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A Master's degree in the United States are typically designed to be completed in two years of full-time study, and some universities and colleges allow ambitious students to complete them in less time. The term "master's degree" includes a variety of awards of varying content, length, and purpose. These include:
  • Master's degrees awarded as advanced research degrees in academic or professional fields of study;
  • Master's degrees awarded as basic professional qualifications; and
  • Master's degrees awarded as terminal degrees.

In many professional fields it is possible for the student to enroll in either a research master's degree program, a course work master's degree program, or a professional master's degree program, depending upon his or her educational goals.

Research Master's Degrees
Master's degrees are awarded in the academic disciplines and applied research fields for study and research from 1 to 3 years beyond the bachelor's degree or the first-professional degree. The length of the program depends upon the requirements of the discipline and the institutional faculty, which may include work in several fields related to the subject being studied.  Studies for research master's degrees involve the completion and defense of an independent thesis, the passing of comprehensive examinations set by the graduate faculty, and occasionally the completion of special projects in addition to participation in advanced seminars and courses. The research master's degree is frequently on the road to the Ph.D.

Professional Science Master's (PSM) Degrees
The Professional Science Master's (PSM) is a new graduate degree designed to allow students to pursue advanced training in science or mathematics, while simultaneously developing workplace skills highly valued by employers. PSM programs consist of two years of academic training in an emerging or interdisciplinary area, along with a professional component that may include internships and "cross-training" in workplace skills, such as business, communications, and regulatory affairs. These degrees have been developed in concert with employers and are designed to dovetail into present and future professional career opportunities.

Course Work Master's Degree
Some institutions offer a course work master's degree in addition to or instead of the research master's degree. The total credits are generally the same but are all course work. This degree is often taken by persons wanting deepen their knowledge in their field, but do not intend to pursue research or the Ph.D. degree. It generally takes less time.

Professional or Practice Oriented Master's Degrees
Master's degrees awarded for professional studies also generally do not have an academic research component but are largely taught degrees. However, they most usually include the addition of a supervised project or report as part of the degree requirements. This degree is often a terminal degree for the recipient.

Master's Degree Titles
U.S. degree titles are not governed by national laws, so an institution may exercise wide discretion in the nomenclature it uses for degrees. Accrediting associations may exert some influence on degree titles, as do the labor market and the professional academic community, but there are still a wide variety of master's degree titles in use. The best way to tell whether a master's degree represents research work or professional studies is to either be familiar with the program of the awarding institution or to examine the student's academic record to determine what type of degree requirements were met.

Some of the more common master's degree titles are:

  • Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.) (nearly always a 2 year professional degree in management);
  • Master of Education (M.Ed.) (awarded for both professional and research studies in education subjects);
  • Master of Public Health (M.P.H.) (usually a 2-year professional degree);
  • Master of Science (M.S.) (awarded for both research and professional studies in a wide variety of subjects);
  • Master of Science in Nursing (M.S.N.) (usually a professional degree but also awarded for research); and
  • Master of Social Work (M.S.W.) (usually a 2-year professional degree).

Career Cornerstone Center Profile Excerpts
The following segments of profiles may offer insights into the processing of pursuing higher education.

Thomas Niederkorn

Core Technology Leader
Procter & Gamble
Cincinnati, OH

"I originally decided to go to graduate school because I was interested in going into academia. I wanted to become a professor. I enjoyed teaching, the little bit of it I did, tutoring and such, as an undergraduate. However, while I was in graduate school, my desires changed, and I became more interested in actually working in industry. I enjoyed the transition from graduate school to business. To start to actually work on real businesses and have a real business impact was very rewarding."
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Jennifer Borowski

Metallurgical Engineer
Simpson Industries, Inc.
Plymouth, MI

"I decided to go to graduate school, probably about a semester after I moved up to the headquarters. I swore after I graduated, I wouldn't go back for a while. But I was very bored. I felt that I wasn't using my mind as much as when I was in school, and I like to learn new things. So I thought going to graduate school was the right thing to do. I find nowadays that companies are looking for people with master's or above. So if you don't have a master's, you're not even marketable to some companies. So I thought it would be a good stepping stone further in my career. While I was young, before my life got too complicated."
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