What Is a Masters Degree?
A masters degree is a college credential that students earn by completing 2 or 3 years of study, after having already completed a bachelor degree. A masters degree is sometimes known as a graduate degree, because only college graduates can enroll in these programs. Similarly, a college department that offers masters degrees may be referred to as graduate school, or grad school, for short.
It's difficult to define "masters degrees" as a group, because their components are very different — depending on the subject being studied. But overall, masters degrees are set apart from bachelor degrees in that they are more focused and more advanced. (Speaking of "advanced," masters degrees are included in the category of advanced degrees — meaning any degree that exists above the bachelor level.)
Masters degree students are expected to be independent learners. Masters courses tend to involve more long-term assignments, though not always. And instructors tend to be more hands-off, usually allowing students to shape the class discussion.
Many masters degree programs involve a research component. Students spend months planning and writing a lengthy research paper that represents their findings. Some students build their research into a thesis — an academic paper that presents a new theory or a scholarly interpretation of an existing idea. These students might be asked to "defend" their work in front of a thesis committee. But many masters programs do not require a formal thesis. Instead, students might need to pass a comprehensive final exam, or complete a capstone project.
A masters degree can be used as a stepping stone from a bachelor degree to a Ph.D. In this case, the masters degree would be considered "academic," because its purpose is to allow for research, teaching, or further study. For example, if an education researcher wants to earn his Ph.D. in teaching and learning, he might complete an academic masters degree first.
But some masters degrees are terminal — the end of the line, so to speak. Terminal masters degrees are the highest degrees possible or necessary in certain fields. Instead of further study, they prepare graduates for professional careers. Usually, terminal masters programs address real world job situations. Part of the course work is devoted to helping students practice or apply their growing knowledge.
An MBA is a good example of a professional/terminal masters degree. Generally speaking, an MBA is the highest degree that most business professionals will need. (Even though doctorate-level business programs do exist, these are usually intended for students who plan to teach business at the college level, or perform business research as consultants.)
Some fields offer both types: academic masters degrees and terminal/professional masters degrees. English students, for example, can pursue an M.A. in writing or an M.F.A. in writing. The M.A. is a good option for students who plan to teach writing, while the MFA is intended for students who want to earn their living as actual writers. The M.A. students spend more time studying writing theory and the works of great authors, while the M.F.A. students spend more time working on their own drafts and learning how to get published.
If you're not sure which type of masters degree you're looking for, it's a good idea to speak to some professionals in your desired field and speak to enrollment advisors from the programs you're considering. Most online masters degrees are professional masters degrees, simply because career-minded people are more drawn to the convenience and flexibility of the online format. However, there are some great online masters degrees that are designed for college-level teachers and professional researchers.
Increasingly, masters degrees are becoming a requirement for specific job titles. Some states require their teachers to earn a masters degree within 5 or 6 years of obtaining an initial license. Most psychology professionals need a masters degree to begin a psychology career. And practicing psychologists, those who actually counsel patients, almost always need a doctoral degree.
In business, sales, and computers, it's still possible to land an entry level job with a bachelor degree. But promotions and pay raises are hard to come by without some tangible indication that you know more than the other candidates. In some cases, a graduate certificate is enough of a leg up. But a masters degree is ideal if you want to manage other people and lead your own department.
Nurses with masters degrees can specialize in specific areas of medicine — like gerontology or midwifery. Once licensed, graduates can act as nurse practitioners, who earn much higher salaries and deliver specialized treatment.
Masters degrees also pave the way to promotion in police work, engineering, human services professions, and many more.
Unlike most bachelor degrees, masters degrees usually don't involve general education requirements. By this point in your education, it's assumed that you can handle college-level math and basic writing. However, if your bachelor degree is not in the same field as your masters degree, you may be required to complete some prerequisites.
Masters courses are divided between core requirements and electives. Your core requirements will probably cover 50 — 75% of all your graduate classes. The remaining 25% will be comprised of electives, which you can choose.
The flexibility of your masters program is an important point to consider when you're choosing a graduate school. Be sure to investigate how many electives you'll be allowed to take, and which departments you can choose from. Some schools offer very flexible options — so that even if you're in grad school for journalism, you can still take a psychology class. (This would be a major bonus if you planned to become a crime reporter or investigative journalist.) Other programs are far more restrictive.
