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Study a Master's Degree: A Guide to Master's Degrees

Looking to undertake Master's studies? An MA? Or MSc maybe? What do all these abbreviations mean? Is there a difference between them? Is getting a Master's worth it? This guide will tell you everything you need to know about Master's studies.

In this guide, we will cover:

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What is a Master’s degree?

Master’s degrees are awarded after completing one or two-year postgraduate programs. Prospective students need to first complete a Bachelor’s degree program. There are lots of types of Master degrees: MSc (Master of Science), MA (Master of Arts), MPhil (Master of Philosophy), MEd (Master of Education), LLM (Master of Law) etc. Which type you’ll get depends on each school, and how they decide to categorize the degree. The most common titles are MSc and MA.

Programs which award the MSc title, also known as a Master of Science, often focus on numbers, calculations and scientific methodologies, but the actual topic of study can vary greatly between programs. MA, or Master of Arts, programs often focus on humanities and social sciences, as well as philosophy and theology. 

Aside from the methodology and course material, there is one more important difference between the two degrees, and that is the fact that MA is a terminal degree, which MSc isn’t. A terminal degree is the highest degree you can be awarded in that specific field of research.

Students can still choose to continue to a PhD after completing an MA program. This difference is more important in the United States than in some other countries, like the UK, where terminal degrees aren’t as common. Some universities, like the San Francisco State University, will allow professors to be tenured on the basis of an MA degree, without requiring a PhD. 

What Specializations Can I Do in a Master's Degree?

As previously mentioned, MSc and MA tend to be the most common degrees, however, there are a number of specialized Master’s studies, and the degree titles match that. You can choose to specialize in Engineering (MEng), Research (MRes), Business Administration (MBA), Fine Arts (MFA), Music (MM/MMus), Education (MEd), Design (MDes) and many other fields.

Your course structure and the subjects you take will change depending on your specialization. MSc studies and other STEM-leaning degrees have more theory and reading materials, while MA studies and specialized degrees in humanities and arts are usually more project and research based. If you choose to study MEd (Education) programs, you may have an internship as a part of your curriculum, on top of research and final thesis.

Aside from the title on your degree and the coursework material covered during the program, there aren’t that many differences in the “ranking” or reputation between the degrees.

However, some universities might require specialized degrees in order to apply for particular PhD programs. For example, in order to get a PhD in Anthropology, you may have a prerequisite of a completed MA study. This is why it’s important to always check the requirements for the PhD program you’re interested in. Similarly, some job positions can require a specific Master’s degree - like having a Master’s in music in order to work as a professor at a music university.

engineer masters

How Long Does It Take To Get a Master’s?

Generally, Master’s studies last 1 to 2 years, by the end of which you’ll have earned 60 to 120 ECTS credits, or 30 to 60 US college credits. The exact number of months and credits varies between countries, universities and degrees. 

How long it’ll take you to get a Master’s depends on several factors. Main ones are the country you wish to study in, how many credits you currently have from your Bachelor’s degree and your pace of study. 

The length of Master’s studies varies from country to country. In the EU/EEA, they tend to be two years, while in most countries outside of Europe one-year programs are the standard. In the US, one-year degrees are more common due to the four-year Bachelor’s programs. In countries such as the United Kingdom and Germany, on the other hand, two-year Master’s degrees are typical since their Bachelor’s programs are usually three years. 

You may wish to consider the length of your Bachelor’s when you’re choosing your Master’s degree. This is important if you’re planning on enrolling in a PhD program, which may have a minimum credits requirement.

The Bologna Process grouped post-secondary education in Europe into three cycles - Bachelor’s, Master’s and Doctorate. In order to apply for a PhD program, you have to complete the first two cycles, usually in a “combination” of 3+2 or 4+1. In other words, 3 years of Bachelor’s + 2 years of Master’s or 4 years of Bachelor’s + 1 year of Master’s. 

The pace at which you wish to study is also important to consider. You can choose between full-time and part-time Master’s studies. Full-time programs are more demanding in workload, but they’re shorter in length. Part-time studies provide more flexibility at the cost of the program taking longer to complete.

Some universities (especially from the US) also offer Accelerated Master’s degree programs for particularly ambitious students. Students in these programs take courses whose credits count towards both their undergraduate and graduate degrees. This is done to reduce the overall time it takes to earn Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, but the courses are more rigorous. 

What Are The Requirements To Study A Master's?

In most cases, you’re expected to have a Bachelor’s degree and proof of meeting language requirements in order to apply for Master’s degree programs. 

The exact master’s entry requirements vary a lot between countries and degrees, so it’s very important to check the program’s application requirements on the university website.  

However, there are a few common requirements across many programs:

  • Grades
  • Personal/motivation letter
  • Work/research experience
  • Bachelor’s degree requirements
  • Language requirements

Grades, or the average of all your grades, can be very important for some Master’s degree programs, i.e. for engineering or other STEM fields. Some universities with higher world rankings may even have a GPA cut-off due to the competitiveness of their programs.

Personal letter or SOP (statement of purpose) is another important element to your admission success. Some countries, like Sweden, put a lot of emphasis on personal letters - they’re sometimes the only requirement for selection (aside from Bachelor’s degree and language requirement). 

Some Master’s degree programs require you to have prior experience in the field, be it industry or research experience. Depending on the program you’re looking to apply for, this requirement may offset grades or other criteria - for example, when applying for a Master’s in education or machine learning. In other cases, work experience can help you stand out from the crowd.  

