How Long Does It Take to Get Your Master’s Degree?

Students who want to earn their master’s degree often wish to do so because of the possibility of earning a higher salary. Research suggests that people with a master’s degree can earn an average of $17,000 more per year than with only a bachelor’s degree. That is a major reason that the number of master’s degrees issued has soared from 425,000 in 1996 to a projected 930,000 by 2022.

Still, only 3% of Americans earn their master’s degree. Choosing to do so puts you in a rare, elite group.

The salary possibilities are only one factor involved in earning a master’s degree, however. Earning a master’s degree takes time. How much? It depends upon many factors that we will discuss in this article.

Overview of Master’s Degree Timeline

According to data compiled recently by US News and World Report, the length of time it takes to complete a master’s degree depends upon:

  • The type of degree
  • The university
  • Whether you attend full or part time
  • Whether you can transfer credits into the program

Data that was provided to US News by schools in a yearly survey offers some helpful insights into exactly how long it takes to earn various online master’s degrees. The data it studied was compiled between July 2015 and June 2016. We have broken this data down per major type of master’s degree:


Two years was determined to be the most common duration of the typical online MBA program. The average three-year graduation rate was 62.7%.

An excellent example of an online MBA program is at the University of North Carolina. This program can be completed in as little as 18 months full time, and 36 months part time. Its total credit hours to complete is 66. Jump to Masters in Business Degree? + No GRE Options!

It is worth examining the MBA degree in more detail as it is such a popular choice. According to CBS News, the most popular master’s program in the US for men is in business management and administration, accounting for nearly 25% of master’s earned each year. For women, it also is the most popular, accounting for 11.4% of master’s degrees earned.

The MBA is very popular, thus universities have gone to great lengths to provide programs to fit a variety of schedules and experience levels. There are many flavors of MBA program that are intended to be completed in anywhere from one to as many as five years. The most common types of MBA programs are:

  • Full time MBA: Most full time MBAs will take two years to complete. In a traditional, campus based program, you can expect to attend classes during the week and on some weekends for two years. Most people who attend this type of MBA program do not work at all. Two year, full time MBAs were once the most common type, but other types of MBA programs are more widely available today.
  • Accelerated MBA: This is a variation of the full time, two year program. Students may attend courses either online or on campus in a compressed format. This usually means taking more classes per term, and attending classes all summer. An accelerated MBA may be completed in 12-18 months.
  • Distance learning MBA: This type of MBA is similar to an online MBA, but there are usually online classes combined with on campus classes on a regular basis. This type of MBA program will often have online classes during the week with weekend, in person classes once per month or so.
  • Online MBA: Fully online MBAs have all of their courses in distance format, with a few programs requiring campus meetings once per year or semester.
  • Executive MBA: This is a distance based or in person MBA program that is made for the business professional with 7-10 or more years of experience. This is usually a part time program that can be completed in 18-24 months.

Criminal Justice

Two years was the typical length of a full-time criminal justice master’s program. The average three year graduation rate was 62.6%.

A sample program is the online Master of Arts in Criminal Justice offered by Arizona State University. This program consists of 11 total classes that are 7.5 weeks each. The total credit hour load is 33. It is intended to be completed in 18 months full time, but can take approximately 2.5 years for a part time student. Jump to Masters in Criminal Justice + Online No GRE.


Two years was the most common length of a full time master’s in education. The average three year graduation rate was 61.9%.

A sample program is the online Master of Education at Liberty University. This program consists of 36 total hours. Going full time, the program would take approximately 1.5 to 2 years to complete. The school does allow you to transfer in up to 50% of program hours, if approved. This could reduce your time in school considerably if you have taken related courses at another university. Jump to Why Get a Masters in Education Degree.


Three years was the length of the typical online master’s in engineering full time. The average three year graduation rate was 55.4%.

A sample program in this discipline is the Master of Mechanical Engineering program at the University of Illinois. It is a fully online program that can be taken either full or part time. Students who attend full time may be able to complete the entire program in one year. The total amount of credits is 32. Jump to Get a Masters in Engineering + 3 No GRE Options


Three years was the duration of the typical online master’s in nursing, with an average three year graduation rate of 67.8%.