If you study on a fulltime basis, you can complete most masters degrees within 2 or 3 years. Some online programs are even shorter, because they offer classes year-round, as opposed to limiting their offerings during fall and spring semesters.
If your masters program involves a research paper or a thesis final (instead of an exam), you may need additional time to complete the work. Some graduate schools build this time into the masters curriculum, by requiring students to complete "thesis hours." Thesis hours are like an unofficial class. They are worth degree credits, but students are responsible for policing themselves and staying on task. Masters students who are completing thesis hours will check in with their thesis advisors, periodically, to report progress and ask questions.
Different masters degrees have different purposes. At the masters level, it's not enough to say: I want to study psychology. Or, I want to learn more about computers. Instead, graduate students need to have a career goal in mind, and choose the appropriate degree track.
M.A. stands for Master of Arts. Different schools offer different program designs, but most involve some combination of taught classes and independent research. As noted above, M.A.s are academic degrees. They involve research and advanced study, but they won't necessarily lead to a Ph.D.
M.S. stands for Master of Science. The MS is just like the MA, except the subject being studied is considered a "science" instead of an "art." The classification can differ from one school to the next — even when the subject is exactly the same. If one program that you're interested in offers an M.S. and another similar program offers an M.A., you may wish to ask the enrollment advisors if and how their specific programs are different.
MBA stands for Masters of Business Administration. An MBA is a type of masters degree that is designed for business students. Like other masters degrees, MBA programs only admit students who have already completed a bachelor degree.
M.Ed. stands for Masters of Education. The M.Ed. is a common professional degree. Many teachers choose to enroll in an M.Ed. program (instead of an MS in Education program), because it's more practically relevant and focused on classroom teaching.
MFA stands for Master of Fine Arts. The MFA is designed for students who want to be professional artists, although talented people may be just as likely to succeed without this advanced education, since art critics and theater-goers don't care if you have a degree. Very few MFA programs are offered in an online format because fine arts tend to require in-person projects. Sculptors and painters, for example, need to complete large physical projects that can't be evaluated from a distance. If you want to teach art, music, or theater, you might be better served by an M.A.
Increased Earning Potential
According to the US Census Bureau, professionals with a masters degree earn about $8,000 more, per year, than professionals with just a bachelor degree. In other words, a bachelor degree that costs $25,000 pays for itself in about 3 years, and generates nearly a quarter of a million dollars, over the course of one's career. Some masters degrees — like MBAs or science and teachnology-related programs — are even more lucrative.
Opportunity for School Upgrade
If your bachelor degree comes from a small or lesser-known school, you may be tired of defending your qualifications. After all, you don't need to graduate from Harvard in order to be good at your work. Nevertheless, popular college names really do stand out on a résumé. Going after a masters degree allows you to explore some of the name brand schools you skipped over during your undergraduate search. Once you have your degree, you can say that you went to school at Drexel, UMASS, Boston University, or Arizona State University. (Many schools like these now offer online masters programs.) And more employers will look favorably on your résumé.
Opportunity to Sharpen/Change Your Career Focus
If your bachelor degree represents a non-specific area of study — like liberal arts or even communications — you can improve your job prospects by adding a masters degree that demonstrates your current, focused skills. You can also use a masters degree to enter a completely new field. Most masters programs will accept a professional student, even if he or she holds an unrelated, undergraduate degree. And in some programs — like MBAs — admissions committees actually prefer to welcome grad students who bring diverse backgrounds.
An MBA is a type of masters degree that is designed for business students. MBA stands for "masters of business administration." Like other masters degrees, MBA programs only admit students who have already completed a bachelor degree.
MBA students often have an undergraduate (bachelor) degree in business, but it's not uncommon for MBA students to hold a non-business bachelor degree either. In fact, some MBA programs try to enroll a diverse group of students. They will often accept students who majored in things like chemistry, psychology, philosophy, or even religion.
MBA students are usually older and more professionally experienced than other college students. In order to absorb the material and contribute to group projects, MBA students need to have some career background they can reference. Part-time and online MBA programs may even require that students be employed while they're taking courses. This helps to ensure that course work and research can be practiced in a real-life environment.
Some MBA admissions requirements are very stringent; other programs are more relaxed. If you want to attend one of the country's top business schools, you'll need to take the GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test), and achieve an above-average score.
Still, plenty of great MBA programs do not require applicants to take the GMAT or GRE. Instead, these programs might screen prospective students based on their undergraduate GPA (grade point average). Or, they might just require work experience. Either way, it's important to remember that most degrees are as valuable as the work you put into them.
