Earning Your Master’s Online: How to Choose the Right Program

The decision to get a master’s degree may be easy, but choosing an online program may be a tougher task. This step-by-step guide breaks down the decision-making process and provides key tips and resources to help you move forward with confidence.

Earning your master’s degree is a major step in your educational journey and one that can lead to promotions, opportunities for leadership roles, higher career satisfaction, and a higher salary. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, holding a master’s degree, as opposed to a bachelor’s only, can lead to an average salary increase of roughly 20%.

Even with all the rewards that can come with earning a master’s degree, when choosing the right master’s degree and school, you’ve got several factors to take into consideration. With online master’s degrees more available and popular than ever, you may be choosing not only the type of degree and specialty, but the merits of in-person, hybrid, or online programs and full- or part-time study.

To find the program that’s right for you, you’ll need to research different programs, including faculty members, course offerings, and how they fit into your personal and financial goals. Read on to learn how to pick the master’s degree program that’s right for you.

10 Steps to the Right Online Master’s

While deciding on an online or in-person master’s program takes some thought, breaking it down into steps can make the process more manageable and clarify exactly what you’re looking for from a master’s degree. This can include setting personal goals, taking account of relevant factors in your life that might impact your master’s degree studies such as your budget, your family life, and any current job you might have, and figuring out what your top priorities from a program are.

Here’s a step-by-step breakdown of how to choose which master’s programs to apply to.

  1. Set Goals and Determine Your Path to Achieve Them

    Consider why you want a master’s degree to begin with. Do you want to get a promotion and increase in salary at your current job, or do you want a new career altogether? Do you have a specific dream job you’re hoping your master’s will lead to, or are you considering an eventual Ph.D. and want your master’s to be the first step towards a doctorate?

    Once you’ve determined your goals, consider what skills and qualifications you’ll need to achieve them. For instance, if you want to be a social worker, you’ll likely need to obtain a master’s of social work (MSW), before you can become licensed.

  2. Decide on Your Degree and Specialization

    Once you’ve figured out what you want to achieve from your master’s degree studies, it should be relatively easy to decide on what types of programs you should apply to. Still, even within certain programs, you may want to pursue a specialization. For example, a student pursuing a master’s in public policy (MPP) may be hoping to work in state and local government and will want to find a program that is particularly strong in that area.

    Finding a specialization can help narrow your focus to specific schools within the broader type of degree you’re interested in.

  3. Determine Your Budget

    Deciding how much you can afford to pay for your master’s degree program is different for everyone. Some people have set aside a certain amount for postgraduate study in their savings, while others plan to work part-time to help finance their studies. There are a variety of student loans, both federal and private, that you will likely be eligible for.

    Your current and potential future earnings, any financial obligations or dependents you have, and how much debt you’re comfortable taking on will all impact your budget. Remember, while scholarships are guaranteed, there may be opportunities to help ease your financial burden.

  4. Research Potential Schools

    While there are several master’s programs offered by many schools, specialized courses and concentrations within a degree may only be available through a small number of universities and online programs. If you’re looking for a more specialized program, do some research to find out which schools offer it, whether they’re state universities or private institutions, and which are the most highly regarded within your field.

    Be sure you also check which schools are within your budget. Most schools will have the cost of attendance on their websites. You can use the search feature to find this information. Your research will also help you determine what the reputation of the programs are at the schools you can afford.

  5. Look at Mode of Learning Options and Program Length

    Do you want to get your degree fast? Or is a slower pace better for you. What’s your learning style? Do you need face-to-face instruction to grasp complicated material, or do you learn better when you work according to your own schedule? These are important factors to consider when looking at different programs. For students whose preferred mode of learning is visual, a program that relies heavily on listening to lectures may be a bad fit, while a student who excels in auditory learning may thrive there.

    Program length is also a factor to bear in mind when choosing between full- or part-time study. Master’s programs can be anywhere from a single intensive year to several years of part-time study. The length of time that’s best for you will depend on your own goals and circumstances.