Chamberlain College offers a fully online Master of Science in Nursing that consists of 36 total credit hours. It is made to be completed in two years full time, although your clinical hours that are required may mean it takes up to three years to complete. Jump to Why Get a Masters in Nursing Degree?

Information Technology

The typical length of a master’s in information technology program is two years full time, and the average three year graduation rate was 54.3%.

There are a variety of online master’s programs in information technology, so the amount of time it takes to graduate varies. Western Governor’s University offers a Master of Science online in various technical disciplines, such as IT management, data analytics, and cybersecurity.

The cybersecurity master’s is very popular as this is a quickly-growing field. It is a total of 28 credit hours, and is designed to be complete in two years full time. Some students attend part time and take up to four years to complete the degree. WGU will allow students to transfer a limited number of credits, if approved. Jump to How to Get a Masters in Information Technology + No GRE!


The amount of time it takes the individual student to complete one of these master’s programs, of course, depends upon many specific factors. First, is there any flexibility in how many courses the student can take at one time? Some programs may only be offered full or part time, but others may have more options.

There are some programs where everything is laid out very clearly. For example, at North Carolina State University’s master’s in education program, it is established that each student will take two classes per semester. Thus you know that you will complete that degree in two years.

But other schools are not as rigid. Some programs will allow the student to choose how many courses they will take each semester. If you intend to go to school full time, below will provide you with a good idea of what to expect in terms of total time commitment.

Another major factor in the time it takes to earn the degree is transfer credits. All schools have varying policies about the number of credits that can be transferred in from another program. Ideally, you will want as many of your previous courses to transfer as possible. If you earned your degree more than a decade ago, you may have to retake some courses before you commence your master’s program. This can add a considerable time to the length of the program.

Length of a Typical Full Time Master’s Program

Using 2010 data, we learn that most master’s degrees at that time were awarded in education and business. In these fields, if the student already holds a related bachelor’s degree, the master’s degree can usually be completed in two years.

For example, if you are interested in earning your MBA, you should be able to wrap up that degree in two years if you have a bachelor’s in business or accounting. If you have a bachelor’s in a completely separate field, such as psychology, you may need to take some background business, accounting or statistics courses. This could add at least a semester to your program.

Not all students are able to devote all of their time to a master’s program, however. Most of us, after all, have work and personal obligations. But there are many excellent, online programs available today that are highly respected and accredited. This makes it easier for busy working professionals to earn their master’s degree in two years.

There also are other less common master’s programs, such as in the liberal arts, humanities and the natural sciences that may be completed in as little as one year and as long as four.

A full time master’s program could be for you if the following apply:

  • You can afford to not be working while you are in school. Or, you can work part time and still attend school on a full time basis.
  • You are ok with taking a break from your career for up to two years to complete your degree.
  • It is important for you to obtain your degree quickly so that you can get a promotion.
  • You want to complete the degree as quickly as you can. A good reason to do so is that tuition can go up every year when you are in a part time program. Most schools allow you to lock in your tuition rate when you are in a full time program.
  • You want to pay a flat rate. Most schools have a flat rate for full time coursework, whether you are taking 12 or 15 hours per semester.

Length of a Part Time Master’s Programs

Many online and on campus programs offer students the ability to earn their master’s degree on a part time basis. For example, an MBA program often requires the student to complete approximately 60 credit hours. This would take approximately four, full time semesters if you completed 15 hours each semester.

A student may opt to get this degree on a part time basis, meaning he takes seven or eight credits per semester. This would then take the student approximately four years to earn the same degree.

A part time master’s degree could be for you if the following apply:

  • You need to continue to work full time as you are going to school.
  • You are ok with taking several years to complete a degree that would probably take 18-24 months if you went full time.
  • You want to apply what you are learning in the classroom to your current job. Many MBA students find that this is a way that can help them to improve their on the job performance while in college.
  • You are in a master’s program where you need clinical or internship hours that you may be able to get at your current employer. Some nurses, for example, may get their required clinical hours for their master’s degree in their current hospital job.
  • Note that most part time master’s programs have a maximum amount of time that you can take to get your degree. A typical time limit is six or seven years.


As you are thinking about getting a master’s degree, it is wise to carefully consider your specific needs in terms of length of time in school. There are many individual factors in play as you determine the best program and duration for you.

Additional Resources