Business is a broad field of study. And today's business schools are creating newer, sleeker versions of the traditional MBA. That said, most MBA programs share a few common elements. Chances are good that your MBA program will include:
MBA Core Courses
Just like a core is located at the center of an apple, a "core" course is located at the center of your MBA curriculum. Core courses are a group of classes that every student must take. They form the foundation for more specific and advanced business capacities.
In the case of an MBA, core courses usually include subjects like financial accounting, managerial economics, organizational behavior, and applied statistical analysis. In most MBA programs, core courses represent about one half of the entire curriculum. That means, if the entire MBA degree requires the completion of 20 courses, 8 to 10 of those classes will be core courses.
Most MBA programs allow students to choose a concentration, or an area of emphasis. In graduate school, a concentration is very much like a "major." This is the one area that you will study in detail. Depending on your school, 6 to 12 of your classes might be concentration courses. Students usually choose a concentration based on their career goals and interests.
Popular MBA concentrations include:
MBA electives are a group of courses that are not specifically required. They are still related to business, but they are not as universally relevant as core courses. Student can elect (or choose) the electives that they wish to take.
Electives help students shape their MBA to fit their career plans. For example, a small business owner might pursue an MBA with a concentration in entrepreneurship. If his business is online, he might choose to take elective courses in e-commerce. If his business deals with sensitive client data, he might choose to take electives in information security.
MBA Capstone Course/Project
Some MBA programs require students to complete a capstone course and a capstone project. Capstone literally means "finishing stone" or "crowning achievement." In the case of the MBA, a capstone project is a long-term research project that addresses a specific business problem or opportunity. MBA students are asked to use the skills they've learned to present strategic solutions. Their capstone course helps to facilitate the project and guide their research. The capstone course is usually taken towards the end of the degree program.
The length of your MBA will depend on the number of classes you're required to take, and the number of classes you're able to take simultaneously. Usually, MBA programs require 14 to 20 classes.
Part-time students will probably complete their MBA in 2 to 3 years. But if you're willing and able to study full-time, you can often be done in one year.
If you're hoping to finish quickly, you may be interested in MBA programs that do not include a concentration. Without a concentration, the number of courses you're required to take can drop by 4 or 5. Thanks to fewer courses, general MBAs cost less, too. Several online schools — including Kaplan University — offer general MBAs.
Study after study shows that MBA graduates earn more money than most other professionals. They secure better starting salaries, and their income potential grows even higher as they accrue experience.
According to a Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC) survey, MBA graduates earn significantly higher salaries than bachelor degree grads and masters degree grads from other fields. In 2009, expected average starting salaries for MBAs reached nearly $80,000. With just a bachelor degree, recent grads were only expected to earn about $43,000.
This part of the process may seem like the easiest (after all, how hard is it to fill in your name and address?), but it's actually where many applicant rejections are born. Remember that admissions boards are sifting through mountains of applications. Missing information, spelling errors, and general sloppiness all raise huge red flags, and generally result in first round eliminations. Take your time with all the paperwork. If it's an online application, pay attention to your keystrokes. And if there are questions you can't completely answer, call the school's admissions department and ask for clarification. Make sure schools get to judge you on your real potential, not some unfortunate oversights.
Many business students cringe at the idea on an essay, as though "essay" necessarily entails a lot of flowery musings about identity and the nature of the universe. This is not the case where MBA application essays are concerned. In fact, schools want to see you demonstrating the skills you know best — ordered and effective communication, thoughtful analysis, and the ability to outline objectives and strategy. Your essay should be drafted, drafted and redrafted. Be mindful of your focus and structure. Sentences and paragraphs should be ordered in a way that builds on your ideas instead of scattering them. Have friends and co-workers review your work before settling on a final draft. A different set of eyes can often spot problems that a writer overlooks.
CV or Résumé
Résumé are not all the same. And business schools expect to see more than just your summer lifeguarding stint at Lake Mohawk. A good résumé should encapsulate your academic achievements, work experience and demonstrated ability to advance. Whenever available, include specific figures (e.g. the number of employees you supervised, or the amount of sales growth your efforts yielded). Punch up the tone with a variety of verbs, rather than repeating the same, blanket action words. Highlight major certificates or awards, and try to limit your résumé to a single page. A CV — or curriculum vitae — can be several pages in length, and actually grows along with your educational experience. Any teaching assistantships or research roles you occupied would be best outlined here.