Certain Master’s degree programs, like nursing, visual arts or economics, require you to hold a Bachelor’s degree in the same or similar field. On the other hand, there are Master’s degrees you can apply for with any Bachelor’s. Such programs are usually in the fields of business, management, international relations and communication.   

Proof of language proficiency is almost always needed for international students, unless you’re a native speaker. Programs in English ask for certificates such as TOEFL, IELTS or equivalent. Studies in German generally require certificates of proficiency at level C1 or higher (DSH, VWU or from specialized courses). For programs in French, you should be ready to present one of the language certificates (DELF, DALF, TCF or Le TEF) or prove that you’ve been studying French for multiple years if a certificate isn’t specified.

If you’re applying for a Master’s in the US (or universities following their higher-education model), there may be more requirements you need to meet, such as completing a GRE (Graduate Record Examinations) test, submitting at least two letters of recommendation or uploading a CV/Resume. 


What Can I Do With a Master’s?

Master’s degrees are useful for many things. They show a deep understanding of your field or specialization, and a dedication to the subject or topic of research. 

For those who wish to continue pursuing research and enrol in a PhD program, a Master’s is a must. Not only is it a requirement for most doctoral programs, it’s also a good introduction to the world of graduate studies - journal publishing, networking, cooperation on research projects and more. Furthermore, a terminal degree like MA may allow you to work as a professor at a university without having to complete a PhD.

Master’s also helps with your career outside of academia. Having a Master’s degree doesn’t just look good on your resume, it also allows you to earn a higher salary. For example, a research done by National Association of Colleges and Employers showed that graduates with a Master’s in biology earned up to 86.5% more than their Bachelor’s counterparts. Although some Master’s create potential for a bigger salary difference than others, it’s still worth looking into depending on the field you’re interested in.

What Can I Get From a Master’s?

As a Master’s student, you’ll most likely find yourself doing more independent research than during your Bachelor’s. You’ll get to experience the world of academic research, networking, paper publishing, attending scientific conferences, and much more. 

All of these practical soft skills, on top of the in-depth knowledge Master’s studies provide, are highly in-demand in today’s specialized world. Companies are constantly looking for experts to solve specific problems they’re facing, or to work on projects as consultants. Master’s degree programs allow students to build upon their Bachelor’s studies and apply their knowledge in various specialized contexts within their field. This makes Master’s graduates highly competitive and employable. 

Aside from employability and increased opportunities for work and self-development in your chosen field, you may also use a Master’s to explore and expand your interests, and even change careers. You may realize that you’re no longer interested in the subject of your Bachelor’s after graduation, or something else piques your interest. Instead of going through a new three-year or four-year Bachelor’s, you may choose to pursue a Master’s degree program and look for opportunities in another field.

What Is The Average Salary of a Master's Graduate?

The average salary of Master’s graduates varies a lot across countries and fields. Some countries value international Master’s degrees more, while others prefer domestic degrees. However, the general trend is that holders of Master’s degrees tend to earn higher salaries than those with Bachelor’s degrees only. Here are some rough numbers.

United States - graduate starting salaries

Field Average Salary (Bachelor's) Average Salary (Master's)
Biology $37,182 $69,353
Business Administration $54,392 $82,372
Systems engineering $73,559 $106,640
English Lang & Lit $38,597 $54,102

United Kingdom - graduate salaries (Source: Payscale, 2022)

Field Average Salary (Master's)
Financial Analyst £31,644
Data Scientist £51,801
IT Project Manager £71,444
Design Architect £36,987

Germany - salaries for types of degrees (Source: Payscale, 2022)

Degree Average Salary (Master's)
Master of Science (MSc) €52,000
Master of Civil Engineering (MCE) €47,000
Master of Education (MEd) €49,000
Master of Arts (MA) €45,000

How Much Does Getting a Master's Cost?

How much a Master’s degree will cost you depends on a large number of factors: from the country you wish to study in, your citizenship, whether you qualify for funding and scholarships, if you need a visa or not, etc. Here is a short overview of the tuition costs in some of the more popular countries for Master’s studies.

Region Cost Details
United States Ranging from $10,000 up to hundreds of thousands of US dollars. On average, approx. $40,000 (tuition fees only) As an international student, you may be eligible for merit-based or privately funded scholarships. As an American, you may be eligible for student loans.
United Kingdom On average £8,000 for domestic students and £15,000 per year for international students. ‘Domestic’ students are British citizens, Irish citizens studying in the UK under the Common Travel Area or EU citizens who moved to the UK before Dec 21 2020.
Germany Free for public universities. You need to pay around €300 per semester (semester contribution). Some universities offer monthly stipend programs. Some public programs require German proficiency.
The Nordics Free for EU/EEA/Swiss citizens. From €8,000 to €30,000 per year for non-EU/EEA. If you’re a non-EU/EEA citizen, you may be exempt from the tuition fees if you’re living in a Nordic country on a non-student visa.
France About €250 per year for EU/EEA/Swiss citizens and around €3,800 for non-EU citizens. You may be awarded a grant, in which case you do not need to pay tuition fees.

Can I Do a Master's Online?

Yes! Online Master’s and distance learning courses have become increasingly present due to the Covid pandemic, and students tend to prefer this option due to the overall lower costs, less travel time and more flexibility in learning. More and more universities are offering online courses and entire programs. It’s a great option if you’d like to study at an international university but can’t or don’t want to pay for the living costs of more expensive countries. 

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Last update: 14 Apr 2022

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