  6. Think About Location

    There’s a reason people say location is so important–because it is. That holds true for master’s programs as well. If you’re considering an in-person program, the location of the school is crucial. If you’re considering an online master’s, even if there’s an in-person component, the location of the school is less important.

    If you’re looking at in-person programs, consider whether you’ll need to move to the area to attend the school. If it’s a state school, being a state resident means that you’ll be paying substantially cheaper in-state tuition, although how long you have to have lived in-state to qualify as a resident can vary from state to state.

  7. Determine Which Programs are Most Aligned with Your Goals

    Once you’ve narrowed your search based on cost, location, degrees offered, and mode of learning, you’ll need to dig into the schools at the top of your list. Take your time here, because you’ll need to delve deep into the details of any school or specific program you’re considering applying to. This can include looking over the school’s website, browsing the course catalog of the program you’re considering, calling the school and talking to an admissions representative, and more.

    Once you’ve looked over each school, consider how close of a match it is with what you’re hoping to gain from your master’s. If it’s not well-aligned, you can drop it from consideration. If it’s a fit, it stays on the list. You may want to use a spreadsheet or some other way to keep track of each school you review and compare them all.

  8. Be Realistic About Your Odds of Acceptance

    While many prospective graduate students have a “dream school,” applying to a master’s program is similar to applying to college, in that you need to be aware of your odds of acceptance at different programs before you apply.

    This is an area where your research may have surprising results. Some schools heavily value prospective student’s undergraduate grades, while others are more interested in work experience after undergrad, or test scores on the GRE or another standardized test. See what the schools you’re considering look for in a student, and how this aligns with your record.

  9. Compare Funding Options

    With budget in mind, it’s important to remember that funding can look very different at different schools. Not only are there questions of in-state vs out-of-state tuition at state schools, but many schools, both public and private, offer different scholarship opportunities or work-study and graduate assistant programs to help offset the cost of tuition.

    Be sure to research funding opportunities at the schools you’re considering, and if particular schools have opportunities you qualify for, like scholarships for first-generation students or historically marginalized groups. They can mean the difference of whether or not your program falls within your budget.

  10. Narrow Down Your List and Apply

    After all these factors have been taken into account, you should be able to create a list of schools you want to apply to. Much like some students do with their undergrad applications, you should try to consider programs that are “likely, match, and reach” in terms of your odds of acceptance. While the length of your list will vary depending on a few factors, including time and budget, try to apply to several schools, including at least one you think you’re likely to be accepted to, to avoid disappointment or putting all your eggs in one basket.

Other Factors to Consider

While the steps above may help you determine which programs to apply to, there are practical considerations, as well as academic ones, to keep in mind before making any hard-and-fast decisions.

Some factors will be about the program itself, others about how attending it will impact your future. Your personal priorities and preferences will play a strong role. Below are a few extra factors to consider when applying to and eventually choosing a master’s degree program. Have a look at a few extra considerations to keep in mind

Accreditation

It’s vital to choose an accredited master’s program. This means that a recognized third- party accreditation body recognized by the U.S. Department of Education has determined that the program and the school offering it meet certain standards of both rigor and accuracy. This legitimizes your degree and means that employers and other schools will recognize your qualifications, which is especially crucial in many professions that require licensure.

Alumni Network & Job Prospects

For those who hope to use their master’s to advance their career, the job prospects after graduation are an important factor to consider. Look for concrete information that shows what kind of jobs graduates of this program secure in the years after graduation. In addition, a large and well-organized alumni network can be helpful for meeting people that can help you when you’ve finished your masters and are looking for a job and even beyond that.

Program Reputation

In addition to establishing legitimacy through accreditation, schools and programs also have different reputations. Some reputations are created through factors like historical prestige, while other relevant reputation builders include hard data like graduation rates, and soft qualities like variety of classes offered or whether the faculty includes famous experts in the field. Remember, even a less well-known school can have a program with a great reputation, and vice versa.

