How to Get a Master's Degree

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Getting a bachelor's degree is the first step in how to get a master’s degree. Once you’ve decided that it’s the right choice for you, check out this guide, which covers everything from getting into graduate school to earning that advanced degree.

[Featured image] A man working on getting his master's degree studies on a laptop outside on a university campus.

Attending graduate school can be a worthwhile endeavor that deepens your subject knowledge, adds a valued credential to your resume, shows your commitment to advancing your career, and potentially leads to higher salaries. In fact, more students are enrolling in master’s and doctoral programs. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) anticipates that graduate enrollment will increase by six percent between 2020 and 2030 [1]. 

As more students earn their bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree can be one way to distinguish yourself. It’s also in demand across industries. Jobs requiring a master’s degree are expected to grow by 16.4 percent by 2030 [2]. 

Although a master’s degree typically doesn’t take as long to earn as a bachelor’s degree, it still requires a significant amount of time, commitment, and dedication. The average graduate student is in their 30s, meaning they likely have other responsibilities to navigate as they embark on a new degree [3]. In this article, we’ll go over what it takes to earn your master’s degree, ways you may be able to speed it up, and what you’ll need to apply.  

Master’s degree requirements

To earn a master's degree, you will need to complete several semesters of coursework, among other requirements. Let’s go over the general expectations. 

 

  • Complete around 30 to 60 credit hours depending on the program. Some programs may require up to 72 hours. 

  • Earn a minimum cumulative grade point average (GPA), as established by the college or university.

  • Complete a final project, such as a thesis or research report. 

  • Finish all coursework within a certain number of years, likely ranging from five to 10 years, depending on your program and school.

Some institutions may also require: 

  • Residency: Complete a set number of courses while registered at your institution. 

  • Written or oral exams: Take a comprehensive exam showing knowledge of your field. 

  • Foreign language: Pass a foreign language proficiency test, showing an ability to understand a foreign language. Many schools offer classes to help students fulfill this requirement. 

Master’s degree coursework

At the graduate level, you will take more challenging coursework that introduces advanced concepts and ideas. The majority of these will be in your area of concentration.  Similar to a bachelor’s degree, you will choose to major in a subject, though you will likely be expected to focus your time on a specialization within that subject. For example, a student interested in earning their master’s in English may choose to study 19th-century poetry, or a student interested in earning their master’s in chemistry may choose to study forensic chemistry. 

Not every school or program will offer the same majors or specializations, so consider what you’re interested in learning before you begin researching programs because it can help narrow your options. 

Thesis

Many master's degree programs require students to complete a research project, clinical project, or original thesis to demonstrate their mastery of the subject matter. The type of project you complete will depend on what you study, the degree you’re earning, and your program. If you are studying a natural sciences subject and wish to work in a lab then a research or clinical project might make more sense. If, however, you’re studying a humanities subject, a thesis might make more sense. Once you are enrolled in a program, an advisor or director should help guide you toward the best option for your goals. 

Master’s degree: time and costs 

Each master’s program is different, but on average it takes between eighteen months and two years to complete the more common Master of Arts (MA), Master of Science (MS), or Master of Business Administration (MBA) degrees when you’re able to attend full-time. 

Depending on what you choose to study, some programs may offer an accelerated master’s program, which takes around one year, while other graduate degrees, such as the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) tend to take three years. If you need to attend part-time, it may take longer to complete your degree. 

A master’s degree costs an average total of $66,300 as of 2021 [4]. Some programs, such as the MBA, may be more expensive. A report from BusinessBecause found that the top MBA programs in the US cost an average total of $148,973 [5].

Learn more: Is an MBA Worth It?

How to get a master’s degree at a faster pace

While a master’s degree takes between one and three years, it may be possible to earn yours in less time. 

Accelerated master’s degrees

Some colleges and universities offer a dual degree, or what’s often called a “four plus one” option, that allows you to earn your bachelor’s and master’s degree in five years rather than six.  

