by Stephanie Small
Published February 27,2013
A master’s degree is the first tier of graduate education. It is a course of study focused on a specific subject or discipline, generally intensive in nature and aimed at providing the student with an elevated level of expertise in a particular field. In some fields, it is considered a terminal degree, meaning it is the only level of graduate training available in a particular area of study. In such cases, those who earn it have reached the pinnacle of their education.
In other fields doctoral programs may be available to students who wish to continue their studies beyond a master’s education. Doctoral degrees are usually pursued by students interested in teaching at the college level, or conducting original research. In a few areas of study, a master’s degree is largely a stepping stone toward doctoral studies. In these fields relatively few people end their studies at the conclusion of a master’s degree.
There are several different types of master’s degrees; these include an M.A., Master of Arts, M.S., Master of Science, and specialized master’s degrees such as the M.B.A or the M.F.A.
The M.A. is typically awarded to students studying within the disciplines of humanities, social sciences, philosophy or fine arts.
The M.S. (M.Si., M.Sc., MSc, M.Sci., M.Si., Sc.M.) is typically awarded to students studying in the fields of physical, biological, or engineering sciences.
Specialized master’s degrees, similar to professional degrees exist for other fields of study such as social work (M.S.W), fine arts (M.F.A), management (M.Eng. or M.B.A) and law (L.L.M.).
Application requirements for master’s degree programs vary widely. For some, requirements are fairly basic: an undergraduate degree, qualifying standardized test, and letters of recommendation. For others competition to enter can be intense, these programs may involve other evaluations for prospective student’s including interviews, auditions, portfolio submissions, essays, and more.
The time required to complete a master’s degree also varies. Some programs can be completed in as little as one year of full-time study; others require a minimum of three and may take even longer. Longer programs are typically found in fields where the master’s degree is either terminal or very close to it. They are also more common in fields where fewer jobs require an advanced degree. Alternatively, shorter programs are common in fields where doctoral training is equally common and/or where the majority of positions require at a master’s degree.