The first level of graduate study is known as a master's degree program. While some students enroll in them immediately after earning their bachelor's degree, others begin a master's degree after working for some time.

Those who pursue a master's program right away may do so because they are still in the mindset of completing homework and taking exams… and they want more time to better define their goals and career targets. Others might already have a very specific career in mind -- one that typically requires a master's degree for entry.

Students who wish to pursue graduate programs at this level can explore traditional, online, or hybrid program options. Online master's degree programs can be a convenient way to further education goals while still allowing students to work and/or manage family responsibilities.

The increased prevalence of online master's degree programs may be one reason why degrees conferred at this level have increased by 66 percent since the 2000-01 academic year. In the 2015-16 term, 786,000 master's degrees were awarded by post-secondary institutions. Over half of them were concentrated in the business, education, and healthcare fields.

5 Benefits of a Master's Degree

While completing a graduate-level program may be personally and intellectually satisfying, there are four major tangible benefits of earning a master's degree online.

  1. Individuals can gain the specialized knowledge they need to advance in their field.
  2. A degree at this level can open doors to senior-level positions in leadership and management.
  3. Master's degree graduates earn more money. In 2017, those with master's degrees had average weekly earnings of $1,401, while those with bachelor's degrees earned $1,173. When that difference is multiplied over the span of a career, investing in a master's degree makes economic sense.
  4. Master's degree students may be able to change careers and become qualified for jobs that are in a completely different field from their bachelor's degrees.
  5. As competition increases for certain jobs, having a master's degree may offer applicants a competitive edge. The unemployment rate in 2017 for those with a master's degree was slightly lower than those who only had a bachelor's degree: 2.2 percent instead of 2.5 percent.

Timeline of a Master's Degree Program

While no two master's degree programs are exactly alike, most students complete master's degree programs in about two years of full-time study. Programs at this level generally follow the same timeline.

First Year
During the first year of a master's degree program, students usually begin taking core classes related to their particular specialty as well as some electives. Students who are switching to an entirely new field may need to take even more core courses in order to get up to speed on their new subject.
Second Year
Year two of a master's degree program typically involves completing core classes and related electives. This is also the time when they can gain work experience from an internship. Depending on the the field of study, this year may also involve preparing for a licensing exam.Some master's degree programs require a dissertation or thesis, which is a final research paper in which a student selects a topic and performs research related to it.

Types of Master's Degrees

At this level, there is a significant range in the types of master's degrees that can be earned -- on campus and online. These are the most popular types:

Top Master's Degree Programs

When considering earning a master's degree online, prospective students should review rankings, as they can be a way to understand how different schools might serve their needs. Schools are ranked based on factors like acceptance rate, admission requirements, tuition and fees, and other data points related to how schools support degree attainment for students. With this information, prospective master's candidates can make an informed decision on a program that is right for them.


To be included in these rankings, all schools must meet the following initial criteria for the specific degree being ranked.

1. Offer a master's degree program, either on campus, online, or via hybrid format
2. Have awarded at least one master's degree in 2015-16
3. Have reported data for all 12 ranking variables listed below

Based on those criteria, we ranked 1,183 colleges and universities in the United States on 12 criteria, using 2016-17 data from the National Center for Education Statistics:

  1. Program prominence, based on how many master's degrees were awarded in 2016-17
  2. Ratio of graduate students participating fully or partially in distance education to total enrollment
  3. Average in-state tuition for graduates
  4. Number of programs that are offered at the master's degree level on campus
  5. Number of programs that are offered at the master's degree level via distance education
  6. Credit offerings
    • Life
    • Military
  7. Services
    • Academic/Career
    • Placement for Completers
  8. The availability of any tuition plans
    • Payment
    • Prepaid
    • Other
RankingSchool NameAverage Graduate TuitionCareer CounselingPayment PlanPlacement Services
1Lamar University$6,234YesYesYes
2Grand Canyon University$9,916YesYesNo
3Purdue University Global-Davenport$10,560YesYesYes
4East Carolina University$4,749YesYesYes
5Liberty University$7,904YesYesYes
6National University$15,480YesNoYes
7North Carolina State University at Raleigh$8,917YesYesYes
8Sam Houston State University$5,540YesYesYes
9Texas Tech University$5,832YesYesYes
10University of Florida$10,770YesNoYes
Source: Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) 2018-19, National Center for Education Statistics,

