5 minute read

the Master's Degree

History, A Growing Demand, A Changing Clientele

The master's degree is awarded upon completion of one to two years of advanced graduate study beyond the bachelor's degree, with the length depending on the field of study and the conferring institution. It recognizes heightened expertise in an academic discipline or professional field of study, gained through intensive course work and, in most cases, the preparation of a culminating project, scholarly paper, thesis, or a comprehensive examination.


The master's degree has had somewhat a "checkered reputation" (Spencer, p. 5) in the United States. Since its debut in the 1850s at the University of Michigan, for instance, critics have questioned the academic legitimacy of the master's degree, dismissing it as a stepping-stone to the Ph.D. or as a consolation prize for those who failed to complete their doctoral studies.

Although historically viewed as ancillary to the doctorate, the changing nature of the U.S. workplace has contributed to a redefinition of the purpose and value of the master's degree in the latter quarter of the twentieth century. According to Eileen O'Brien, this "transformation occurred on an institution-by-institution basis, with the degree being adapted to offer an educational program focusing on specialization, professionalization, and career enhancement and development" (p. 4). Findings from the Council of Graduate Schools' sponsored National Study of Master's Degrees, outlined in Clifton F. Conrad et al.'s 1993 work, established that the master's degree is now frequently recognized as a significant–and often terminal–credential designating advanced preparation and training in a specialized area of study, most commonly for the purposes of entry into or advancement within the world of professional practice.

A Growing Demand

The popularity of the master's degree grew considerably during the last quarter of the twentieth century. Between 1970 and 1997, the number of master's degrees annually conferred almost doubled from 230,000 to just over 430,000. In 2001 master's degrees accounted for nearly one of every four degrees earned at the bachelor's level and above in the United States.

Student and employer demand for advanced education and certification within professional fields of study has sparked much of the growth in master's degree enrollments. These increases in demand have been spurred by broader global shifts toward a technology-driven, information-centered economy in which the need for highly trained, "expert" professionals in management, finance, information technology, and health care has skyrocketed. In 1970 for example, seven professional fields of study–business, computer and information science, education, engineering, health professions, library science, and public administration–accounted for slightly more than two-thirds of all master's degrees annually conferred. In 1997 these professional fields combined for slightly more than three-fourths of all master's degrees awarded. Particularly since the 1980s, it appears that the master's degree has, at least for employers outside of academe, taken on a new "gatekeeper" role, functioning as an important credential for managing entry into and advancement within the professions. In physical therapy and library science, for example, the master's is now generally regarded as an entry-level credential. In business, education, engineering, and nursing, the master's is almost always required for advancement into more financially lucrative specialty and leadership positions.

A Changing Clientele

As the reach of master's education has expanded, the population of students earning the degree has diversified. The percentage of women earning master's degrees increased steadily over the past three decades, growing from 41 percent of degree recipients in 1970 to 56 percent in 1996. During this same time frame, the proportion of part-time and older students enrolling in master's programs shifted considerably; by the mid-1990s, approximately three-fifths of all master's students were enrolled part-time, and more than one-half were thirty years of age or older.

Educators have developed various strategies for meeting the needs of this changing clientele. Especially during the 1980s, a large number of colleges and universities began to offer master's-level courses (and, in some cases, entire programs) in the evenings and on weekends. In the 1990s, the use of satellite-, videotape-, and web-based courses (and, again, entire programs) likewise became increasingly popular at the master's level.

The overwhelming majority of master's degree programs are course-work driven, but the number of required courses or credit hours varies by field of study and type of degree (for example, some master's programs may be completed in as few as twenty-four semester credit hours; other master's programs–including several in education–may require up to sixty semester credit hours). While approximately 70 percent of master's degrees no longer require the completion of a thesis, most still include a comprehensive examination, which tests students on foundational knowledge in their field of study. Since the mid-1980s, a rising number of programs have begun to offer students the option of completing a final–or culminating–master's project or paper as an alternative to a scholarly thesis. These projects or papers typically focus on applied problems, issues, or concerns relevant to the world of professional practice.

The growing practitioner orientation that has accompanied the increasing professionalization of the master's degree has led to several interesting curricular changes in master's programs. To begin with, the inclusion of part-time instructors who have extensive practitioner-based professional experience has become more commonplace. These practitioner faculty instructors are assumed to bring a real-world edge to the courses they teach, creating stronger linkages between theory and practice in the professions. Increasingly common as well is the inclusion of relevant professional work experience as a requirement for admission, particularly within the professional fields of business, education, and nursing. Finally, growing professionalization has also invited greater oversight by specialized accrediting bodies. In recent years several accrediting bodies that had traditionally focused largely on undergraduate education have begun to monitor the content and quality of master's degree programs in various fields, including business (Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business), education (National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education), and nursing (National League for Nursing).

Unlike the National Research Council's Survey of Earned Doctorates, a national database is not maintained to study or track master's degree programs, students, or degree recipients. Other than the findings of a few scholars, there is comparatively little known about the general purposes, quality, and value of the master's degree and master's education in the United States.


BERELSON, BERNARD. 1960. Graduate Education in the United States. New York: McGraw-Hill.

CONRAD, CLIFTON F.; HAWORTH, JENNIFER GRANT; and MILLAR, SUSAN BOLYARD. 1993. A Silent Success: Master's Education in the United States. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

GLAZER, JUDITH S. 1986. The Master's Degree: Tradition, Diversity, Innovation. Washington, DC: Association for the Study of Higher Education.

HAWORTH, JENNIFER G., and CONRAD, CLIFTON F. 1997. Emblems of Quality in Higher Education: Developing and Sustaining High-Quality Programs. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

NATIONAL CENTER FOR EDUCATION STATISTICS. 2000. Digest of Education Statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

O'BRIEN, EILEEN M. 1992. "Master's Degree Students and Recipients: A Profile." ACE Research Briefs 3 (1):1–14. Washington, DC: American Council on Education.

SPENCER, DONALD S. 1986. "The Master's Degree in Transition." CGS Communicator 19:1–3, 10, 12.




Additional topics

Education - Free Encyclopedia Search EngineEducation Encyclopedia