The low down on master’s degrees, Part 1: Understanding your degree options

Whether you’ve been out of your undergraduate degree program for years or just a few minutes (or maybe you’re still earning your bachelor’s degree), you might be thinking about getting a master’s degree. In this series, we hope to provide you with an arsenal of insights and inspiration to help you plan for your next academic adventure.

What is a master’s degree?

A master’s degree is a tool to help you grow both personally and professionally. In a master’s program, you might meet new, like-minded people, challenge yourself intellectually, prepare for the next step in your career, and discover new possibilities for your future.

A master’s degree signals that you’ve finished coursework and demonstrated a mastery or full understanding of a given subject area or professional practice. In some fields of study, such as fine arts, a master’s degree is the terminal degree, which means there is no further academic degree or credential offered. A master’s program usually entails coursework and exams. Programs may require a written thesis, a final paper, or a comprehensive exam. Most master’s students earn their degree in one to three years.

What kinds of master’s degrees are there?

The two most popular master’s degrees are Master of Arts, or M.A., and Master of Science, or M.S. In many cases, the subject matter determines the type of degree. In an M.A. program, you might study cultural topics such as literature, languages, history, and philosophy. In an M.S. program, you might study engineering, physics, computer science, animal science, and mathematics.

In addition to M.A. degrees and M.S. degrees, there are lots of other kinds of degrees. Often called “applied master’s degrees,” these programs indicate a particular specialty. A familiar example might be the Master of Business Administration, or M.B.A.

Here’s a list of some common applied degrees:

  • Master of Education (M.Ed.)
  • Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.)
  • Master of Science in Management (M.S.M.)
  • Master of Theological Studies (M.T.S.)
  • Master of Veterinary Science (M.V.S.)
  • Master of Public Affairs (M.P.A.)
  • Master of Arts in Liberal Studies (M.L.S.)
  • Master of Library Sciences (M.L.S.)
  • Master of Public Health (M.P.H.)
  • Master of Social Work (M.S.W.)

As you can probably tell, there are many tagged degree programs, and their acronyms overlap. Often tagged degrees indicate a mastery of a professional practice.

How do I decide what kind of degree I need?

Graduate students often pursue M.A. degrees when they are interested in proceeding to doctoral level studies, conducting research studies and contributing to the creation of new knowledge to the field. M.A. degrees are typically designed as research degrees.

Graduate students often pursue applied degree programs like an M.Ed. or an M.B.A. when they plan to acquire the skills and knowledge needed for advancement in a particular profession. Students are often not required to complete a thesis or research project. Instead, students might complete a placement or internship. While an applied degree is not a research degree per say, an applied degree is still based on research-backed principles and ideas.

Something to consider: there is a lot of overlap between research degrees and professional degrees, and one degree type doesn’t preclude you from the other type’s career path. Many people get applied degrees and pursue doctoral-level education. And, many others pursue research degrees and go directly into professional positions.

The type of degree is just one factor among many to consider when looking for a graduate program.

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