Financial Aid

Enrolling in a master's degree program is a significant investment. And as the earnings studies from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show, it can be a very worthwhile one. But those higher earnings start to come in, tuition (and other) bills need to be paid in the short term. Fortunately, there are a number of financial resources that can help make a master's degree program more affordable. Scholarships, grants, and educational loans are all designed to aid eligible master's degree students in paying for tuition, books, and living expenses.

Why Accreditation Matters

It's essential for prospective students to search for online master's degree programs that are accredited. An accredited master's degree program has gone through a rigorous process to verify that it provides quality education to students. Enrolling in an accredited master's degree program is a critical first step in helping a student qualify for financial aid. Having a degree from an accredited online or traditional institution can also make a candidate more competitive in the job market.

Fastest-Growing Occupations with Master's Degrees

Across the nation, these occupations — that typically start with a master's degree — are expected to grow at the quickest rate during the 2016-26 period, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Current Employment : 6,560
Projected Employment : 9.4%
College and university art, drama, and music teachers teach courses such as painting, orchestra, and choir. As more students pursue higher education, including in the creative fields of art, drama, and music, teachers at this level are expected to be in high demand.
Art, Drama, and Music Teachers, Postsecondary
Current Employment : 94,060
Projected Employment : 7.9%
The main role of curators is to oversee collections of artwork and historic items. They are usually passionate about art and history and how those objects are cared for and presented to the public. The continued interest to preserve and grow collections is one of the main reasons curation is a fast-growing field.
Current Employment : 12,890
Projected Employment : 9.5%
Counselors provide students of all ages with the valuable advice and information they need to succeed in school and eventually in a professional setting. Due to increasing school enrollments, there is expected to be a similar high growth rate for those who work as counselors.
Educational, Guidance, and Career Counselors and Advisors
Current Employment : 296,460
Projected Employment : 8.4%
Healthcare social workers help people from all walks of life solve and cope with problems in their daily lives. Master's degree holders in this field can make a positive difference in the lives of many. Opportunities for these professionals are likely to grow due to the increased demand for healthcare and social services.
Healthcare Social Workers
Current Employment : 174,890
Projected Employment : 17%
Most instructional coordinators work year-round at the elementary school level, overseeing school curricula and teaching standards. More and more schools are likely turn to instructional coordinators as states and school districts continue to place a higher emphasis on student achievement data.
Instructional Coordinators
Current Employment : 176,690
Projected Employment : 6.3%
Many individuals count on marriage and family therapists to help them manage and resolve family problems. Marriage and family therapy is a high-growing field because of the increasing use of integrated care, making this one of the best master's degrees to earn.
Marriage and Family Therapists
Current Employment : 59,050
Projected Employment : 22.3%
These healthcare professionals use individual therapy, group therapy, case management, crisis intervention, and education to evaluate and treat those with mental, emotional, or substance abuse issues. High growth for these professionals is expected as individuals continuously seek support for mental health and addiction.
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers
Current Employment : 117,770
Projected Employment : 17.8%
Urban and regional planners are responsible for developing plans and programs for the use of land. Employment growth for these types of professionals is projected to be driven by ongoing changes in demographics, transportation needs, and environmental factors.
Urban and Regional Planners
Current Employment : 38,560
Projected Employment : 10.7%
Counselors play a vital role in improving the mental health and well-being of individuals, couples, families, and groups. The need for counselors should continue to grow due to the increased focus on mental health and the challenges of everyday life and exceptional, stressful situations.

