How Long Does a Master’s Degree Take?

Written by Coursera • Updated on Sep 10, 2021

A master's degree typically takes one to three years to complete, but several factors can make it quicker or slower.

Man with glasses and a blue shirt working on his master's degree in front of a computer

A master’s degree typically takes eighteen months to two years of full-time study, but several factors can increase or decrease the time commitment involved in attaining this graduate-level degree. With a master’s degree, you can open doors to new job prospects and increased earning potential.

Let’s take a closer look at several factors that impact degree length so you can choose the higher education pathway that’s right for you. 

How many years is a master’s degree? Key factors

Curriculum

One of the main factors in determining how long any degree will take is the program curriculum. Most universities use credit hours to measure how many credits you’ll earn from a course. This is based on how long a student spends in class each week during the semester. Most master’s degree programs require a graduate student to take 30 to 60 credit hours of coursework. Some programs involve as many as 72 credit hours. 

It’s possible to complete a 34-credit Master of Applied Data Science degree in as little as twelve months. A 72-credit Master of Business Administration (MBA), on the other hand, will likely take two to three years for full-time students.

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Master of Applied Data Science

University of Michigan

Other degree requirements

Some master’s programs require that students complete a final project like a thesis paper, internship, or a capstone project. Master’s programs in research-heavy fields like mathematics or psychology often require a master’s thesis. Writing this scholarly paper involves a significant amount of independent research and lab work over and above the normal course load. 

Some non-thesis degrees have an internship or capstone project as part of their program requirements. This is more common for fields where hands-on experience is a benefit, like computer science or business. 

Part-time vs. full-time enrollment

Choosing to enroll full time or part time will determine the duration of your degree experience. Each option comes with its own advantages and challenges.

Full-time students taking a full course load (typically more than nine credit hours per semester) can expect to finish their degree faster than a part-time student. However, studying full time can make it challenging to keep up with work, family, and other commitments.

A part-time approach, on the other hand, makes it easier to balance your studies with these other commitments, and it can ease the financial burden as well. This improved work-life balance also means it will take you longer to complete your master’s program.

Online vs. in-person classes

Students today have more flexibility than ever before in how they pursue their education. Some online master’s programs give you access to the same curriculum and faculty as their on-campus counterparts and let you study at the world’s best universities, all without having to move.

While on-campus programs have a rigid class schedule, some online programs allow you the flexibility to learn at your own pace and schedule your classwork around your life. When not restricted to a fixed schedule, you might find you’re able to handle a heavier course load. Taking more course credits at once equals completing a master’s degree in less time.

Accelerated and dual-degree programs

If you’re considering earning your bachelor’s degree as well as a master’s, consider an accelerated master’s program (sometimes called a five-year or four-plus-one program). 

These programs allow you to work toward two degrees with the opportunity to graduate with a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in as little as five years. Learners with well-defined career goals can shave a year off a typical master’s program with this type of degree.

In a dual-degree program, you can pursue two degrees—commonly two graduate programs or a graduate and a doctoral degree—at the same time. This typically takes longer than earning a single master’s degree but less time than it would take to finish two degrees independently. Combinations could include a law degree and an MBA or a master of public health and a doctor of pharmacy. 

Is a master’s degree worth the time?

Whether it takes one year or three, pursuing a master’s degree represents a significant time commitment. Before you decide whether one of these programs is right for you, it’s important to evaluate your career goals. 

Read more: Should You Go Back to School? 7 Things to Consider

Some fields require a master’s for an entry-level job. In other professions, having a master’s isn’t required but can increase your upward mobility within a company or along your career path. This is typically the case in fields such as business, education, healthcare, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

Most of us work in order to support ourselves, so earning potential can be a big factor in determining the value of a degree. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2020 median usual weekly earnings for graduate degree holders were $1,545 compared to $1,305 for bachelor’s degree recipients and $781 for those with only a high school diploma [1].

If you’re a working professional considering a master’s degree, you might qualify for employer sponsorship or reimbursement. Some companies, recognizing the value of a highly-skilled employee who already knows the company landscape, offer some form of tuition assistance.

Try-before-you-buy models

For some master’s degrees, you can get a feel for the program by completing coursework for credit before you ever apply. 

Some programs, like the iMBA from the University of Illinois or the Master of Computer Science from Arizona State University, offer open classes. An open class lets you experience a program for yourself by taking a course alongside degree-seeking students. If you decide to apply for the program later, you’ll earn academic credit for the work you’ve already completed. 

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Master of Business Administration (iMBA)

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Master of Computer Science

Arizona State University

Coursera’s MasterTrack® Certificates give you the chance to complete individual modules of a master’s degree program. Not only will you earn academic credit that can be applied toward the full degree if you’re accepted into the program, you’ll also earn a university-issued career credential for your resume.

Alternatives to grad school

Earning a master’s degree can help you advance in your career, break into a new field, or draw a bigger salary. But a master’s degree may not represent the best use of your time. As you evaluate what’s best for your unique career goals, you might find an alternative program with less of a time commitment is a better fit. Let’s take a look at some of these grad school alternatives.

Individual courses

Depending on your professional field and personal goals, one or two classes might be adequate to equip you with the specific skills you need to advance. Whether you want to learn data analysis, public health, cloud computing, or something else entirely, online learning platforms like Coursera make it easy to learn from top experts from the comfort of your home (and at your own pace).

Professional certificates

With a professional certificate, you gain focused training for a specific career. By earning one of these designations, you can show potential employers that you have the skills necessary to perform a specific job. 

I didn’t have any background in IT and couldn't apply to entry level jobs. After completing this program, I got the chance to interview and landed a job as an IT Support Specialist! -Md Abu Sadat, Google IT Support Professional Certificate Student

Some programs geared toward those just starting out in a new field require no specific experience. Others help you build on your current skill set to advance in a field or work toward an industry-recognized certification. These certificates tend to take months rather than years to complete. Here are a few to consider:

Bootcamps

Bootcamps are typically short-term, immersive, and extremely intense programs designed to bring you up to speed on a given skill set quickly. This is a particularly common model for computer-centric skills like coding and SEO. While bootcamps are relatively short some are full time, which could make it difficult to learn and work at the same time. 

Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

Do you need a bachelor’s degree to get a master’s?

In most cases yes, though there are some exceptions. Some programs also allow you to begin your master’s coursework while still earning your bachelor’s degree.

What’s the difference between a master’s and a PhD?

Master’s programs tend to be career-oriented, while PhDs tend to be more research based. Some PhD programs require you to have a master’s degree.

Is a master’s degree hard?

In general, master’s degree coursework is more challenging than that of a bachelor’s degree. But it also builds upon your previous academic and career experience.

Can I get a master’s degree if my bachelor’s degree is in a different field?

Yes. Many master’s programs accept degrees from other fields so long as they’re from an accredited school.

Should I work first before getting my master’s?

This is a personal decision, but having previous professional experience might enhance the value of your learning.

What’s the difference between a master’s and an MBA?

MBA programs, or Master of Business Administration, are a specific type of master’s degree geared toward careers in business and leadership.

Get started with Coursera

With a variety of course lengths and learning methods, earning a master’s degree might be more attainable than you think. If you’re interested in learning more about how a master’s degree fits into your life, take a look at the variety of online master’s degrees, MasterTrack Certificates, and other graduate-level courses available from top universities through Coursera.

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Article sources

1. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Employment Projections, https://www.bls.gov/emp/chart-unemployment-earnings-education.htm." Accessed July 19, 2021.

Written by Coursera • Updated on Sep 10, 2021

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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