Ascending the Academic Ladder: The Master's Degree Unraveled

12/07/202328 minute read
Ascending the Academic Ladder: The Master's Degree Unraveled

If you are ready to open doors to a doctoral program or to jobs in academia, or want to improve your resume for career advancement, or if you’re looking for a fast and effective way to pivot to a new career, a master’s program could be an excellent next step.

What is a Master’s degree?

Master degrees are postgraduate degrees that are one rung below a doctorate degree, but can usually be completed in much less time than a Ph.D. 

Getting a master’s degree typically takes about two years, with full-time study. A master’s degree is great for building both academic and professional resumes as they are designed for in depth learning in one your chosen discipline, in the form of both survey courses and also specialized topics and research methods.

The really good news is that today there are many leading universities offering master degree programs tailored to different educational needs — some with a rigorous academic and research focus, and others designed to be more practical in terms of equipping you with real-world knowledge and job skills.

Historical Background of the Master’s Degree

Understanding the origins of the Master’s Degree will help you appreciate its significance today, and it’s kind of fun, so buckle up for a quick trip back in time.

The concept of higher education dates back thousands of years. Ancient civilizations like Greece, China, and Egypt had some impressive libraries and centers of learning, but the various types of degrees we have today didn't exist back then.

Fast forward to the universities of medieval Europe…

Around the 11th century, as Europe emerged from the Dark Ages, higher learning was almost exclusively for biblical studies, theology, and mastery of Latin and Greek. 

In the 12th century rediscoveries of ancient Greek and Roman writings prompted broader social interest in learning, including secular learning and culture and to the first universities…The Bachelor Degree and Master’s Degree served as formal recognition for different levels of academic achievement.

The Bachelor's Degree was awarded for completing core curriculum in grammar, rhetoric, and logic.

Next students went on to study more advanced disciplines — arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and music — to earn a master’s degree

In the Middle Ages the word “master” meant teacher. In other words, a master’s degree separates those who are learners —- such as undergraduates  —- from those who achieve more advanced academic “mastery” for teaching and research.

The medieval version of the master’s degree was also a stepping stone to a doctorate in one of the three key professions of the times: theology, medicine, or law.

While today’s master degrees can also be a stepping stone to teaching and research roles, or to doctoral degree programs, many people use them for ongoing professional development and for rapid career advancement.

If you're considering pursuing a Master's Degree in our modern era, remember that today, as back in the Middle Ages, getting a master’s usually requires lots of intellectual curiosity and a desire to acquire deep conceptual and theoretical knowledge within a specific academic discipline, whether for academic advancement, personal satisfaction, or career goals.

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Types of Master’s Degrees

Today master’s degrees come in many types, so before you decide what degree program to research and apply for, you want to be familiar with key types of master’s degrees and what kinds of majors they align with.

1. Master of Arts (MA) or Master of Science (MS)

An MA degree is usually aligned with fields in the liberal arts and for specialized learning in humanities, social sciences, or fine arts.

An MS degree is typically for STEM subjects and specialization in engineering, computer science, or natural sciences.

The coursework in a master’s program is typically designed to help you master:

  • comprehensive knowledge of core concepts in a discipline
  • knowledge of more advanced and specialized concepts
  • basic familiarity with relevant and accepted research methods and practices

2. Master of Business Administration (MBA):

The MBA degree is specifically designed for individuals pursuing careers in business, management, finance, or entrepreneurship. It’s a very popular degree because it can pave the way for a wide range of job opportunities across a vast, global job market, but one that can also be very competitive.

Getting into top master’s programs can be competitive, but they can help you stand out from the pack and help you qualify for more interesting and challenging roles. MBA courses will usually cover various aspects of business administration, such as finance, marketing, human resources, and strategic planning. Some MBA programs require prior professional experience in business.

Finally, MBA programs typically benefit students with training in practical applications of business concepts, case studies, teamwork, and organizational leadership skills while also encouraging active networking.

