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Full Speed Ahead: Earning a Master's Degree

written by: William Springer•edited by: Amanda Grove•updated: 5/19/2011

Thinking about going to grad school, but not sure how long it will take? Read on to learn how to estimate the time that will be required for a master's degree.

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    No Right Answer

    How long does it take to get a masters degree? This tends to be highly variable, depending on the area, the amount of preparation a student has, and the amount of time the student is able to put in. Two years is the average, but it's not at all unusual to take more time than that.

    I somehow managed to complete my masters degree in one year, but do not recommend that course for everyone as the required workload is quite exhausting!

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    Graduate Classes are Hard!

    On the surface, it would seem as if a masters degree would normally take about a year. After all, it generally works out to about 30How long does a master's degree take?  semester hours, which is two semesters for a full time student.

    However, once you get to graduate school, this is no longer true. While an undergraduate attending full time will normally take twelve to fifteen credit hours per semester, graduate classes tend to be considerably more difficult, and so it's rare for a grad student to take more than two or three classes in a single semester. Additionally, the master's thesis often requires more time, as you have to come up with a topic, have it approved, and then actually write what for most students will be the longest and most complicated paper of their academic careers.

    As a result, students will generally take about 9 hours per semester, which allows for finishing the degree in three to four semesters, although many end up taking more time.

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    Outside Work: Will You Be Concentrating on School?

    While school is the full time job of many undergraduates, most master's (and PhD) students work during the day, either in a regular job or as a teaching or research assistant for the school. As a result, it's not uncommon for people to be working towards the degree only part time; if taking only one class per semester, it can take as long as five years to complete the degree.

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    Combined Programs: Two Degrees in One!

    Some programs allow students to work towards several degrees at once. For example, students may be on a five-year plan which leads to both a bachelor's and a masters degree, or a five-year plan that leads to both a master's and a PhD. In either case, the time period for the master's is one year in addition to what would normally be required for the other degree, but classes are structured in such a way as to reduce the total amount of time spent.

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    So How Long?

    So how much time should you expect to spend on your master's degree? At the lower end, generally it will take at least a year; the average is two. As to the upper limit? It depends on your university; most will have a restriction (generally 10 years) as to how long a course can count towards graduation, after which time the class would have to be taken again for credit. However, a motivated student should generally be able to complete the degree within three years.