Highest-Paying Occupations with a Master's Degree

An investment in a master's degree program can pay off, especially for these occupations that usually require a degree at this level. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, these master's degree-related jobs typically have the highest wages nationwide.
Computer and Information Research Scientists
Mean Annual : $127,460
90th Percentile : $189,780
In addition to inventing new approaches to computing technology, computer and information research scientists find unique uses for existing technology. They are paid well because of the innovation and out-of-the-box thinking that is required from them.
Mean Annual : $107,280
90th Percentile : $162,060
Some economists work independently in an office setting while others collaborate with other economists and statisticians. They perform research, collect and analyze data, and monitor trends. Since their work can help businesses of all shapes and sizes make wise decisions, they are paid highly.
Mean Annual : $116,630
90th Percentile : $185,020
Higher education administrators supervise academics, student services, and faculty research in college or university settings. Due to the increasing student enrollment in colleges and universities, education administrators are important professionals who enjoy high compensation.
Education Administrators, Postsecondary
Mean Annual : $112,400
90th Percentile : $194,090
Nurse practitioners often specialize by patient populations such as pediatric, gerontological, and women's health. These can be lucrative jobs because they play such a crucial role in helping individuals manage conditions and prevent disease.
Nurse Practitioners
Mean Annual : $111,840
90th Percentile : $152,160
Occupational therapists assist ill or disabled patients in developing and maintaining the skills they need for daily living. Since they improve the quality of life for those with common yet challenging health conditions such as autism, cerebral palsy, and Alzheimer's disease, they receive high compensation.
Occupational Therapists
Mean Annual : $86,210
90th Percentile : $121,490
Although they are not medical doctors, physician assistants can diagnose and manage treatment plans. They can prescribe medications and are often the primary healthcare provider of many patients. Due to the fact that they must go through thousands of hours of medical training and pass a licensing exam, physician assistants receive high pay.
Physician Assistants
Mean Annual : $112,410
90th Percentile : $157,120
Psychologists can be found working in hospitals, mental health clinics, and private practices. Since mental health is now a larger priority than ever before, psychologists are often busy with many patients. These professionals are highly compensated.
Psychologists, All Other
Mean Annual : $98,230
90th Percentile : $129,530
Speech-language pathologists can work with infants, toddlers, school-aged children, adults, and seniors. They treat a variety of communication disorders and swallowing problems and are paid highly because of the complexity of speech and language disorders and the need to treat them.
Speech-Language Pathologists
Mean Annual : $82,000
90th Percentile : $121,260
Statisticians, who are often employed at companies involved in market research and public opinion, apply statistical theories to collect and interpret quantitative data. Businesses depend on these professionals to help solve real-world problems and they enjoy high pay as a result.
Mean Annual : $95,680
90th Percentile : $146,770
Mathematicians perform research in fundamental mathematics or in application of mathematical techniques to fields like science and management. Since they are considered advanced problem solvers, they are compensated highly.

What Comes After a Master's Degree

Of course, after earning a master's degree, individuals can pursue careers in their fields of study. But before graduating, it can be worthwhile to join industry- or occupation-specific professional organizations, and to network with professors and other master's degree students — actions that can result in potential employment opportunities. Others may wish to continue their education and enroll in doctoral degree programs. The doctorate route is particularly common for individuals who want to land research-based positions or high positions in academic or non-academic settings.

It is also common for master's degree graduates to focus on a specialization or earn a license. For example, an individual with a master's degree in nursing may choose to become a nurse practitioner. In this case, they would be required to receive a license from the state in which they live as well as a certification from a national organization. A nurse practitioner can also decide to specialize in acute care, adults, pediatrics, or families.

Browse Master's Programs by Subject features colleges and universities that offer online master's degree programs in the following disciplines:

Law & Criminal JusticeTechnology & IT
Article Sources
Article Sources


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  • Current Population Survey, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2017,
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  • Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) 2016-17, National Center for Education Statistics,
  • Is a Master's Degree Worth It?, Monster,, Accessed August 2018
  • Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics,, Accessed August 2018
  • O*NET OnLine,, Accessed August 2018
  • When a $100,000 Grad Degree is Worth the Cost, U.S. News,, Accessed August 2018
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