3. Master of Fine Arts

A Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree is a specialized graduate degree that focuses on the study and practice of creative and performing arts, such as visual arts, creative writing, theater, dance, film, or music.

The MFA degree is highly regarded in the arts community and offers artists a chance to expand their artistic knowledge and abilities, or explore new techniques and concepts, or do a deep dive into critical theory and historical perspectives that prepare them for teaching or research roles.

Some artists benefit from a master’s program by using it to develop a strong portfolio showcasing their best work. It can also help them join professional networks or collaborative projects.

4. Master of Education (MEd)

In many states you may only need a bachelor’s degree to be a K-12 teacher, but an MEd can help you develop professional skills that deepen your confidence and satisfaction as a teacher or qualify for new roles.

MEd curriculum allows you to explore a wide range of advanced topics in education, to prepare you for educational leadership, curriculum development, instructional coaching and design, and education research. You’ll study education policy, organizational leadership and school administration, special education, educational assessments, and more.

Most programs will also help you become a confident researcher and learn essential collaboration and leadership skills that will help you support and motivate your peers. If you’re ready to level up as a teacher, want to make a bigger impact in education, or feel like you need an intellectual sabbatical of sorts, then taking time to pursue an MEd with other like-minded educators can be a great way to recharge, re-tool, and boost your earnings potential!

5. Master of Engineering (MEng):

The MEng degree offers individuals an opportunity to deepen their technical knowledge and skills in areas such as civil engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, or chemical engineering.

The curriculum often includes advanced coursework, advanced technical knowledge and concepts, and may help students learn new methods for keeping up with and applying emerging innovations in their field.

Your MEng experience may also offer you chances to hone skills through case study analysis, real-life problem-solving activities, or by working on collaborative design projects with your peers under the guidance of highly qualified instructors.

6. Master of Public Health (MPH) and Master In Healthcare Management

The MPH degree is centered around public health and aims to equip individuals with the knowledge and skills to address public health challenges.

Let’s face it, healthcare is a highly regulated, ever-evolving, and complex field of practice…Healthcare management, healthcare administration and finance, healthcare organizational leadership, and public healthcare advocacy are all complex, interconnected areas of healthcare practice, making MPH degree programs extremely valuable for public health professionals seeking new roles and challenges.

MPH coursework typically includes epidemiology, biostatistics, health policy, environmental health, and health promotion. Your MPH degree should help you qualify for more specialized or leadership-oriented roles in various settings, including government agencies, healthcare organizations, non-profit organizations, or instructional roles.

A more specialized, career-oriented version of this degree is the Master’s in Healthcare Management program. If you’re interested in business concepts and the healthcare sector, this could be a good fit.

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Selecting the Master Degree Program That’s Right for You

When thinking about the type of master’s degree to get, taking stock of your personal learning goals and career objectives is probably an important first step

Looking at the list below, which goals do you want to pursue with the next step in your educational journey

  • paving an academic path to a doctoral program and jobs in academic research or higher education?
  • networking and engaging in intensive professional development for one or two years with other peers in my field who are focused on career advancement?
  • equipping myself to be a stronger leader or advocate in my field and move into job roles where I can make a bigger impact?
  • boost my resume significantly and increase my outlooks for a promotion and for improving my salary?
  • doing intensive re-training to quickly and effectively pivot to a new career?

Getting a master’s degree offers the kind of comprehensive knowledge and specialized study for pursuing these goals. But first, the more you have a clear picture of your own educational interests, the more you’ll know what kind of master’s program to be looking for.

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Career Implications and Opportunities

By increasing both the breadth and depth of your academic and professional knowledge, a master’s degree will typically have a major impact on your learning, skills, and career opportunities.

For centuries, a master’s degree has been a common stepping stone to doctoral studies and roles in academia. Today, however, master degrees are also favored by many professionals (and their bosses) as tools for professional development, for boosting employment skills, for opening doors to promotions and higher salaries, or for making an effective career transition.

