proficiency test score. For some programs, you need to have a bachelor’s degree in a specific field to be eligible to apply. Others require that you have taken specific subjects in your bachelor’s degree to be eligible to apply – otherwise, you might have to complete a pre-master’s. In some cases, it’s possible to get a master’s without a bachelor’s. Every master’s program has eligibility criteria specific only to that program, thus you need to research each program you are applying to individually to ensure that you meet all their criteria.

How to choose a Master's Degree

With so many master’s programs out there, it can be quite overwhelming to choose the one that is right for you. Luckily, there are some ways for you to narrow down your options and help you decide where you want to go.


A starting point to choosing a program for you could be to simply first check if you are eligible to apply to a specific program. Check if your GPA and tests score meet the minimum requirements for a master’s degree and if you adhere to all other program-specific requirements. Here, you need to look at aspects such as the type of bachelor’s degrees being accepted, whether you need to have any work experience to be eligible, etc.


The format of the program – with different formats outlined above – might also be a deciding factor. Do you prefer to be on campus and immersed in student life? Do you want to stay where you are and study completely online? Do you want a combination? You will soon realize what suits your personal preference and situation best.


Rankings are a good starting point to get a sense of where the degrees you are considering are positioned within the market. However, it is important to not follow rankings blindly as rankings could never give a full view of any program and different rankings measure different things. The key is to assess a program’s rank in conjunction with your sense of whether you will fit in the program and if the program will provide the career start you are targeting. Some important rankings for master’s degrees in the field of business are the Financial Times ranking, Times Higher Education ranking, and QS. Note that some rankings rank specific degree fields (e.g. ranking master’s degrees in business or finance) while others rank the business school or university as a whole.


Specific programs will have specific accreditations. Accreditations are local or global quality assurance bodies that evaluate whether degrees meet a minimum standard within a certain field to be “allowed” to offer degrees in that field. They look at various factors such as quality of faculty and content, career mobility of students, and salary expectations post-graduation. It is impossible to state all accreditation bodies here. If you start investigating programs they tend to always state if and where they are accredited.


If you are choosing an on-campus program, location is a key determining factor. Do international students find jobs locally post-graduation? Is English widely spoken so it is easy to get by? Is a local language required to be employed in the country? Does the country provide a good base for future career steps? These are all important factors to weigh up when assessing the location. 

It might sound contradictory, but location can also be of importance when you are following an online MBA. In this case, you want to check if the degree is recognized globally. Sometimes a degree “name” resonates within a certain geography, but if you are applying for jobs elsewhere the degree might not be that well known. Thus, always good to check.

Look and Feel

You need to like the “look and feel” of the program you are applying to. This means you need to like the culture of the program. Are they formal vs. informal, academic vs practical, lecture-based vs. self-study-based? Since you will spend so much time together, you also need to like the type of people with you on the program. A good way to find out what they are like is by speaking to current students. Most programs will be happy to put you in contact with them. You can also reach out to master student ambassadors on MASTERGRADSCHOOLS.com!

Career Services

You embark on your degree with the ultimate goal to land your dream job. It is therefore important that you check if the program has a career services department that will support you in this journey. Programs have varying different levels of career support, but most help you with your career mapping and goal-setting coupled with practical skills such as CV writing workshops, interview training, and networking.


It is good to check where alumni of the degree you are considering end up. If you see that students are being placed in the industries you wish to go into (for example, consulting or tech) and that they thrive in the type of roles you are looking for, then you can be fairly confident that the program – given that you put in the hard work – could do the same for you.

How to pay for a Master's Degree

What is a master’s degree – or any investment in your growth – without its cost? You’ll need to plan carefully to ensure you have the funding available to complete your master’s degree. The true cost of a master’s degree is more than its tuition. You also need to budget for the costs of learning materials such as books and a laptop. If you are considering an on-campus master’s then the cost of living such as rent and transport also needs to be included.

Savings and Loans

Once you have set your budget, the next question is how can you pay for your master’s? The typical funding model for master’s students is a combination of savings and loans. For some, family funds and scholarships supplement this.

If you are considering taking out a loan, it is good to do proper homework to ensure that you know what you’re letting yourself in for. There are often local loan options available facilitated through the program institution while there are numerous loan agencies offering funds to students regardless of their study location.


Some programs have scholarships specific to the program. These can be needs-based where you need to prove financial need to be eligible and others are merit-based where you qualify if you meet certain achievement requirements. For almost every master’s program there is a “Financial Aid” section in the program information that can provide details of what is available to you. There may be some global scholarships that award aid based on ethnicity, nationality, undergraduate fields of study, etc. It is good to check if and what you might be eligible for.

* * *

Hopefully, we have helped you in your quest to find an answer to “What is a master’s degree?” The key is to decide which general type and format suits you best and which schools seem to be the best fit for you. The next steps are then to apply to these schools and to start looking at your budget and funding. Good luck!

University of StGallen Masters
Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM)
EAE Business School Masters

Written by: Maryke Luijendijk-Steenkamp


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