What is a Master’s Degree? | Top Universities

What is a Master’s Degree?

By Hasna Haidar

Updated September 22, 2022 Updated September 22, 2022

A master’s degree can be a viable option for those who want to further their knowledge of a particular subject, explore other areas of interest after having completed an undergraduate degree, or improve their career prospects. The nature of master’s degree programs mean prospective students must be prepared for an intensive learning experience that incorporates their undergraduate studies and/or their experience gained from employment.

But, what is a master’s degree, and is it the right choice for you? Here’s a run-down of everything you need to know about master’s degrees…

What is a master’s degree?

A master’s degree is an academic qualification granted at the postgraduate level to individuals who have successfully undergone study demonstrating a high level of expertise in a specific field of study or area of professional practice. Students who graduate with a master’s degree should possess advanced knowledge of a specialized body of theoretical and applied topics, a high level of skills and techniques associated with their chosen subject area, and a range of transferable and professional skills gained through independent and highly focused learning and research.

Master’s degrees typically take one to three years to complete, through either part-time or full-time study. The specific duration varies depending on the subject, the country in which you study and the type of master’s degree you choose. In terms of study credits, the standardized European system of higher education specifies students must have 90-120 European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) credits, while in the UK it takes 180 credits to complete a master’s program, and 36 to 54 semester credits in the US.

Types of master’s degrees

Broadly speaking, there are two main types of master’s degrees: taught master’s degrees and research master’s degrees. Taught master’s degrees (also called course-based master’s degrees) are much more structured, with students following a program of lectures, seminars and supervisions, as well as choosing their own research project to explore. Research master’s degrees, on the other hand, require much more independent work, allowing students to pursue a longer research project and involves less teaching time.

There are also master’s programs aimed at working professionals (sometimes called executive master’s degrees), and master’s programs that follow directly on from an undergraduate degree (integrated master’s programs). Types of master’s degrees and the names and abbreviations used for them also vary depending on the subject area and the entry requirements (read more here).

As many master’s degrees are designed for working professionals, you will find many options available in a variety of flexible study modes. These include:

  • Distance learning, where students can learn entirely online, attend a short residential course or visit their chosen institution intermittently;
  • Part-time learning, so you can structure your course schedule around your job;
  • Evening and weekend classes.

Why study for a master’s degree?

Asking yourself this question can help you to formulate your personal statement, a common requirement for most master’s degree applications. The personal statement is a chance for students to explain their reasons for choosing their course, why they want to pursue a master’s degree, and mention any relevant skills, study and/or work experience they already have.

Below are some of the common reasons why students choose to study a master’s degree:

  1. Subject interest. You gained a passionate interest in your chosen field of study during your bachelor’s degree (or during independent study outside of formal education) and want to further your knowledge in the subject, and/or specialize in a particular area. You may want to pursue in-depth research about the subject, become an academic of the subject or teach it to others. You may also be preparing for PhD-level research.
  2. Career development. You need a master’s degree in order to acquire further knowledge, qualifications or skills in order to pursue a particular career, advance in your present career or even change careers altogether. Make sure to check with professional bodies or employers to ensure your chosen course is properly recognized or accredited before applying. Lawyers, doctors, teachers, librarians and physicists may all require postgraduate qualifications.
  3. Employability. You believe an extra qualification can help you stand out from first-degree graduates and impress employers. A master’s degree can indeed increase your knowledge, personal and professional skills and perhaps even boost your confidence, and consequently your employability. A master’s degree qualification can also assist you in securing funding for PhD study.
  4. Love of academia. You wish to stay in university as long as possible, either because you love university life or are unable to make a decision about your future and want to explore more about your chosen subject before entering the working world. You may stay in academia professionally if you wish, by contributing to research in a university department. If that’s your goal, it may help to start exploring possible job options during your studies so you’re better prepared for life after graduation.
  5. Change of direction. You wish to change subjects from your undergraduate degree, effectively treating your master’s degree program as a ‘conversion course’ so you can explore a different subject, sector or industry in more detail.
  6. Professional specialization/networking. You wish to gain a clearer insight into your own industry, or into an industry you wish to enter, and to create invaluable contacts within the industry. Many master’s degree programs offer the chance to network regularly with key industry players and offers work experience opportunities.
  7. Academic challenge. You have the necessary motivation, determination and tenacity to take on the challenge of intense, continued study concerning a higher level of knowledge. Indeed, there is a steep learning curve between a first-degree (such as an associate’s or bachelor’s degree) and a master’s degree. A master’s degree involves an increased workload, a considerably more complex and sophisticated level of work, broader and more independently sourced research, a closer relationship with your course tutor and high professionalism, and excellent time management. And, unlike first degree students, master’s degree candidates should have a specific grasp of their own academic interests and a clearly targeted passion for their subject before they apply.
  8. Flexibility of study mode. You appreciate the flexibility of study provided by master’s courses which are often available in many teaching modes.
  9. Industry requirement. Your chosen professional field puts immense value on master’s degrees. The value of a master’s degree varies by field. While some fields require a master’s degree without exception, others do not require advanced degrees for advancement or employment, while in some cases a master’s degree career progression comparable to a doctoral degree (for example, in social work, the pay differential between doctoral degree graduates and master’s degree graduates is fairly slim).

Other postgraduate courses

Master’s degrees are not the only options for continuing your studies. Just as there are many reasons for choosing a master’s degree, there can also be many reasons for seeking alternative postgraduate courses; whether you are looking for a minimum investment of time and money, have very specific interest in a small number of course modules or would simply prefer not to commit to a full master’s degree.

A postgraduate certificate (PGCert) or a postgraduate diploma (PGDip) both have the same taught module requirements as an equivalent master’s qualification, but omit the research project or require students to take fewer modules. Most PGCert and PGDip programs are available in flexible learning modes, including full-time and part-time learning.

If, having graduated from a master’s degree, you decide to continue your studies even further, there are several choices. A Doctor of Philosophy (PhD, DPhil) is traditionally the highest student qualification. However, the specific academic level achieved by a PhD student can vary according to the country, institution and even time period. Unlike most master’s courses, PhD programs contain little or no taught elements and are based primarily on the student’s ability to carry out original research in a specialist subject of their choosing.

A Professional Doctorate is considered equivalent to a PhD but geared less towards training in academic research and more towards allowing experienced professionals to carry out research relating to their current professional field. The Professional Doctorate often contains a larger taught element. While postgraduate courses such as the Engineering Doctorate (EngD) are only offered full-time and are aimed at recent graduates, most Professional Doctorates are studied part-time. Professional Doctorate courses include Education (EdD), Clinical Psychology (DClinPsy), Business (DBA), Medicine (MD), Nursing & Healthcare (PrDHealth), Social Science (DSocSci) and Social Work (DSW).

For both PhDs and Professional Doctorates, research is presented as a thesis and examined by an expert in the chosen field. The taught element in Professional Doctorates is also formally assessed. Graduates with a PhD or Professional Doctorate are automatically awarded the academic title of ‘doctor’.

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This article was originally published in January 2014 . It was last updated in September 2022

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