Here are some important career benefits you can get:

  • Develop valuable “soft skills” — including critical thinking and research skills, more sophisticated and nuanced communication and collaboration skills, how to connect theory and practice to address real-world policy and problem-solving challenges
  • Expand your intellectual and professional networks
  • Gain specialized knowledge that boosts your performance on the job and can give you an edge when vying for a promotion
  • Build your capacity for success and better earnings in your career life

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS),  with a master’s degree you could boost your earning to as much as $86,000 a year on average, compared to only about $74,000 a year on average with a bachelor’s degree.

BLS data also highlight the sectors most often requiring graduate degrees that are also projected for the most growth over the next 5 to 10 years:

  • School and vocational counselors
  • Lawyers
  • Healthcare social workers
  • Nurse practitioners and physicians assistants
  • Education administrators — K-12 and postsecondary
  • Postsecondary teachers in health specialties, fine arts, business, and literature
  • Mental health, behavioral, and rehabilitation counselors
  • Medical scientists
  • Clinical and school psychologists
  • Physical and occupational therapists
  • Pharmacists
  • Librarians
  • Statisticians
  • Veterinarians

In many high-growth fields, therefore, getting a master’s can be a great way to obtain both comprehensive and specialized knowledge to enhance your professional qualifications, boost job satisfaction, and grow your earning potential. 

Academically, getting postgraduate degrees can equip you to engage in field-specific research, innovation, policy analysis, and advocacy, or go after jobs in academia

In fact, BLS data indicate demand is growing again for postsecondary teachers, with salaries on average of $79,640.

If you’re interested in the computer science field but want more than a technical support or programming role, consider that a Master’s in Computer Science could help you qualify as a Computer and Information Research Scientist, a role that pays around $131,000, on average, according to  BLS estimates

Given the competition you’ll face when applying for good jobs in business administration, getting an MBA could be a good strategy if you are eager to sharpen your skills and knowledge to pursue more challenging positions or leadership roles.

For example, when it comes to business occupations, financial analyst and management analyst roles are slated for above average job growth, and with an MBA you could earn $90,000 to start and eventually much more (BLS). Top executives also can easily earn well over $100,000 (BLS).

Master’s degrees are valuable in education too. If you already work as a teacher, but haven’t earned a master’s degree, you might want to think about the advantages of doing so. Educators can earn either a Master of Education (MEd.) or a Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT).

In public school settings, getting a master’s degree can open doors to a wide range of new roles in teaching, curriculum, administration, and leadership, including: 

  • Special Education Teacher or Services Coordinator
  • Literacy Coach
  • Technology Specialist or Instructional Technology Coordinator
  • Curriculum Specialist
  • Instructional Coordinator
  • Supervisor of Curriculum and Instruction
  • Director of Student Services 
  • School Principal or Assistant Principal 
  • Education Consultant

According to BLS data, you could readily earn over $60,000 as a high school teacher, and well upwards of $90,000 in many administrator roles. And in many K-12 work settings earning a master’s degree can immediately pay dividends in the form of salary increases or salary stipends!

Finally, let’s look at **healthcare and nursing…**Registered Nurses can earn over $77,600 on average. But getting a master’s degree could help you qualify for a job as a Physician’s Assistant —  an occupation anticipated to have way above-average job growth over the next decade and with salaries well over $100,000 on average (BLS).

Whatever program you choose, be sure to look into all qualifications you need for your specific goals, because different employers and different jobs may also require other kinds of experiences, qualifications, and professional references.

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Prerequisites and Admission Process

Admissions requirements will vary, but you will typically need a relevant bachelor’s degree and the following:

  • Prior college transcripts and a satisfactory college GPA (usually 3.0 or 3.5)
  • GRE/GMAT scores (when required)
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Personal statement or other admissions essay
  • An admissions interview (when required)

Remember that admissions to leading master’s programs at the best schools can be very competitive and selective. 

Sometimes, researching to learn more about graduate programs and schools and getting advice from admissions officers or from a skilled Academic Advisor or FOA (Former Admissions Officer) from a top school, could help you put together a more competitive application.

