What Is a Master’s Degree?

What Is a Master’s Degree?

Master-level studies involve specialized study in a field of research or an area of professional practice. Earning a master’s degree demonstrates a higher level of mastery of the subject.

Earning a master’s degree can take anywhere from a year to three or four years. Before you can graduate, you usually must write and defend a thesis, a long paper that is the culmination of your specialized research. In some fields, the thesis may be substituted by practicum work (an internship, basically) or some kind of exam.

A master’s degree is often a terminal degree, but it can also represent a milestone along the way to even higher degrees such as Ph.D.s or post-doctoral degrees.

Who Needs a Master’s Degree?

Certain professions require that applicants be educated to a master level. Teachers, for example, are one such group of professionals. Also, anyone pursuing a Ph.D. will have to earn a master’s degree along the way. This includes medical doctors and most tenured university professors.

Master’s degrees are also potentially useful for career professionals who already have work experience and seek a competitive edge in their fields. Earning a master’s degree could help an IT professional get promoted within his or her company or find an even better job.

The specialized nature of a master-level education means that most students have an idea beforehand of how their master’s degrees will fit into their own educational and professional goals. The intent is less exploratory than education at the undergraduate level.

Types of Master’s Degrees

The specialization of studies has resulted in a wide selection of available degrees. Two common degrees also reflect common bachelor’s degrees: A Master of Science and a Master of Arts. A third common degree is the Master of Business Administration, or the MBA. For an exhaustive list of available master’s degrees, see this Wikipedia article [link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_master%27s_degrees].

Applying For Master-Level Studies

In the United States, the majority of graduate programs require that you have earned a bachelor’s degree and have passed one of two exams, the GRE or the GMAT.

The GRE tests a more general base of knowledge, with a verbal section, a math section, an analytical writing section and an experimental section, the last of which will resemble one of the previous sections, but you have no way of knowing what it will be in advance.

The GMAT is the preferred entrance exam for business schools, so anyone who would like to pursue an MBA will likely have to pass this exam. It has three parts: Analytical writing, math and verbal.

The Work

Most masters programs involve some combination of research, courses, seminars and practice. This depends entirely upon the area of study, though.

If you are considering studying for a master’s degree, keep in mind that the workload will be much heavier than at the undergraduate level, and much of the work will need to be done independently. This translates to lots of reading.

In classes and in seminars, professors will expect a much livelier discussion and a much more thorough analysis of the subject matter because masters students tend to be much more motivated than undergrads.

For masters programs that are targeted more to a service, such as clinical psychology, research and coursework will likely be much more hands-on, and studies will culminate in a practicum in which you actually apply what you’ve learned in a real-world setting.

Finally, your coursework will not break up into such even chunks as before in bachelor-level studies. This is for two reasons:

Master-level educations tend to be all-encompassing and require effort and input from you constantly.
Many masters students are mid-career professionals who study and work concurrently.

Therefore, time management becomes a very necessary skills for masters students, who have to do their own work independently and on their own time.

Return On Investment?

Studies do show at least a correlation between having a master-level education and earning a higher salary. This is good news for the MBA applicant who is looking for a competitive edge in his or her profession.

However, we cannot be too quick to say a master’s degree is definitely a smart financial investment. First of all, postgraduate tuition is expensive, at least in the United States. Second, those who have to scale back their professional lives to accommodate further educate could be missing out on on-the-job learning while they pursue knowledge academically.

This is, of course, a moot argument for anyone whose job requires a master’s degree.

Each person’s circumstance is different. Therefore, we recommend that you do diligent research into any master’s program you’re interested in to determine whether it is really, absolutely a good fit for you.


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