The Basics (Chapter 1)
The 2010 U.S. Census determined that Americans who hold masters degrees earn, on average, $12,000 more yearly than Americans who hold bachelors degrees. If you are looking for higher pay or career advancement, pursuing a masters degree may prove to be a valuable investment. Online masters degree programs are your best and perhaps only viable option if time, location and other constraints are preventing you from going back to school full time.
But you need to keep in mind that not all online graduate degree programs are created equal, and not all degrees will lead to a guaranteed increase in pay. While online education has become more widespread and reputable over the past 5 years, thanks in large part to brick-and-mortar institutions offering online degrees, many employers are still skeptical about the quality of education provided in online degree programs. And quite honestly, not all online schools offer challenging and relevant courses that prepare students for their professions. Thus, it is imperative that you thoroughly research the schools and programs that you are interested in. This guide is designed to help you find the degree program that will best meet your needs and goals.
This guide will answer your general questions about online masters degrees and online masters degree programs. It will also provide you with insight into the types of issues that you need to consider when choosing a school and program. It will walk you through the steps of seeking an online masters degree, from deciding whether or not graduate school is right for you, to gaining admission in the online masters program that is best suited to you, to successfully completing your degree, and finally to putting your degree to work for you after graduation.
The first step to deciding whether or not an online masters degree is right for you is to understand what exactly a masters degree is. A masters degree is an advanced post-graduate degree that you can pursue once you have earned your bachelors degree. It generally involves a specialization in a particular subject and mastery of the knowledge and skills involved in that discipline.
Masters degrees may vary by focus, type and length of time to complete. There are a variety of disciplines, ranging from engineering to psychology to health administration, in which you can earn a masters degree. Although some masters degrees are general, many allow for specialization in an area of interest.
In the U.S., most masters degrees carry the qualification of a Master of Science (MS, MSc) or a Master of Arts (MA). Generally speaking, the Arts and Science qualifiers refer to the area in which you have specialized, with arts and humanities subjects falling under Arts and math, science and social science subjects falling under Science. Some subject areas, such as business administration, social work and fine arts grant specialized degrees particular to the program of study. These degrees are usually known as a Master of Business Administration (MBA), a Master of Social Work (MSW) and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA).
Masters degrees typically take between 2 to 3 years of full-time study to complete. However, you may choose to enroll in a masters program on a part-time basis. Depending on how many credits you can feasibly take each term, taking classes part time may add 1 to 2 years to the completion time for your masters degree.
In some cases, a masters degree can be earned on the way to obtaining the more advanced degree of a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). In such masters-PhD programs, you would typically enroll directly in a PhD program after completing your bachelors degree program. While earning your PhD, you would also earn your masters degree. Programs like these usually take 4 to 8 years of full-time study to complete. Depending on your chosen area of focus and future goals, programs that allow you to earn a masters degree en route to earning your PhD may be a good option. For example, if you want to become a practicing psychologist or a university professor, a masters-PhD program may be right for you since these professions generally require doctorate-level education.
Each masters degree program will have its own unique setup, but most programs will follow a framework similar to the 1 below. Your masters degree program will likely be a combination of:
- Classes and Coursework: Most masters degree programs begin with intense and specialized classes meant to prepare you for independent study. Masters-level classes will usually center on seminars with a small number of students and an emphasis on analysis and discussion. Corresponding coursework will likely involve substantial reading, responses to those readings on discussion boards or in individual written assignments, group projects and essays. In an online program, you will have more freedom and a greater responsibility to choose when you review lessons, complete readings and submit responses.
- Research Projects and Papers: Research projects and papers are often self-directed, large in scope and usually come toward the end of the masters degree program. These assignments allow professors to assess your ability to take what you have learned in class, conduct research and create your own piece of academic work.
