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Question: How Long Does it Take to Complete a Master's Degree Program?

Answer: The time it takes to complete a master’s degree program may range from as few as 12 months to as many as five or six years depending on a number of factors, including the structure and format of the program, the program’s graduation requirements, and how many courses a student is able to take per term. Master’s programs are generally designed to allow full-time students to complete core curricular requirements in roughly two years, or 18 to 30 months, which may or may not include summer sessions. However, there are master’s programs in certain fields, such as business administration, that can be completed in 12 months of full-time, year-round enrollment by some students. Conversely, there are master’s programs for working professionals in fields like healthcare, social work, counseling, and nursing that are offered part-time and that take a minimum of two to three years to complete. Finally, there are master’s programs with flexible enrollment options that allow students to take up to five to eight years to graduate, depending on the program.

What Is a Master’s Degree Program?

A master’s degree program is a post-baccalaureate, pre-doctoral graduate degree program with a curriculum that provides specialized training and advanced instruction in a particular field of academic study or professional practice. Master’s programs may be divided into two categories: research-based programs that focus on academic theory and investigation in a particular discipline, and practice-based programs that focus on professional training in a particular field. However, there are research-based master’s programs that provide professional training, and there are practice-based master’s programs that include a research component, so the distinction is not universal.

There are an array of formal designations for master’s programs, which may or may not reflect the extent to which programs are more research or practice oriented. Traditionally, the designations Master of Arts (MA) and Master of Science (MS) have been used for master’s programs that are research-based and that may lead to further graduate studies at the doctoral level, while professional, practice-based master’s programs are more likely to be named directly for their field of study. For example, Master of Business Administration (MBA), Master of Social Work (MSW), Master of Education (MEd), and Master of Engineering (MEng) are common designations for practice-based master’s programs in those fields.

However, there are practice-based MS programs in social work, business, and engineering, and practice-based MA programs in fields like education, counseling, and business management, and Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) is the designation for a master’s program that provides professional training in the practice of nursing. Examining a master’s program curriculum typically provides a clearer picture of the program’s focus than how the program is named.

Master’s Program Requirements

Specific academic requirements at the master’s level vary by field and by program. Master’s programs in certain fields may require an internship, practicum, or field education in addition to classroom instruction. Research-based master’s programs may have a thesis component or a final capstone project, depending on the area of study and the type of program. And a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program may require graduates to produce a creative work or portfolio in their field of specialization. These are some areas of differentiation among master’s program that may affect the time it takes students to graduate.

As a general rule, master’s programs encompasses between 30 and 60 total credit hours of coursework and additional requirements, including internships, field education, and final projects, which may equate to between ten and 20 college courses. In contrast, a typical, four-year bachelor’s program generally requires the completion of 120 credits, or roughly 40 courses. A typical master’s program may be thought of as a graduate program that can be completed in two years or four semesters rather than the four-year/eight-semester period that is common for bachelor’s programs.

Professional and Advanced Standing Master’s Programs

A notable exception to the two-year/four-semester length approximation for typical master’s programs concerns master’s programs that are designed for students who have already completed introductory courses and intermediate-level training in their field of study, either through a specific type of bachelor’s degree program or through a certain number of years of professional experience. In social work, for example, there are Advanced Standing master’s programs that allow students who hold a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) to omit several introductory graduate courses and some of the field education hours that are required as part of a traditional MSW program. BSW graduates can complete a master’s curriculum in social work in the equivalent of two or three semesters, instead of four to six semesters.

In certain fields of professional training, such as business administration and management, there may be designated “Professional” or “Executive” master’s programs that are similarly designed for students who have already developed certain proficiencies through several years of professional experience in the workforce. These programs may restrict admissions to students with five or more years of work experience and offer a curriculum that omits some of the introductory and intermediate coursework that is commonly incorporated into a traditional master’s program. Like an Advanced Standing MSW program, an Executive or Professional MBA program may only require the equivalent of two or three semesters of coursework.

Factors That Impact the Time to Completion

Students entering a traditional master’s program should be prepared for the equivalent of four semesters of coursework. However, the number of months or years it takes to complete this coursework can vary greatly depending on one or more of the factors detailed below.

Program Structure: Master’s program that operate on the standard academic semester system may offer courses two or three times a year, during fall, spring, and summer semesters. Students who are able to take classes without a summer break may be able to complete a master’s program in 16 to 20 months of full-time enrollment by taking three or four courses per semester for four or five consecutive semesters, depending on the number of credits/courses the program requires.

