Earn an Online Master's Degree

As distance education explodes in popularity, online master's degrees are becoming more and more common. In addition to exclusively online private colleges, most traditional universities are now offering online master's programs.

If you're considering a master's degree but have scheduling limitations-perhaps a career or a family-you might want to look into an online master's degree. It can be a great way to continue your education or take your career to the next level.

Below you will find some crucial facts about online master's degrees and important questions you should ask yourself. Should you pursue your masters online or through traditional means? How can you find a respected online program that will be just as valuable on your resume as a traditional one? And can you secure financial aid or other funding for your master's education?

Why do I Want to Earn my Online Master's Degree?

If you're going to pursue an online master's degree, it's probably for a specific reason. You may have just earned your bachelors and want to continue your education while working. Or you may be well into your career and want to increase your qualifications and earnings potential.

In either case, it's important to know why you want to get your online masters degree. Will it actually help you reach your goal, or can you advance in your career with more education?

In some fields, you absolutely need a master's degree in order to advance to a certain level. It often means you will be making more money as well. If this is the case, think of your online master's degree as an investment in your career. You have to spend money to make money!

Is an Online Master's Degree Right for Me?

Online education isn't necessarily for everyone. You have to be a disciplined and self-motivated student who is capable of handling independent work. If you lack these traits, you may be more suited for a traditional master's program with physical attendance and a more structured workload.

For an online master's degree, you also need very strong reading and writing skills, as you will be asked to evaluate and respond to complicated texts. Your grades will be determined by these written assignments, as well as online discussion forums and exams. Verify That an Online Master's Program is Accredited

In a relatively new industry like online education, there is a fair amount of fraud out there. Some schools claim to be legit, but are nothing more than “diploma mills.” If an online school isn't properly accredited, your master's degree won't be worth much. Employers and other institutions of higher education won't recognize it.

If you're checking out an online master's program, make sure the school is accredited by a regional board. This will ensure that the school is meeting the necessary academic standards. Some online colleges receive accreditation by the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC), a national board. This is usually accepted by employers, but you may have trouble transferring credits to other colleges and universities.

How to Spot Quality in an Online Master's Program

Dig deeper and learn more about the quality of the education you will be receiving. If you already work in the field of study, ask your employer and colleagues about different schools. If you're completing your bachelor's degree, seek input from instructors and other students. Word-of-mouth is often the best way to gauge quality.

Look at some of the stats in an online master's program. What is the graduation rate? You want to be in a program that has a good history of student success. What is the ratio of teachers to students? Even though much of your work will be independent, you still want individual attention from instructors.

Help Outside the Classroom

Does the school provide tutors and/or mentors? If you're studying at the master's level, this will likely be a critical part of your education. Tutors can help you break down a complicated assignment and see it in a new light. Mentors can add real-world experience to your education and help you build networking connections within your field of study.

Also find out if your online college offers academic and/or career counseling. Academic counselors can help you plan the path to your master's degree, picking classes that are the best fit for you while fulfilling your major requirements.

Career counselors can help you land internships, jobs or promotions in your field. Some online colleges may even have strong ties to your industry and provide an alumni network, which can help immensely with career advancement.

Different Types of Online Master's Degrees

A Master of Arts degree (MA) is one of the more common online master's degrees. MA programs focus on the humanities, social sciences, fine arts or theology. MA programs typically take two years to complete, but may be longer if you are studying online at a slower pace. If you have advanced knowledge in a particular field of study, some colleges will award a degree based on proficiency testing.

A Master of Science degree (MS) is also very common. It focuses on physical and life sciences, business and technical fields. MS programs typically take two years and involve some amount of research and/or lab work. A student completing his or her MS degree is usually poised to enter the workforce, but some MS graduates go on to doctoral programs.

Aside from MA and MS degrees, some other online master's degrees include Master of Education (MEd), Master of Fine Arts (MFA), Master of Health Administration (MHA) and Master of Business Administration (MBA), which is the most popular online master's degree in the United States.

Not All Online Master's Degrees are Completely Online

Because a master's degree requires in-depth instruction in a complex field of study, many online programs require a certain amount of physical attendance in a classroom. This is known as a residency requirement.

If your online master's degree has a residency requirement, make sure you live close enough and are able to fulfill it. Here is a breakdown of the different types of residency requirements.

No residency means that the online master's degree can be earned completely online. All coursework will be conducted on the internet, with the exception of exams. In most programs, written exams are administered by a licensed proctor.

Limited Residency means that you'll have to take part in seminars from time to time. These seminars are usually on weekends, nights or during the summer. In some programs, the seminars will last a week or two.

Substantial Residency means that you will have to attend regular semester classes at some point in your online master's program. Certain classes simply don't translate to the online environment. This may be due to the technical or hands-on nature of the work. Most online master's degrees that have substantial residency require one or two semesters-worth of physical classroom attendance.

Paying for an Online Master's Degree Program

Remember, an online master's degree is an investment in your career. But it can be an expensive investment. With online education you can't take advantage of student fellowships, which often subsidize tuition for a traditional master's program.

But you may be eligible for other financial aid, including loans, grants and private scholarships. Do some online research and talk to admissions counselors to see what is available through your online college.

If you see your online master's degree as a career investment, then perhaps your employer will as well. Many companies subsidize the education and training of its employees. The flexibility of online education has made this even more common. Be sure to talk to your employer about covering some or even all of the cost of your online master's degree.

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