Understanding Masters Degree Program Requirements and General Trends

One cynical but well-known observation about academics is that your university or college education is a process of learning more and more about less and less. If an entry-level bachelor’s degree represents a relatively broad swipe at understanding the fundamentals of a field, then, a master’s degree is your first chance to dig deeper (and focus more narrowly) on a specific research agenda. Strong success at the master’s level then allows a willing minority to dig even deeper, and to focus even more narrowly, on a research agenda for a PhD, or doctoral degree. Depending on the particular program, master’s students will generally devote one or two years of full-time study (and more, for those who choose part-time programs), including both coursework and a thesis or a similar independent research project. Essentially, the master’s degree may be seen as a stepping stone or halfway point between an undergraduate degree and a PhD.

Recent years have seen a rapid increase in master’s degrees by prospective students for two key reasons:  one short-term and one long-term. First, the current economic recession has prompted many people to think seriously about their realistic job prospects, and either to stay in school for longer (by opting to make an immediate leap from undergrad to grad school), or return to school to upgrade their professional skills.

Second, there is a longer-term trend toward seeing post-secondary degrees as essential qualifications for professional work. Fields of work which formerly demanded a high school diploma are increasingly filled by college graduates; similarly, fields dominated by college graduates increasingly expect those graduates to hold graduate as well as bachelor’s degrees. Even aside from the gradual upward pressure, there can also be a clear, personal financial incentive to pursuing higher education: on average, $400 000 over an entire career (although job prospects can vary widely across different programs and disciplines).

Like bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees are presently identified by an increasingly diverse array of titles and acronyms. Conventionally, graduates in the humanities and social sciences received the degree of Master of Arts (MA); those in science received their Master of Science (MS); and those in business received their Master of Business Administration (MBA). However, the number of graduate-level programs has proliferated and some universities now offer such specialized and professional graduate degrees as the Master of Fine Arts (MFA), Master of Public Administration (MPA), and Master of Social Work (MSW). In part, this represents the rapid growth of professional graduate programs, which aim to prepare students for advanced work in specific professional fields (like social work and the government’s public policy bureaucracy) rather than a more traditional approach to advanced academic research.

At the same time as this growth was occurring the master’s degree was, ironically, becoming increasingly uncommon in upper education among those who actually intended to stay in research careers, or become professors. At Harvard University, for example, history students don’t actually take a master’s program! Instead, they enter grad school formally as PhD Students, progress through the coursework requirements, are awarded an “interim” master’s degree, and then go on to do further research to get their PhD. So, increasingly, people with master’s degrees are those who have fulfilled some of the requirements of a PhD-oriented grad school but left before they did their dissertation (a much longer and more detailed version of a master’s thesis).

Traditionally, a student’s academic career was more or less standard across all Western universities. After completing a bachelor’s degree (usually in four years), students progressed to the graduate level and completed a masters degree (usually in one or two years), which either prepared them for a PhD program or gave them a leg up in the job market outside the so-called Ivory Tower. This master’s degree would be roughly balanced between coursework focused in a specific discipline (unlike undergraduate students, master’s students generally are not required to complete electives in a variety of different subject areas), and a major research project, the thesis. This is still the experience faced by most master’s students.

The application process for master’s students is more demanding than that for undergraduate programs, but less so than for PhD programs. Most MA programs, particularly at public and smaller universities, will accept applicants who have achieved solid B averages in their undergraduate degrees (usually, only the last 60 credits are used in calculating this average). Obviously, as always, schools with higher reputations typically have more demanding admission standards. In addition, and very importantly, grad school applications increasingly put a very heavy focus on other aspects of your application, such as letters of reference from professors, and (in the humanities) a writing sample. To combat grade inflation, American schools also often demand that you take the Graduate Records Examination (GRE) text, which is essentially the grad school equivalent of the SAT.

Once in grad school, students typically take around one year’s worth of courses. These are usually more focused and intensive than a fourth-year undergraduate course, and class sizes are generally much smaller (most grad courses are seminars rather than lectures). By the end of this year, master’s students have typically settled upon a topic for their advanced research, which they pursue under the guidance of a committee of professors: a supervisor with whom they work most closely and several (typically two or three) advisors with whom they have a slightly more distant relationship.

The master’s thesis, ideally written over the second year of the degree but often written in either more or less time depending upon the demands of the topic and the commitment level of the student, is the hallmark of the master’s degree. The requirements of the thesis (sometimes referred to as a dissertation, but this word is usually reserved for a similar but far longer report written by PhD students) vary at different universities as well as in different programs: some humanities degrees require a longer thesis and some science degrees a shorter one, although many tend to be around 100 pages in length. In either case, they are usually expected to represent something significantly original and innovative: that is, you have to show that you’re making a worthwhile contribution in your work. (In other words, the expectations are much higher than for term papers and class assignments.)

Once the thesis has been written and approved by the supervisor and advisors (a process that usually requires numerous rewrites and revisions to accommodate the often-conflicting demands of the professors), the final stage in the masters degree is (in almost all cases) the oral defense. Master’s students then present their work to a new committee, which includes their supervisor and advisors but also an external examiner. Traditionally, this should be someone from another university; in practice, many schools will choose an examiner from their own faculty, provided that he or she had no previous part in shaping the thesis. The external examiner is intended as a check to make sure that the original supervisor and committee have done their jobs in preparing the student adequately.

In theory, it is possible to fail and be forced to leave the masters program at any stage in this process (and often the pass/fail point for graduate students can be significantly higher than the usual 50%). However, most graduate students leave of their own accord, having decided at some point that the research is simply not worth committing more time to. It is very uncommon for a student to finish their thesis, submit it for the oral defense, and only then receive a failing grade.

The recent growth in new master’s-level degrees, however, has brought with it growth in the variety of study programs. Some master’s degrees in professional areas, for example, can now be obtained through coursework alone, without a thesis. Others require students to complete some form of independent research project of slightly lesser magnitude and length than a thesis, such as a major research essay (as much as 40 pages shorter than a thesis). In general, a masters program is supposed to train students to the point that they possess a very high-level understanding of a particular field of academic research or professional work. Increasingly, distinctions are drawn between those programs which are intended to prepare students for further academic study as PhD students, and those which mostly concentrate on training students to enter the job market.

Overall, a master’s degree can be a rewarding academic experience that gives you a chance to research a subject in depth and gain an unusual degree of expertise in it. At the same time, it is quickly becoming an important qualification for increasing your competitiveness in the increasingly competitive job market of the 21st century.