This is an easy item to check off your to-do list, but it should not be saved for last. You'll need to request an official copy of your transcript from every undergraduate institution you attended. Transcripts must be sent directly from your undergraduate school(s) to the business school(s) where you're applying. The process can sometimes take several weeks, so call ahead. Once received, admissions boards will review your records with an eye on your GPA (grade point average) and the type of courses you took. Poorer grades might not be entirely detrimental, provided you were able to improve on them as your schooling progressed. Boards will also consider the caliber of the school(s) you attended. You don't need to have gone to an ivy league college in order to get accepted to business school, but you may have to rely more heavily on other application components if your marks or your alma mater are less than stellar.
Letters of Recommendation
In this case, someone else is doing the writing — but that doesn't mean you're off the hook. Your letters of recommendation are opportunities to present glowing, third-party endorsements. With proper planning, they're a foolproof boost to your application. First, remember that what you're asking for is a statement about your professional character and your ability to succeed; you should approach the task in a manner that's reflective of those assets. For example, as a safeguard and a courtesy, give your recommenders plenty of advanced notice. You don't want to be hounding work supervisors or professors at the last minute.
Choose recommenders who know you well — ideally, these will also be people who are good communicators. Do not request a recommendation via email. Unless you've already tried visiting the person directly or reaching him on the phone, an email request gives the impression that your time is more valuable and/or you're not entirely invested in the end product. Try to ensure consistency in the content. You won't necessarily be able to dictate what recommenders say about you, but you can supply them with some relevant bullets that will keep them on-track. Lastly, don't forget to send a thank you note. It's good form to recognize a favor, not to mention a cardinal rule in networking.
Depending on the school, you may or may not be able to choose the time and location of the interview. Either way, you'll definitely be able to control your preparedness. Practice answering some of the commonly asked interview questions with friends and family — for example, why are you pursuing your MBA now? Why did you choose the schools you did? Be prepared to describe your strengths and weaknesses, and supply examples that back up your claims.
You'll likely be asked about challenges you've overcome or situations in which you displayed leadership/innovation/tenacity. Remember that the examples you provide may prompt interviewers to ask additional questions, so don't volunteer any exaggerated scenarios or unethical affiliations that ultimately cast you in a questionable light. Always arrive with questions of your own, but be sure they're not questions that could easily be answered by a school catalogue. You'll want to demonstrate that you've done your homework on the school, and that you're genuinely curious about a specific aspect of the program.
GMAT Matters — The Graduate Management Admission Test
As you're planning for the GMAT, don't forget to plan for the fee. The current cost of the test is $250, which makes this one appointment you won't want to sleep through. There are penalty fees charged for rescheduling or canceling your test slot more than 7 days ahead of time. If you need to cancel or reschedule less than 7 days ahead of test time, you'll forfeit the entire amount.
Your GMAT score can be sent to five schools, and you'll be asked to select them at the time of your testing. By this time you should have researched your top prospect schools and determined which ones you most want to receive your results. Scores will arrive within about 3 weeks. If you're applying to more than five schools, for $28 each, you can request additional score reports to be shipped on your behalf.
The time allotment for the full exam is 4 hours. Within that timeframe, you'll cover 4 different sections, including 2 essays designed to measure your analytical writing skills and a series of verbal and quantitative questions. The test itself is "computer-adaptive," meaning the sequence and selection of the questions you're presented are based on your real time progress throughout the test. You will not receive the same questions as the person sitting next to you. For each correct response you supply, the computer will supply a question of greater difficulty, and vice versa for incorrect responses. In this way, even despite maverick errors or lucky guesses, the system works up and down to hone in on your specific skill level, and ultimately to determine your score. This system also precludes the possibility of skipping around or going back to change answers.
Budgeting your time during the exam is crucial; you can't afford to spend excessive minutes on challenging questions. Although a portion of your score is determined by the number of correct answers, it is also influenced by the number of questions you complete and their level of difficulty. If you find yourself stumped, experts recommend working through processes of elimination, or systematically ruling out possible answers, as opposed to blindly guessing. When you complete the test, you'll receive an unofficial score to give you an idea of how you performed. Your official score will arrive in the mail several weeks later, at the same time your selected schools receive the report.
There are many books and test preparation programs you can buy. Practice is always in your best interest.