What Can I Expect from an Online Master’s Degree Program?

Many working professionals who are interested in growing their careers or earning a higher salary typically start with investigating master’s degree programs in their line of work. Or sometimes, career changers may pursue a master’s degree in a field they’re interested in working in. Master’s degree attainment has risen steadily over the last 20 years, and organizations such as the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) expect that number to continue to grow.

Earning a master’s degree online is a convenient way for many people to earn an advanced degree because it allows them to balance other commitments, including work and family, with the rigors of an academic schedule. Online master’s degree programs also tend to offer the same quality education as what you would obtain in traditional on-campus studies. When browsing for master’s degree programs, it’s important to find the one that aligns with your career goals.

Concentrations Offered for an Online Master’s Degree

The number of concentrations for an online master’s degree are endless — your concentration depends on the field you want to study. Below are some of the most popular options for master’s degrees.

Master of Arts (MA) Can be concentrated in a number of different subjects related to the fields of liberal arts, social sciences and education. Usually involves fieldwork and may have a capstone project. Teachers, political scientist, sociologist, counselors
Master of Science (MS) Usually focus on research and technical training in the fields of science, technology, engineering, mathematics, health care and clinical research. Engineer, scientist
Master of Business Administration (MBA) Typically obtained by students with an undergraduate degree in business who want to take on management or other leadership positions in business environments. Specializations may include finance, accounting, human resources or marketing. Roles in corporate leadership and strategy
Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) Designed for experienced nurses who want to advance their education to take on new, more advanced roles. Nurse practitioner, midwife, anesthetist
Master of Social Work (MSW) This degree is designed for experienced social workers who want to take on other roles in clinical settings or obtain roles in management. MSW concentrations usually include micro, which focuses on diagnosis and treatment of mental health issues; macro, which concentrates more on community development and social services; and mezzo, a generalist pathway that’s a combination of the previous two. Social worker manager
Master of Education (M.Ed) Typically considered the educational minimum for community college professors and high school teachers. It’s also looked upon favorably for elementary and middle school teachers as well. Many concentrations are available, depending on your desired age group and education field. Teacher, special education teacher, educational leadership roles

Curriculum for an Online Master’s Degree

The curriculum structure and classes you’ll take while earning your online master’s degree are going to depend on your chosen field. If you’re earning a MSN, for instance, your classes are going to be on nursing topics; if you’re earning a master’s degree in education, you’ll take courses related to the teaching practice and your chosen subject area. MBAs take classes related to finance, human resources, accounting, marketing and project management.

In general, an online master’s degree is a preferred learning format for many students because it allows them to take classes on their own time and complete them at their own pace while balancing demands of work, family and other personal commitments.

How Long Does It Take to Get an Online Master’s Degree?

The time it takes to complete your online master’s degree depends on several factors, including the type of program you’re enrolled in, the required coursework and your lifestyle. Master’s programs generally range from 35 to 60 total semester credits (or 60 to 90 quarter credits), depending on the field of study and institution. This amount of credits result in roughly 12 to 20 courses, which the average student can complete in about two years, although if the pacing is slower, it could take three to four years.

Certifications and Licenses an Online Master’s Degree Prepares For

The certifications and licenses you’ll earn with a master’s degree depend on your chosen field of study. In general, they vary widely from state to state and field to field. Master’s programs for teachers, for instance, typically lead to licensure in whatever state the teacher plans to practice. Medical-related master’s programs, such as those for nurse practitioners, physician’s assistants and nurse anesthetists, all require a state license to practice.

Accreditation for Online Master’s Degree

When it comes to researching colleges and universities for online master’s degrees, accreditation should be at the top of your list of considerations. Accreditation is a comprehensive vetting process during which individual educational institutions are evaluated according to academic curricula, faculty credentials, campus resources, student outcomes and other criteria related to the legitimacy of a master’s degree program.

Regional, national and programmatic accreditation are available. Be sure to choose a master’s degree program that is accredited — it also matters for employment, as many companies won’t hire individuals who haven’t completed their education at an accredited institution.