You may also find that some programs offer an accelerated or one-year master’s. In that case, if you’re able to dedicate more time to your studies, either by taking more courses per semester or enrolling in summer semesters, you may be able to complete your degree at a faster pace. 

Online master’s degrees

More students are leaning toward obtaining their degrees online thanks to the flexibility it offers. It can be especially beneficial for students who still want or need to work while earning their degree. Let’s review some of the benefits of an online master’s degree. 

  • Flexibility: Because the majority of online learning takes place asynchronously, you can often determine when you sit down to work on your courses—either working faster or slower, as needed. That flexibility can be helpful if you continue working or have other responsibilities. 

  • Cost: Tuition for online courses can often be lower because they require less overhead to operate. You may also save by not having to commute to or live on campus. 

Learn more: 10 Surprising Benefits of Online Learning

How to apply for a master’s program

Applying to a graduate program is similar to applying to an undergraduate program. Let’s go over the most common requirements: 

  • University or program application 

  • Transcripts showing proof of bachelor’s degree

  • Personal statement

  • CV or resume

  • Entrance exam scores, such as GRE or GMAT

  • Letters of recommendation

Applying to a new subject area

There may be an instance when you’ve become interested in a subject other than what you studied for your bachelor’s degree. You do not need to apply to a master’s program in the same subject as your bachelor’s—but you will have to explain your interest in the new subject, what you want to get out of a master’s program, and why you’re interested in studying at each particular school you apply to. 

Benefits of getting a master’s degree

There are numerous benefits associated with earning your master’s degree. 

Salary

Master's degree holders earn a median weekly salary of $1,554 compared to $1,334 for bachelor’s degree holders [6]. Some master’s programs, such as MBAs, tend to see higher returns for graduating students. The median starting salary for MBA degree holders is $115,000, though that program typically requires that applicants first gain several years of professional experience [7]. 

Career opportunity

Some career tracks require advanced education. For example, if you want to work as an education administrator, public health consultant, political scientist, data scientist, and nurse practitioner, you may benefit from having a master’s degree. 

Development

More than the career possibilities you may be able to explore after earning your master’s degree, you may develop deeper subject knowledge, area of expertise, and skill set as a result of your time in a graduate program. Plus, there’s the accomplishment of having completed a rigorous degree in order to strengthen your education.  

Learn more: Is a Master’s Degree Worth It?

Explore further

Connect with leading universities in the US and around the world on Coursera, where you’ll find master's degree programs in computer science, health administration, business, and more. Explore the Master of Business Administration from the University of Illinois or the Master of Public Health from the University of Michigan. Many programs allow you to enroll in a course or certificate, which can stack into the degree if you’re accepted into the program. 

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Article sources

1. NCES. "COE Post Baccalaureate Enrollment, https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator/chb." Accessed June 8, 2022

2. Statista. “Projected Change in Employment in the U.S. by Entry-Level Education Required 2030, https://www.statista.com/statistics/962966/projected-change-employment-us-entry-level-education-required/." Accessed June 8, 2022.

3. CGS. “Data & Insights, https://cgsnet.org/Data-Insights/." Accessed June 8, 2022.

4. Education Data Initiative. “Average Cost of a Master's Degree: 2022 Analysis, https://educationdata.org/average-cost-of-a-masters-degree." Accessed June 9, 2022.

5. BusinessBecause. "BusinessBecause Cost of MBA Report 2021, https://www.businessbecause.com/resources/resources-guides/cost_of_mba_report_2021." Accessed June 9.

6. ​​US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Education Pays, https://www.bls.gov/emp/chart-unemployment-earnings-education.htm." Accessed June 9, 2022

7. GMAC. “Demand of Graduate Management Talent: And Salary Trends, https://www.gmac.com/-/media/files/gmac/research/employment-outlook/2021_crs-demand-of-gm-talent.pdf." Accessed June 9, 2022.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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