Your Guide to Master's Programs

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Learn more about the requirements, cost, and coursework requirements for different postgraduate degrees, as well as the most popular master’s degree programs to consider..

[Featured Image] Two graduates in black caps and gowns and one holding a diploma celebrate getting their master's degrees.

A master’s program is the course of study you enroll in when working on your master’s degree—the graduate degree you can typically pursue after first earning your bachelor’s. Obtaining a master’s degree offers professional, personal, and academic benefits, and can be a lucrative step in terms of your education and career goals. There are a variety of graduate degree programs available from colleges and universities throughout the United States.

In this article, we’ll go over the degrees associated with different master's programs, the entry requirements for applying to a master’s, and how to determine the best program for you. 

Types of master’s degrees

You have numerous options when it comes to earning your master’s degree, and the type you earn will depend on what you want to study. For instance, the Master of Arts (MA) and the Master of Science (MS) are two common types of master’s that house an array of majors in the humanities, arts, social sciences, and natural sciences. 

However, if you’re interested in business, library science, health, or a more specialized area of study, you will earn a more specific master’s degree, such as a Master of Business Administration (MBA) or a Master of Public Health (MPH). The most frequently earned master's degrees in the US are in business, education, and health professions, according to the National Center for Education Statistics [1]. 

Let’s look more closely at some of the master’s degrees you can earn and the common subjects or concentrations you can study: 

  • Master of Arts (MA): English, history, international relations, political science, geography, art, and foreign languages, such as Spanish, Mandarin, and French

  • Master of Engineering (MEng): Chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, civil engineering, aerospace engineering, biomechanics 

  • Master of Education (MEd): Special education, education leadership, early childhood education, literacy and learning, technology and learning

  • Master of Architecture (MArch): Building design, interior design, urban design 

  • Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS): Library and information services, information technology, archival studies, public library studies, school library studies

  • Master of Public Health (MPH): Biostatistics and informatics, community health, disaster management and emergency preparedness, environmental health science, epidemiology, global health, maternal and child health 

  • Master of Public Administration (MPA): Ethical leadership, nonprofit management, public management

Learn more: MBA vs MS: Choosing Which Is Better for You

Master’s program factors: Costs and time 

Master’s program costs vary depending on school, program, residency status, and whether you attend an in-person program or choose to earn your degree online

The average cost of a master's degree is $66,340, according to the Education Data Initiative [2]. Attending a public institution may lower those costs. Students at a public college or university pay an average total cost of $54,500, whereas students at a private college or university pay an average total cost of $81,000. Learning online can also be a more affordable option. 

Master’s programs typically provide information about the average price of tuition and fees, alongside estimates about housing, materials, and other costs associated with earning your degree. Take time to research each program you’re interested in attending and compare costs. 

Average program length 

Earning a master's degree generally takes between one and three years, depending on what you want to study. For example, a standard MBA program takes two years, while an MFA typically takes three years. There are certain options, like accelerated master’s or dual degrees that may speed up your time to completion. 

If you’re interested in earning your degree while you continue working, you may benefit from an online master’s program, which is typically designed to be asynchronous and self-paced, so you can schedule your learning to best suit your needs. 

Learn more: 10 Surprising Benefits of Online Learning

Applying to a master's degree program

The requirements for entry into a master’s program vary from school to school, but most will require that you’ve earned your bachelor’s degree before embarking on an advanced course of study. Here are some other common application requirements: 

Graduate entrance exams

There are several entrance exams for graduate and professional degree programs, but the two most common for master’s degree programs are the GRE and the GMAT. Let’s take a look at the difference. 

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is a standardized test that measures your knowledge of three general areas: analytical writing, verbal reasoning, and quantitative reasoning. You may also have the option of taking the GRE subject test in one of four areas, including chemistry, mathematics, physics, and psychology. 

The Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) is a standardized test for entry into a graduate business program that measures your knowledge in four areas: analytical writing, integrated reasoning, verbal, and quantitative.  

Learn more: GMAT or GRE: Which Should I Take?

Choosing the best master’s program for you

The master’s program that’s best for you is the one that helps you meet your goals, whatever they may be. Spend time thinking about why you want to earn your master’s in the first place and what you’d like to do with the degree. Those two factors can help narrow your options. Other possibilities include: 

Building on your bachelor’s 

You don’t have to earn your master’s degree in the same subject, or a similar subject, as your bachelor’s degree, but if you enjoyed your college major then it may make sense to advance your knowledge in that subject area. 

Exploring something new 

In the time since you’ve graduated with your bachelor’s, perhaps you’ve developed an interest in a new area—or you’re curious about exploring something unrelated to your undergraduate degree. In that case, you can gain the necessary subject knowledge and skills through a master’s program.  

Career goals

Whether you want to advance your knowledge through an MA or MS, or a specialized master’s degree like an MBA, it may make sense to think about your career goals and how a master’s may help you achieve them. While not every career path requires a graduate degree, earning one can show employers your advanced subject knowledge and help you qualify for more senior roles. Learn more about what you can do with a master’s degree and the average salaries they command.

Getting started

Explore online master's degrees from leading universities on Coursera. Earn your MBA, MPH, MS in Computer Science, and much more. There are an array of options often designed to be more flexible and self-paced than an in-person master’s degree program, while still being taught by the same faculty.   

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Article sources 

1. National Center for Education Statistics. "Graduate Degree Fields," Accessed May 9, 2022.

2. Education Data Initiative. "Average Cost of a Master's Degree," Accessed May 9, 2022.

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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.