If you want to know what it’s like to work with Advisors who help students with admissions at leading colleges and universities around the world, Crimson Education has an excellent track record, so talk to an Advisor today about your degree options and best next steps.

Financing Your Master’s Degree

Wherever you decide to attend school, what it costs to get your master’s degree will vary significantly based on the schools and programs you apply for.

Here’s a data snapshot from that gives you some ideas about the tuition you might need to pay for a master’s degree in the US:

  • $29,150 in a public school on average
  • $62,100 in a private school on average

So, keeping in mind that tuition rates can vary, and remembering to check the official websites of each institution for the most up-to-date and accurate information, here are approximate annual tuition rates (excluding other educational expenses) for master's degree programs at some top US universities — with rates varying by program:

  • Harvard University: $50k to $70k
  • Yale University: $45k to $50k
  • UC Berkeley: $14k to $20k (resident); $30k to $38k (non-resident)
  • Princeton University: $50k to $60k
  • Columbia University: $45k to $55k
  • Stanford University: $45k to $55k
  • MIT: $50k to 60k

Please keep in mind that these figures are approximate and can change over time.

Even if you decide getting a masters is worth it, you may need some financial aid to cover some of the upfront costs of your master’s program.

For many students paying for college will mean combining multiple sources of financial assistance. These include:

  • federal and state grants
  • employer programs and incentives
  • merit-based and need-based scholarships
  • student loans

If you’re applying for need-based assistance, you may be required to submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). 

There are many costs and benefits to getting a masters, as we’ve seen, so it’s important to calculate the return on investment for your graduate degree, keeping in mind all of the expenses involved as well as the immediate and longer term benefits.

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The International Outlook

Today more than ever perhaps, students have an open mind when it comes to thinking internationally about colleges and universities.

Why this trend?

Well, there may be lots of good reasons…Here are some common advantages people may have in mind when deciding to get a master’s degree in another country:

  • The belief that international experience is a valuable asset for career advancement
  • Opportunities to develop country-specific knowledge and professional networks
  • Having more school options to choose from for finding the right fit for your educational goals
  • Finding good schools or great schools with lower tuition costs than you’d have to pay in your home country
  • Getting access to specialized courses or to faculty with specific qualifications or research specializations
  • Adding “study abroad” credentials to your professional resume
  • To enjoy living and studying in an exciting international destination, such as London, Paris, or Sydney for example

According to the  Graduate Management Admission Council's 2017 Applications Trends Survey, graduate programs in Europe are attracting the most international students these days, with many of the students coming from the US: 

  • Programs in Europe and Canada were about twice as likely to report growth in international applicants in 2017 as compared with the US 
  • Across all program types, just 32 percent of US programs reported growing international interest in 2017, while 49 percent did in 2016
  • 77 percent of Canadian programs reported increases in international applications (compared to 46 percent in 2016)
  • 67 percent of European programs reported increases in international applications in 2017 (65% in 2016). 
  • About two-thirds of programs in the United Kingdom saw international demand grow in 2017

Another reason getting a master’s abroad might be popular is master degree programs across the globe share lots of uniformity.

In some countries, though, a master’s program may take less time than at US universities, in part because those same programs (outside the US) may have a narrower curriculum focus and fewer electives.

Finally, while master’s degree programs everywhere can have steep costs, students in some places may find studying abroad cheaper.

According to US News and World Report, “tuition costs range roughly from $73,000 to $95,000 for one-year programs in Europe to just over $100,000 for two-year programs, not counting room and board. In contrast, tuition and fees for a number of top-20 U.S. MBA programs in 2017 ranged from roughly $120,000 to $160,000.”

That said, you can reasonably predict that many master degree programs around the world will…

  • take between 1 and 2 years
  • include a strong emphasis on specialized coursework aligned with your field of study
  • will involve a research component, such as a thesis or dissertation
  • offer alternative, less theoretical and more practical and work-oriented curriculum designs, including capstone projects in lieu of a thesis or dissertation

Countries with master’s programs sharing features like these include the US, Germany, the UK, France, Australia, and Canada, among others. 

