How Long Does It Take To Earn a Master’s Degree?

Is your career at a crossroads? If so, you’ve probably considered earning a master’s degree for career advancement and new opportunities. However, you might be worried about whether going back to school will affect your personal life.

Many people find themselves in this situation, but returning to school doesn’t mean you need to quit your job or put your life on hold. You can earn your master’s degree sooner than you might think due to the various enrollment options available to you.

Is getting a master’s degree worth it?

A big question that you may need to answer before deciding to get a master’s degree is whether it’s worth pursuing in the first place.

According to Statista, a total of 843,450 students were awarded a master’s degree in the United States between 2019 and 2020. This number is forecast to increase to 983,000 students between 2030 and 2031, proving that many professionals recognize the benefits of getting a master’s degree.

Benefits of a Master's Degree: 1. Specialized knowledge. 2. Career advancement. 3. Increased earning potential. 4. Lifelong learning. 5. Enhanced professional network

Research shows that one benefit of a graduate degree is the competitive advantage it offers applicants in the job marketplace. Earning a master’s degree not only positions you competitively for in-demand jobs but also fulfills the essential educational criteria for several careers in fields in education and healthcare.

In addition, master’s degree holders typically earn 20% more than bachelor’s degree holders over the course of their lifetimes due to their specialized knowledge, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

However, the amount of time to complete a master’s degree is a common deterrent for working adults. If the time commitment of grad school has prevented you from advancing your education, here’s a closer look at the factors that can impact your graduate school timeline.

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

On average, a master’s degree takes 1.5 to 2 years for full-time students to complete. There are many factors, however, that may increase or decrease the exact length of time from enrollment to graduation. For instance, students who take on a heavy course load may finish some master’s degree programs in as little as seven months, while part-time students in programs with many credit hours can take as long as seven years to earn their master’s degrees.

Here are some factors you should consider when determining how long it will take you to earn your master’s degree.

Number of program credits required

The first factor that will determine how quickly you can earn your master’s degree is the number of credit hours required to complete the program’s curriculum. Simply put, the more credit hours required, the longer the program will take. While the number of required credits ranges by degree and institution, most master’s degrees require the completion of 30 to 60 credit hours.

This number can have a significant impact on your length of study. A 30-credit hour Master of Science in Accounting program, for example, can be completed as quickly as seven months, while a 60-credit hour Master of Business Administration program will take at least two years, depending on your enrollment status and the number of courses you take each semester.

Particular program requirements can also extend the length of your graduate education. Programs that require a thesis, lab work, or independent research typically take more time to complete than programs without these types of requirements.

Enrollment status: Part time vs. full time

Some universities allow students to choose between part-time and full-time master’s programs, giving them the flexibility to decide how quickly they want to finish their education. Keep in mind, the more classes you take per semester, the more quickly you will finish.

It’s often necessary, however, for working professionals to enroll in a part time program when pursuing graduate-level coursework. Completing one class at a time allows students to better manage the time demands of work, family, and other commitments. When deciding between a part- or full-time program, remember that taking courses part time will increase the overall time it will take to complete your degree. Northeastern allows master’s degree students up to seven years from the first term of enrollment to complete their program.

What constitutes full-time versus part-time enrollment is defined by each individual institution, so be sure to examine your prospective university’s policy. Northeastern graduate programs, for example, define full-time students as individuals enrolled in at least nine (and up to 16) credit hours per quarter. Many of Northeastern’s programs also allow students to enroll part time, requiring that students take at least three credit hours per quarter to maintain their enrollment status.

Online learning options

Most full-time master’s programs expect students to complete their degree program requirements within three years, but as mentioned, traditional full-time enrollment might not be possible for everyone. Fortunately, many colleges and universities now offer a variety of online or hybrid learning options.

These graduate programs can vary in format; some may be offered 100% online, and others combine traditional on-campus learning with an online component. Among the other benefits of online learning, these nontraditional learning formats give students increased flexibility in where, how, and when they choose to complete their coursework.