Employment Outlook for Master’s Degree Graduates

Job Placement: Master’s v. Bachelor’s

According to the NCES, master’s degree attainment has risen steadily over the last 20 years. Between 2016 and 2027, enrollment in master’s degree programs is projected to increase by 3 percent. It’s considered the minimum educational attainment level for a wide variety of career pathways in business, health care, education and other professional fields.

Expected Salary

In addition to more job opportunities, a master’s degree can help boost your earning potential, especially in fields where a bachelor’s degree is the minimum educational requirement such as information technology, social work and criminal justice.

And there’s more good news for individuals who want to earn a master’s degree — their lifetime earnings are often higher, according to a study from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Median lifetime earnings for employees with a master’s degree are $2,671,000, compared to the $2,268,000 median lifetime earnings for individuals with a bachelor’s degree.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, individuals with a master’s degree earn a higher salary and face a lower unemployment rate.

Education Level Unemployment Rate Median Weekly Earnings
Doctorate degree 1.5% $1,743 per week
Master’s degree 2.2% $1,836 per week
Bachelor’s degree 2.5% $1,173 per week
Associate’s degree 3.4% $836 per week
Some college, no degree 4% $774 per week
High school diploma 4.6% $712 per week
Less than a high school diploma 6.5% $520 per week

Your chosen career also affects your salary. Below are some of the median annual salaries in popular career paths that require a master’s degree.

Career Opportunities

Earning a master’s degree in your chosen field of study opens up a wealth of job opportunities, especially in industries such as education, health care and business. Below are some popular careers that individuals obtain with a master’s degree.

Operations Research Analysts These professions, who often have an advanced degree in business, operations research, management science, analytics, mathematics, engineering, computer science or another technical field, used advanced mathematical and analytical methods to help organizations investigate complex issues within their company to help them solve problems and make better decisions. $81,390 per year 27%
Human Resources Managers The many jobs of a Human Resources Manager include planning, directing and coordinating all the administrative functions of an organization. They often oversee recruiting, interviewing and hiring of new staff. They typically serve as a link between a company’s management and its employees. $110,120 per year 9%
Postsecondary Education Administrators Typically employed at colleges, universities or other postsecondary institutions, these administrators oversee certain departments, such as student services, academics, admissions and other areas of faculty research. Their job duties vary depending on the department they work in. $92,360 per year 10%
Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives and Nurse Practitioners These types of advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) coordinate patient care and provide primary and specialty health care to patients. The scope of practice varies widely from state to state. $110,930 per year 31%
Physician Assistants PAs practice medicine on teams with physicians and surgeons. They examine, diagnose and treat patients in clinical environments, including physicians’ offices, hospitals, outpatient clinics and other healthcare settings. $104,860 per year 37%

Professional Organizations

Belonging to professional organizations is an important part of career growth. There are many professional organizations that exist to support you in your chosen line of work, and their functions and operating procedures will vary widely depending on your field of study.

In general, professional organizations offer professional development opportunities, provide career support, maintain active job boards and host networking events or conferences that allow you to meet people in your industry and perhaps form professional connections.

Financing Your Online Master’s Degree

While online degrees may be less expensive overall than obtaining an on-campus degree, many students still need financial aid to help them pay for the cost of their program. Filling out the Federal Application for Free Student Aid (FAFSA) is a step in the right direction — submitting this form provides you with information about grants, scholarships and other forms of financial aid available from the federal government. In addition, nonprofit organizations and other companies have their own scholarships they offer to students. Be sure to investigate your field of study and the school you are considering to find out about their scholarship and grant programs, in addition to consulting the resources listed below.



Scholarships Details
GetEducated.com Distance Learning Scholarship Award: $1,000

Deadline: October and March

Eligibility: U.S. citizens enrolled in an accredited online degree program and have a GPA of 3.0.

IMA Memorial Education Fund Award: $1,000-$5,000

Deadline: February

Eligibility: Graduate students enrolled in an MBA program.

Interested in a degree instead?

Learn more about online degrees, their start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.