International accreditations and global recognition

Remember that transferring course credits or applying degrees from different schools or different countries to jobs in other places can be complicated.

Agreements about master’s degree equivalencies and transfer credits are likely to vary from country to country, school to school, and even from program to program. 

It’s a good idea to consider and research equivalency and transfer policies, agreements, and expectations ahead of time.

Also, for careers requiring very specific technical qualifications or licensing requirements, verify in advance which master degree programs will meet the required job standards, and other qualifications you may need, based on employer practices, or on licensing standards, for example.

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Today’s Modern, Flexible, and Diverse Master’s Programs

Master degree studies have come a long way from their origins in medieval universities, but obviously so has society.

In our modern era the fast pace of scientific and technological innovation, increased globalization, growing organizational complexity, and the rise of the Information Age, are driving an absolute knowledge explosion! 

And, as reported in The Economist, these change factors are driving “stronger and more continuous connections between education and employment.” 

Today, master’s degree programs are playing a key role in helping employees level up, re-tool, and be high performers in innovative industries.

Because of the demand for ongoing professional and adult learning, you can now find a wide range of online and full-time and part-time master degree programs.

Asynchronous learning and remote learning formats, and part-time study formats can provide flexibility that makes getting a degree possible for many older students who are busy professionals or have family roles and responsibilities to uphold.

In short, online programming can save you time, save you the hassle of commuting to a college campus, and may make getting a master’s more affordable too.

Some drawbacks of part-time and online options could include:

  • taking longer to finish your degree 
  • not getting all the intellectual stimulation that comes with more intensive study
  • dealing with the stress of balancing academic study with a busy job schedule or family demands
  • missing out on college life and campus events
  • diminished opportunities for networking with peers and faculty members

Nonetheless, part-time and remote learning options may be the solutions you need, and they come in lots of shapes and sizes! 

However, if you can step away from your job, consider the benefits of doing so — of using your master’s degree program as an opportunity to dive into learning and refocus your personal and life goals.

Preparing for a Master’s Degree

If you haven’t been in school for a while, you may feel lost or disoriented about your next steps, wondering if you’re ready to go back to school and about your chances for admission to the more competitive schools…Selecting the right school can be tricky.

Here’s a couple strategies that can help:

  • Research the kinds of programs that best fit with your personal and career interests and goals
  • Familiarize yourself with admissions requirements, with academic and work-related prerequisites for programs you’re interested in
  • If you’re not properly prepared academically or otherwise for admissions to the programs that interest you, be sure you’re leveraging all of your relevant work-related experiences and prior learning and talk with academic counselors at prospective schools for advice
  • Consider if making a multi-year plan that includes taking some preparatory coursework is a good idea, or look for master’s programs that provide this kind of supplemental preparatory curriculum
  • Think in terms of where you headed — talk to professionals in the prospective fields and occupations you’re interested in, for more insights on which kinds of schools, programs, and curriculum components are right for you

If all this seems like a lot to figure out, consider working with an academic consultant, a professional with expertise and strategies that will help you avoid missing important steps, and help you be more strategic, especially when it comes to choosing a degree, choosing the right school, and preparing for admissions.

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Final Thoughts

A master’s can open doors to academic success.

If you want to move from task-oriented work to a more advanced level of theoretical research, or get academic qualifications for working in higher education or policy development, getting a master’s degree — and possibly a doctorate as well — could be essential to achieving your goals. 

Today’s master’s programs are also very effective and practical ways to advance professionally.

Business leaders today understand that success requires an agile workforce enabled by ongoing professional development. 

So if you’re seeking to boost your earning potential or get a promotion, eager to gain confidence and leadership skills, seeking a career change with opportunities for quick advancement, then getting a master’s degree could be a good choice.

And, personalized educational planning will help you make sure you know where you’re going and how to get there. 