- Comprehensive Exams: Similar to research projects and papers, comprehensive exams exist to ensure that masters degree candidates have both broad and in-depth knowledge of their field of study. These exams can be administered as oral exams, written exams, or as a combination of the 2. Not all disciplines require comprehensive exams at the masters degree level.
- Practicums or Internships: Some masters degrees, especially those that focus on more professional disciplines such as business administration and social work, will require you to participate in a practicum or an internship in order for you to get practical experience in your degree field. A practicum or an internship is a great way to ease into a new kind of position or responsibility, because you will have guidance and will receive feedback as you work.
Is it possible to work while getting a masters degree? Yes. Is it advisable? Sometimes. The nice thing about masters degree programs in general, and online masters degree programs in particular, is that many of them cater to students who have responsibilities and priorities other than school. However, the recognition of these responsibilities and priorities doesn’t preclude you from completing the same amount of work and meeting the same deadlines as other students. Successfully completing a masters degree program is hard work even without the added responsibilities of a job. Your decision to work while you attend graduate school will be influenced by your personal situation and what you expect to get out of the years that you spend working towards your masters degree. There are, however, several factors that every potential masters student should consider.
- Finances: If you can fund your masters degree right out of college, and still manage to pay for your living expenses, then attending graduate school directly after earning your bachelors degree is possible. But if paying for graduate school is a real concern for you, it is okay to wait and to work for a few years before applying. Some employers may help pay for your degree in exchange for a commitment to continue working for them for a set number of years.
- Career: Consider how a masters degree will help your career or help you switch careers. Some masters degrees will make you eligible for promotions in certain fields, while others may not help you advance at all. For example, an MBA is highly recommended if you would like to advance in business and increase your earning potential. An MA in history, however, may be of little benefit to careers outside of education.
- Experience: Some masters degree programs greatly value candidates who have a few years of work and life experience outside of academia. The time away from school can give you practical knowledge while helping to prevent school burnout. If the discipline you are interested in is more professional than academic, think about working for a few years and acquiring skills and practical knowledge that you can only get from experiencing life outside of school.
- Program: In general, online masters degree programs offer the flexibility to simultaneously work and take classes. But if the masters degree program you are thinking of enrolling in requires a practicum or internship, make sure to factor in how much time you will spend at the internship or practicum site (and thus away from your job). Depending on your work situation, it could be feasible with enough planning in advance.
In addition to these considerations, think about your current responsibilities and how physically and mentally tiring they are. Think about your study habits and how long it takes you to complete assignments. These will affect your ability to work and study at the same time. You should honestly reflect on and evaluate all of these points before you decide to work while you pursue your masters degree.
Deciding whether or not an online masters degree is worth the investment will depend on your individual situation. Think about the field that you are entering or hoping to advance in. What kind of education and degree level does it take to work in the field? How would you pay for tuition? What is the time commitment for finishing the degree? Finally, what kind of return on your investment of time, money and energy will you will get from the degree? If you have answered all of these questions satisfactorily and have found a reputable program from an accredited online institution, pursuing an online masters degree can be worth the investment.
In general, masters degree programs are ideal for people who are sure about what they want to study and know what they will do with their degree once they are finished. Online masters degree programs are best suited for people who have that same kind of conviction but may not be able to attend on-campus classes regularly. The best online masters degree candidates will be independent learners with a high degree of discipline. This may seem obvious, but an online masters degree will be conducted primarily online and should be attempted by those who have a strong working knowledge of computers and reliable access to a computer and Internet.
To get the most of an online masters degree, you must have outstanding organization and time management skills. Without the ability to manage your time and organize your workload, an online masters degree program may not provide you with enough structure and support to succeed. Be honest with yourself when you are assessing your strengths and weaknesses with regard to responsibilities and study habits. Knowing your limits and challenges is an important part of successfully completing a masters degree and any other goals you set for yourself in the future.
Choosing to pursue an online masters degree is an important decision that requires a lot of thought, research and self-evaluation. The more research you do on the front end of this process, the better off you will be.