For students who aren’t sure they have enough time to successfully complete graduate-level coursework on top of their existing commitments, these program formats can be a great option. Some students find that the flexibility of online courses allows them to take on a heavier course load than what would be possible if in-person attendance were required. Completing at least some coursework online can help students speed up their time to degree completion.

Accelerated master’s degree programs

If your goal is to earn your master’s degree as quickly as possible, an accelerated master’s degree program might be your best option. An accelerated master’s degree program allows you to receive dual course credit for coursework completed as an undergraduate, meaning a single class can count as credit toward both your undergraduate and master’s degree.

Accelerated programs work well for undergraduate students who already have a flexible schedule, prefer full-time enrollment, and want to complete their master’s degree quickly. Some programs, like Northeastern’s PlusOne Accelerated Masters, can help you finish your degrees sooner. Even though undergraduates have a limited number of dual credits that can be applied to a master’s degree, accelerated degree programs can shorten graduate study by an entire academic year.

Master’s degree readiness checklist

As you consider how long it will take you to earn your master’s degree, ask yourself these questions to determine if you’re ready to move forward:

  • Will this degree help me achieve my specific goals?
  • Is it feasible for me to enroll full time? Would I prefer the flexibility of a part-time program?
  • How much time can I commit to attending class and studying on a daily and weekly basis?
  • Does the program offer the options I need to balance work and family life?
  • Is there an online component to this degree?
  • Would I prefer on-campus or online classes?
  • Do I have family or household support?
  • What long-term time commitment am I willing to make in pursuit of this degree?

While it’s unnecessary to have every question answered before deciding, this checklist will help narrow down the program characteristics that are most important to you.

How hard is it to get a master’s degree?

As noted above, there are several questions you can ask yourself to determine if getting a master’s degree aligns with your career goals and aspirations. One of the reasons why professionals might hesitate to pursue a master’s degree is the notion that it will be too hard to earn it.

Graduate programs are challenging, so knowing what to expect is essential. After all, pursuing a master’s degree will involve high volumes of reading, writing, and researching in your field of study.

Work-life balance in graduate school

In addition to a rigorous workload, it’s also important to consider what balancing work, life, and graduate studies will look like for you. Managing these components well will require a strategic blend of time management, realistic goal setting, and a strong support network. Consider creating a structured plan that allocates specific time blocks for each responsibility to ensure that nothing is overlooked.

Open communication with employers and professors about your graduate studies is another way to help you with this balancing act. With support from your employer, you are more likely to find a sustainable rhythm that allows you to progress academically without sacrificing your job performance.

If you are passionate about what you are studying and constantly focus on your goal, pursuing a master’s degree will be a worthwhile experience.

What if I’m not ready for a master’s degree?

After answering the questions above, you may not feel quite ready to pursue your master’s degree. But what if you could obtain a competitive edge in your chosen field without having to commit to a master’s degree? The good news is that you can—by earning a graduate certificate.

Graduate certificates are an effective way to demonstrate your expertise in a particular field without enrolling in a traditional master’s degree program. Some colleges and universities, including Northeastern, offer a set number of courses as part of a stand-alone certificate program, while other institutions confer a graduate certificate once you’ve completed a portion of your master’s degree.

Northeastern’s graduate certificate programs range from six months to three years in length, depending on the number of credit hours required. The coursework completed in these graduate certificate programs can often be applied toward a related master’s degree, should you choose to pursue one later on.

Visual representation of graduate certificate vs master's degree.

Take the next step toward earning a master’s

It’s understandable that balancing academic responsibilities with an already busy schedule can be overwhelming. But remember, you can complete your master’s degree quickly even if work and family commitments are competing for your time.

Colleges and universities have program options that cater to working adults who want to take the next step in their career or even pursue a new one. Your graduate degree can be just around the corner if you take advantage of scheduling options available at your institution of choice.

By choosing the right institution and program, earning a master’s degree can be a realistic and achievable goal. Pursuing this degree can help you become a more skilled, knowledgeable, and competitive professional in your particular field. This is the perfect time to take a leap to enrich your career and, in turn, enhance your quality of life.

If you’re considering getting your master’s degree, check out our other helpful Grad School Advice articles, including: 

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in January 2019. It has since been updated for relevance and accuracy.