The Master of Science (MS) Degree: A Guide

Written by Coursera • Updated on Nov 24, 2021

Earning your MS degree can advance your knowledge in a number of in-demand subjects.

A young man, wearing headphones around his neck, sits on a staircase and looks at a tablet.

The Master of Science (MS) degree is a graduate degree that typically pertains to subjects in tech, mathematics, medicine, business, administration, and the natural sciences. In an MS degree program, you’ll advance your knowledge in a more technical, analytical, and at times practical way, gaining specific skills you can apply to further your career in a number of in-demand industries.  

What is an MS degree?

The MS degree builds on a bachelor’s education. While a bachelor’s program requires a number of general education courses before concentrating on a major, a master’s program will focus on one area and deliver a more specialized education.

You can earn your MS degree in a range of subjects, including:

Master’s degrees in general (not just Master of Science degrees) are growing more specific. That means, instead of earning a Master of Science in Management, you may have more options, such as a Master of Science in Nonprofit Management or Master of Science in Supply Chain Management. Each program should provide a foundational education in management, while allowing you to take special courses that prepare you for a career in the sector of your choice.

What can you do with an MS degree?

Because of the lucrative fields in which you can earn a Master of Science, you may be able to achieve more senior-level roles and higher salaries with the degree. To give you an example, two occupations that typically require an advanced degree are computer research scientist (median US salary: $126,830) and economist (median US salary: $108,350).

Even where an MS degree isn’t required, you can develop and strengthen the high-level skills you’ll need to succeed in managerial and executive-level roles through a master's program. It’s worth noting that there’s a growing demand for master’s degree holders. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that there will be 16.7-percent growth in jobs requiring a master’s through 2026 [1].  

In general, earning your master’s degree has been shown to increase earning potential. Master’s degree holders earn a median annual salary of $80,340, while bachelor’s degree holders earn $67,860, according to the BLS [2]. Salaries in industries such as data analytics, computer and information science, health care management, and finance all tend to pay well and often prefer candidates with advanced degrees.

MS degree costs

There are compelling reasons for earning your MS degree, but you should understand what it may cost—both in terms of money and time—before making your decision. The average Master of Science degree program costs a total of $62,300, though that may not account for additional fees, materials, and housing [3]. It takes, on average, two years to complete an MS degree when you attend full-time, but many programs offer part-time options to help returning or professional students who work.

Some online programs, such as the University of Illinois’ Master of Science in Management (available on Coursera), are structured to take less time. You can complete your degree in one year, and gain fundamental leadership and business training.

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Affordable online MS degrees 

An online MS degree may be a more affordable option than attending an in-person program. For example, the University of Colorado Boulder’s online Master of Science in Electrical Engineering costs $20,010, and the University of Michigan’s Master of Science in Population & Health Science costs between $43,500 and $47,500, depending on residency. (Both are available on Coursera.) As with in-person colleges and universities, tuition for online master’s degree programs varies between public and private institutions—and even by program. 

What does it take to get a Master of Science degree? 

Before you pursue an MS degree, you’ll need to have earned your bachelor’s degree. Fortunately, you don’t need to earn your master’s in the same subject area as your bachelor’s. You can use the MS degree to further your education in a subject that interests you, or switch paths entirely and forge a new direction.  

Once enrolled in your MS degree program, you can expect to take graduate-level coursework, and complete a thesis or capstone research project, depending on your program. Learn more about what you’ll need to graduate.

Which MS program is right for me? 

Given the cost and time commitment associated with a Master of Science program, you should assess your individual situation, weighing the degree’s more immediate expenses against the outcomes you’d like to achieve. The categories we’ve outlined below should also be important factors in your decision making.  

Accreditation 

Look for MS programs from accredited colleges or universities. An accredited institution has been verified by an independent agency (approved by the US Department of Education), which ensures that your school meets minimum standards and likely provides a quality education.  

You should also make sure your school is accredited if you intend to apply for US federal financial aid. Learn more about why accreditation is important when deciding on your Master of Science program.

Curriculum 

As you research different MS programs, take a close look at the kind of coursework you’ll be completing. Pay close attention to the kind of subject knowledge or training you’ll receive and how it fits into your larger goals. Is it too broad for the kind of specific skill set you’re looking to develop—or is it too niche? It's also helpful to take a look at the faculty who will be teaching your classes, especially their experience. Reviewing each program’s course offerings can indicate what you’ll learn and help you identify whether it’s a good fit. 

Scheduling 

Whether you attend an in-person or online MS program, you may find that you have some options when it comes to the way you take classes. To ascertain which program makes sense for you, consider your larger needs. Do you need greater flexibility because you’ll be working while attending school? Would you prefer more face-to-face interactions rather than video lectures and Zoom meetings? If possible, consult each program’s graduate advisor to find out what type of classes they offer so you can ensure they fit your scheduling needs.  

  • In-person: Classes take place in person and are held at set times.  

  • Hybrid: Classes take place both in person and online synchronously. 

  • Synchronous online: Classes take place online and are held at a set time. 

  • Asynchronous online: Classes take place online and aren’t held at a set time. Instead, they can be completed as a student needs, though generally work may need to be done by a certain time (each week or month). 

Additional resources

If funding is an important consideration for you, look into what kind of financial assistance each program offers. Beyond federal grants or loans, you have several options to consider. Many MS programs offer scholarships, stipends, or teaching assistantships that can help balance out the cost of the program. It also may be worth looking into a program’s career placement resources as you consider the potential long-term impact of earning your master’s degree. 

Federal financial aid is just one option when it comes to paying for grad school. Learn more about other ways to finance your education.

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Terminal degree plans 

Some students earn a Master of Science degree knowing they plan on pursuing a terminal degree (or the highest degree possible) in their field, such as a PhD. If you know that you’d like to pursue a research or academic career, and therefore intend to get your PhD, you should think about your master's plans in light of those future educational goals. Some PhD programs include the opportunity to earn your master’s while working toward your PhD, which can save you time from reapplying for PhD programs. 

Next steps

Whether you’re interested in advancing your career options or pursuing additional education, you can do a lot with an MS degree. If you’re looking for more affordable and flexible options than an in-person experience, explore this collection of online MS degree programs from leading universities on Coursera. You can earn your MS degree in in-demand and high-paying fields, such as public health, computer science and engineering, and data science.  

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Article sources

1. US Bureau of Labor. "Occupational Employment Projections Through the Perspective of Education and Training, https://www.bls.gov/spotlight/2019/education-projections/pdf/education-projections.pdf." Accessed November 19, 2021.

2. US Bureau of Labor. "Education Pays, https://www.bls.gov/emp/chart-unemployment-earnings-education.htm." Accessed November 19, 2021.

3. Education Data Initiative. "Average Cost of a Master's Degree, https://educationdata.org/average-cost-of-a-masters-degree." Accessed November 19, 2021.

Written by Coursera • Updated on Nov 24, 2021

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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