But in addition to getting practical planning help and strategies, education consultants at Crimson Education are also trained to help you choose the right degree path and program and be fully prepared for admissions, even at more selective schools.

Academic advancement is almost always personally rewarding, but getting a master’s degree, compared to all other degrees, is perhaps the quickest and most effective way to use education as a stepping stone to a more rewarding professional life, so it’s worth getting it right!

What Next?

Going back to school is an exciting step, but what’s next merits careful planning and reflection…A Crimson Education Advisor can help, with insights from years of success helping students get into top colleges and global networks of admissions experts…A master’s degree can pay big dividends so you don’t want to leave too much to chance. Reaching out to a trained Academic Advisor today will simplify the next step in your educational journey and may even get you to a destination you didn’t think possible!

And, remember, if you found this article helpful, may you want to share it with a friend or colleague who might also be interested.

What Makes Crimson Different

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does it take to get a master’s degree?

The duration of a master's degree program can vary depending on the country, university, and field of study. Typically it takes about two years to complete a master’s, if you study full time. The credit requirements typically range from 30 to 60 credits. One reason getting a master’s degree can be so practical is because you can acquire advanced skills and knowledge in a relatively short time.

Are there part-time study options available for a master’s degree?

A master’s degree can be a great choice for people seeking career advancement, so many universities offer flexible, part-time study options that make it easier for you to continue working as you study.

In fact, some master’s programs are designed specifically to appeal to and recruit leading professionals seeking career advancement in a work-oriented learning environment, including flexible scheduling.

What courses, exams, and research projects are required in a master’s program?

Master's degree programs usually consist of a combination of core curriculum or broad survey courses, some elective courses, and research components.

Survey courses provide a foundation in the field of study and ensure a comprehensive understanding of key concepts.

Elective courses support additional specialization in topics you’re interested in for theoretical knowledge or for specific career goals.

Comprehensive exams are sometimes required for obtaining a master’s degree.

Research components typically involve an introduction to research methods and practices, conducting independent research, participating in research projects or other more work-oriented capstone projects, or completing a thesis or dissertation.

Blended and dual-degree programs typically make it easier for students to study complementary disciplines all within one program designed around specific career goals, either professional or academic.

Do all master programs require a thesis or dissertation?

Many master’s programs include an introduction to research methods in your field, and will typically teach you about research resources and require a master’s thesis based on some original research.

A thesis requirement is perhaps most common in programs with a strong theoretical focus, including master programs that are designed to prepare students for research roles, doctoral studies, or advocacy and policy work.

You can also find many schools offering programs that don't require a thesis. Non-thesis options frequently require a comprehensive exam or a capstone project that demonstrates mastery of the subject matter and may include research components, case study analyses, problem-solving skills, or elements of applied theory and design.

Are internships or supervised fieldwork required?

On-the-job experiences can help give you a realistic and practical appreciation of how to apply academic learning in work settings. This kind of learning component may be mandatory or optional, and typically takes the form of internships or supervised fieldwork activities.

It’s good to inquire ahead of time about these kinds of activities and requirements, since the support you get for internship and fieldwork placements and participation can vary from program to program.

Is a master’s degree always required for enrollment in a doctoral program?

Getting a master’s degree can definitely help you pave the way for admissions to a Ph.D./doctoral program, but some doctoral programs require only a bachelor’s degree for admissions, but may also have other knowledge-based, work-related, or course-specific prerequisites.

Some Ph.D. programs are structured so that students earn a master’s degree along the way. In these cases, you would typically need to complete the master’s degree — which may include passing comprehensive exams and required coursework — and get recommendations from faculty advisors.

Getting a master’s can also be a good way to gauge your personal level of academic interests before committing to a longer doctoral degree program.

How do I know what’s required?

Since there are so many different kinds of master degree programs out there designed for different kinds of academic and professional needs and interests, it’s important to look carefully at all the requirements for programs you’re interested in. Reach out to admissions officers or academic advisors at prospective schools if you have questions.