You're awarded a master's degree when you achieve, well, "mastery" in a given field. When you finish, you're expected to possess advanced theoretical and applied knowledge in an area. That means knowing a lot more than your run of the mill undergraduate student who majored in the same field.
So, what is a master's degree, exactly? The two most common are the Master of Arts (M.A.) and the Master of Science (M.S.). Some universities reverse the degrees' acronyms (creating a lot of confusion, in our opinion) based on the Latin verbiage "artium magister" (A.M.) and "scientiarum magister" (S.M.). Generally speaking, you'll receive an M.A. if you study a qualitative discipline in the humanities or social sciences, such as english, history, philosophy, or anthropology; and an M.S. if you study a quantitative discipline in the natural or social sciences, such as biology, chemistry, economics, or mathematics.
To help you figure out if a master's degree is a good choice, we've compiled a list of defining characteristics below. Think of it as an answer to the question: "What am I getting into?"
You'll Grow Intellectually
If you enjoyed taking classes as an undergraduate, chances are you'll enjoy graduate coursework. The main difference is that you'll go deeper and tackle more advanced (and demanding) concepts. Plus, you'll be surrounded by classmates who share your same interest in the subject matter. If that's not enough, your program will typically require you to produce a master's thesis. This is a typically a 25-50 page paper on a topic of your choice, supervised by a faculty member. In some cases, you'll be able to choose between writing a thesis or completing a master's project. So expect to put your brain to good use.
You'll Set Yourself Up For Doctorate Work
Will completing a master's degree help you get into a doctorate program? Yes! Yes! Yes! Having graduate course work under your belt will strengthen your application by miles. This is particularly true if you're a career switcher (i.e., you studied something different as an undergraduate). Some doctorate programs, in fact, explicitly require that you have a master's degree. In such cases, you'll have little choice but to get one. So something about it – now!
You'll Become More Marketable with Employers
Let's get down to business. A master's degree be your ticket to the fast lane in the job market. The logic is simple: all things being equal, employers like to hire people who are intelligent, educated, and motivated. While an undergraduate degree opens many doors, a master's degree will lead to more senior positions. And if your degree is in a field that is directly relevant to an employer, say mechanical engineering for an aeronautics company, you'll be in an even stronger position.
You'll Be in School for A Couple Years
A master's program is a significant time commitment...typically to the tune of 2 years! Though there are a handful of accelerated master's programs that only last one year these are few and far between. A typical program will involve 3 semesters of coursework and 1 semester of original research for a master's thesis or master's project. The coursework will be more demanding than college, so you'll take fewer courses per semester, but you'll have to do more work for each. In many cases, your summers will still be yours...but in others you'll be encouraged to complete an internship.
You'll Typically (*Sigh*) Pay Tuition
A key distinction between a master's and doctorate program is the amount of financial aid that's made available to you. The good news is that graduate tuition is less than undergraduate tuition, typically half to one-third the amount. The bad news is that you'll have to pay for most (if not all) of it, plus living expenses. That's right, you'll have to reach into your pockets. This is because schools allocate little funding to master's students. Most of their budget is directed to doctorate (e.g., PhD) students. However, you might be lucky enough to tap other sources of funding. This is a whole other area that we discuss under paying for school.
You'll Find it Challenging to Get Admitted
What is a master's degree acceptance rate? It's not uncommon for a master's program to accept 20-40% of applicants. A master's is more selective than postbaccalaureate program, but less so than a doctorate program, where acceptance rates can be as low as 5%. One reason for master's higher acceptance rate than doctorate programs is that master's students typically pay all or part of the tuition, so funding constraints aren't as big a factor for admissions.