How Long Does it Take to Complete a Master’s Degree Online?

With 33 percent of employers now hiring master’s degree holders for positions once filled by workers with bachelor’s degrees, many professionals are finding a graduate degree crucial for upskilling in their careers. Online degree programs increase your opportunity for career advancement by allowing you to fit courses around work and personal or family obligations.

If you’re considering an online degree, you will no doubt have questions about what to expect from remote learning. How long does it take to get an online degree? and How do you find a graduate program that aligns with your goals? are common questions asked by prospective online learners.

Fully online and hybrid programs offer varying degrees of flexibility, so you should consider the program requirements and your personal availability when comparing schools. Virtual courses save you time and allow you to attend out-of-state schools without relocating, but they can be just as demanding as a traditional master’s degree program. Between weekly lectures, deep-dive discussions, and thought-provoking research projects, a graduate-level curriculum truly puts your time management skills to the test. By understanding how online programs are structured, you can learn how to get a degree online on a schedule that works for you.

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How long does it take to earn an online master’s degree?

An online master’s degree usually takes two to three years to complete, depending on the credit requirements and the pace of the coursework.

The average master’s degree program will require 36 to 48 credits, but they can range anywhere from 30 to 72 credits. The number of courses you take each semester will determine how quickly you complete these requirements.

If you’re able to transfer credits from another program, you can shorten the time frame to earn your degree. Likewise, those who pursue their education full time will fulfill these requirements quicker than someone who is pursuing it part-time.

You should also consider whether a degree program has mandatory components that could extend beyond the initial coursework, such as an internship or thesis. If you choose to work on your independent project beyond the recommended duration, it will take longer to graduate. Most colleges give students between five and seven years to finish a degree program in its entirety.

Factors to Consider When Planning Your Online Education

1. Number of Credit Hours

When planning your education, think about the amount of time you have available each week to focus on your studies. Credit hours are a measure of the amount of classroom instruction you must receive to earn one credit, and each course is usually worth three to four credit hours. In a 16-week semester, a three-credit course amounts to around 48 hours of instruction. Factor in the added demands of research and assignments to get a clear picture of how much time you’ll need to devote to each course. Due to the high level of engagement expected in grad school, it’s common for working students to take only two courses per semester.

While accredited programs cover similar material, every institution can decide how to structure the curriculum. As a result, you’ll discover wide variation in the number of credit hours required to graduate based on the college and the subject matter. For example, a 2015-2016 U.S. News survey of online graduate programs indicated that the most frequent completion time for students in business and MBA programs was two years, while students in more technical fields, such as nursing and engineering, were more likely to finish in three years.

2. Full- or Part-Time Study

The pace of your coursework is the biggest factor in how long it takes to obtain your master’s degree. Full-time students who aren’t working are often able to manage four courses per semester, or 12 credit hours. At this pace, you could complete a 36-credit program in 18 months and a 48-credit program in two years. As a part-time student completing two courses per semester, or six credit hours, the same program would require between three and four years of study.

Think about your goals and individual learning style when choosing the right enrollment option. If you enjoy the convenience of participating in online courses wherever and whenever you like, then full-time study at an online university may be just as manageable as part-time enrollment in an in-person program. Accelerated programs are a good option if a master’s degree is an entry-level requirement for your career and you don’t plan to take any time off between degrees.

3. Specific Program Requirements

Most master’s degree programs have some form of final project, such as a thesis, to gauge your ability to apply the skills and concepts you’ve learned in addressing a real-world challenge. Your field of study determines the type of project and how it will affect the duration of your studies.

For instance, business, social services, and communications degree programs often include a capstone project that lasts several weeks in your final semester. Capstone projects are guided by your personal interests and based on whatever theories you decide to research in depth. The final semester is usually devoted to this project, but you have the option to work on it for a longer period of time to thoroughly develop your ideas.

Some master’s degree programs require you to gain professional experience through internships or clinical studies in order to earn your degree. The good news is institutions typically help with placement and award course credit for internships. However, many colleges don’t allow you to use your current job to fulfill this requirement even if you work in a related industry. You may need to set aside several months to complete an internship, which can be challenging for busy students who are juggling other commitments.

4. Balancing Personal and Professional Commitments

Personal distractions are a common source of unexpected delays in your education. Whether you’re raising a family, caring for relatives, or juggling work duties, it’s essential to build coursework into your routine. Once you fall behind on assignments, you may be tempted to procrastinate more and more, until you eventually put off getting your degree altogether. Try to avoid this outcome by choosing a program that’s an academic fit for your career goals.

Compare degree programs by weighing your current knowledge and career level against the curriculum difficulty and required credit hours. Enrolling in a shorter 30-credit program may make sense if you already have extensive experience in some of the topics covered in longer programs. That way, you can invest in only the amount of education you need. If your employer is supportive of your education, try to negotiate a flexible work arrangement that frees up more time for studying. Maybe, you can adjust your shifts, arrange to work remotely a few days a week, or get permission to view lectures online during downtime.

Designed to Fit Your Schedule

Online master’s degrees are an excellent option for anyone who would like to pursue a graduate education but needs added flexibility. While there are certain hard dates and deadlines throughout most online programs, they are generally designed to be flexible enough to allow you to learn at the time and pace that fits your schedule.

For those with aggressive career goals who can commit more time to their studies, it may be possible to complete an online master’s program in as little as one and a half to two years. Those who need to work while pursuing their education, or who are balancing other responsibilities, can learn at a slower pace that allows them to meet the requirements of the degree more gradually. In selecting a program to enroll in, seek those that you know will support your schedule and your goals.