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You Will Call Me Master...
What is a masters degree? A master's is the lowest level of graduate study, and requires the completion of a bachelor's degree before beginning (although there are some five-year programs that allow students to work on a bachelors and a masters simultaneously). While a bachelor's degree is meant to provide the student with a well rounded education, a masters allows one to study one particular area in depth.
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While students are fairly constrained in what classes they can count towards an undergraduate degree, student pursuing graduate study can, for the most part, apply any graduate-level course they're interested in towards the degree. As a result, they can focus largely on the particular areas of the field that interest them. The flip side of that is that, because students have more choice over what to take (rather than ending up in courses simply because they're required), professors expect more from them. Indeed, graduate courses are exponentially harder than undergraduate courses, for several reasons: they tend to move faster (as they can be taught to the level of someone who is interested in the subject and passionate about learning, rather than to the level of someone who has to pass the class to graduate) and assignments tend to require more creative thinking rather than regurgitation of information; tests may even ask mostly questions that students have never seen before, requiring them to use the information they've learned in new ways.
As a result of this, a full load for graduate students tends to be 9 semester hours (compared to 12-15 for undergraduates) and they generally take no more than two classes (plus dissertation or seminar credit) each semester.
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A master's program generally either requires a thesis, or provides for a choice between a thesis and a project. What is a masters degree thesis? Unlike a PhD Dissertation, it often does not require original research (although it can); rather, the point is to demonstrate an ability to collect and process information As such, the student must choose a problem and become an expert on that problem, eventually providing a paper that contains a thorough review of the relevant literature. Doing this prepares one for the literature review section of the PhD thesis, including the process of reading academic papers and finding correct and relevant citations.
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Why Get a Masters Degree?
In general, there are three reasons why one might want to earn a masters degree. The first is simple: desire to learn more about a topic. While someone able to be successful in graduate study most likely has the ability to learn the material on his or her own, outside of classes, going back to school provides access to other students and to professors who are often the leading researchers in their fields. The second reason is to advance one's career; while the bachelor's degree is now the de facto entry-level degree to qualify for most positions, there are a number of better-paying jobs that require a master's. Finally, the successful completion of a masters degree qualifies one to go on to earn a PhD in the field, a necessity for doing research or becoming a professor.