However, there are master’s programs that offer courses up to five times a year during ten-week terms. Students who are able to take two courses per term for five or six consecutive terms may be able to graduate from these types of master’s programs in 12 to 16 months, depending on the number of credits/courses the program requires. Finally, there are programs that offer even shorter, four to five week terms designed to allow students to complete one course per term. These programs may offer eight to 12 terms per year.

In addition to term length, whether or not the program has a set sequence of courses and when those courses are offered may impact the time it takes to graduate from a master’s program. While it may technically be possible to complete a program’s curriculum in 12 months, the courses may not be offered in way that makes it possible to graduate in fewer than 15 to 18 months. In these situations, the time it takes to complete a master’s program curriculum may also depend on when students begin the program, as certain courses may only be offered during spring, summer, or fall terms.

Enrollment Options: One of the major factors that may impact the time to completion for a master’s program involves how many courses students take per term or semester. Some master’s programs have a set number of courses a student can enroll in per term, while others offer more flexibility, allowing students to take as few as one or as many as four or five course per term. This accounts for the fact that rather than having a predetermined time to completion, many master’s programs suggest a range of likely completion times, such as 20 to 28 months. There are also programs that simply cap the number of years a student may take to earn their degree, usually at five or six years, although some programs allow up to eight years. This is particularly common among master’s programs that are designed to accommodate students who intend to continue working while earning their degree.

Internship, Practicum, and Field Education Requirements: Many master’s programs, particular those in clinical fields, require students to complete a certain number of supervised hours in a professional or practice-based environment. These are credited hours that count toward the program’s graduation requirements, but they take place outside of the classroom and may involve commuting to a clinical site, a business, an agency, or some other place of professional practice. While internship, practicum, and field education requirements don’t necessary extend the time to completion for a master’s program, students who are unable to complete clinical hours during summer and winter breaks may take more time to graduate than student who are able to do so.

Researching Master’s Degree Options

In addition to crediting requirements, program structures, and internship/fieldwork components, there are a number of other issues that potential applicants to master’s programs may find useful to consider. The factors, which are phrased a questions below, may impact the time to completion for a master’s degree program.

Does the program have programmatic accreditation?

There are two basic types of accreditation: institutional accreditation and programmatic accreditation. Institutional accreditation is provided by regional boards that are officially recognized by the US Department of Education to assess institutional aspects of colleges and universities in order to ensure they meet certain minimum standards. Programmatic accreditation applies to particular fields of study and is administered by specialized accreditation bodies, such as the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), the Council for the Accreditation of Counseling & Related Programs (CACREP), and the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB International). Programmatic accreditation is typically a voluntary process and program may choose not to apply for programmatic accreditation. However, in fields that require professional licensure or certification, graduating from an accredited program may be required, and some employers may prefer to hire candidates who hold a master’s degree from an accredited program in a particular field. Programmatic accreditation can affect the minimum time to completion for a master’s program in certain fields because some accrediting bodies require programs to include a certain number of credit hours in particular subject areas and/or a certain number of supervised clinical or professional internship hours.

Is the master’s program in a field for which professional licensure is required or advantageous?

Students earning a master’s degree in a field that may require state licensure, such as nursing, social work, and education, may have to complete certain courses and/or a certain number of hours of supervised clinical or professional work as part of their master’s program in order to qualify for licensure. This is an important factor to consider when researching master’s programs, and a factor that can impact the time it may take to complete a master’s program in these fields.

Is the master’s program offered online, on campus, or in a hybrid format?

In addition to traditional, campus-based master’s programs, which may require students to relocate or commute in order to attend classes, there are many fields in which master’s programs are offered entirely or mostly online. There are also “hybrid” or “blended” master’s programs that provide a mix of online and campus-based instruction. While there are many factors to consider when weighing the relative benefits of online vs. campus-based courses, students who are concerned about the time it will take to complete a master’s program may want to take into account the time they may spend traveling in order to attend classes at a school’s campus. The convenience of an online master’s program can be one among many factors that may allow a motivated, self-disciplined student to earn a master’s degree in less than two years. And, for students who are balancing work, family, and school commitments, the flexibility afforded by an online or partially online program may be advantageous, even if it does not significantly reduce the time it takes to graduate from the program.

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