Specialties & Program Options

If you’re looking to specialize in a particular aspect of your field, it’s important to consider whether or not a program offers that specialty, and if so, whether the offerings are appealing. Some programs offer options to customize your field of study, including conducting original research, which can be a great opportunity to create your personal focus within your specialty.

Format

With more options for online learning than ever before, prospective students need to consider if they prefer to learn online or in person. Some programs offer a hybrid learning format for those who prefer a mixture of the two. In a hybrid program, you may attend some classes online and other program components in person. The amount of interaction with your fellow students, in a cohort or otherwise, is also something worth considering, especially in online programs where achieving a rapport with fellow students could be more challenging for some students.

Required Testing

Some graduate programs require standardized test scores before you apply. For many programs, this will be the GRE, although there are other specialized tests, like the GMAT, for business school. This can impact your school choice in a few ways. If you have weaker undergrad grades, it might be good to be able to show your improvement via a test score. However, students who suffer from test anxiety may prefer a test-free application.

Overall Costs

While most prospective master’s students will have considered their budget for tuition, it’s important to factor in overall costs. For in-person programs, this includes living expenses and the potential costs of moving. For any program, this can include the loss of income if you will be taking time away from a paid job in order to study. Some programs also have costs for materials, travel to conferences and events, and more.

Return on Investment

While it’s no secret that a master’s program is expensive, it’s important to consider if a given program is good value and a good investment. This can be measured financially, in terms of increased earning potential, or in terms of becoming qualified to pursue a meaningful and satisfying career path or to change careers. Since your master’s will be a major investment, it’s important to make sure it’s a wise one.

Still Not Sure? Ask Yourself These Questions

If you’re still considering several programs and just can’t seem to make up your mind, it’s time to ask yourself the following questions. This will help narrow down your list and ensure you feel confident in your decision, whatever choice you make.

Q1: Of all of the factors to consider, are there any that are more important to you overothers? If so, what are they and how can you rank your school options accordingly?

A: While you’ve had to consider several factors when researching your master’s program, your personal circumstances are likely to mean some factors should be weighed more heavily than others. For instance, if you’re hoping your master’s will lead to a career change, you’ll need to consider the alumni network and job prospects of your prospective schools closely. On the other hand, you may be on a tight budget, so pursuing an affordable master’s degree is your most important factor. Figuring out which of your priorities to give the most attention to can help narrow down a long list of program offers.

Q2: What does your gut tell you?

A: Your master’s program is more than just a qualification–it’s something you’ll be devoting substantial amounts of your time, energy, and financial resources to for a lengthy period of time. Your instincts are worth paying attention to when it comes to this endeavor. Even if a school has accepted you to a very prestigious program, if it doesn’t feel right, that may be a sign it’s not the best fit for you. By the same token, there might be a school you hadn’t given top priority to during early research, but something about it keeps drawing your eye. These hard-to-define factors can be telling about what your overall experience of a program may look like.

Q3. Are there any other schools you should be considering?

A: Feeling a little lost or underwhelmed with your list of programs? If there are no obvious favorites, it’s possible you aren’t looking in all the right places. Consider revisiting your search and potentially widening it to include schools that are further away or widen your net to look at a bigger mix of in-person and online programs. You may even want to look at programs with slightly broader or narrower focuses than what you originally had in mind, for example a general English literature program instead of specifically early American literature. The right school for you may just be one you hadn’t considered yet.

Q4. Can I handle the program requirements?

A: Prospective master’s students don’t only need to consider if they’re ready for the academic rigors of any given program, they’ll also need to consider the practical requirements of their course of study. In-person requirements may require students to move to another town or even another state, while online programs can be attended from anywhere, often at any time. Even synchronous portions of online programs are conducted through evening or weekend classes. You should also consider the hours per week needed to succeed in a program. This can help you decide between a full-time or a part-time master’s program. Figuring out if you can handle a program’s requirements is a personal question, with different answers for everyone.

Q5. How can I ensure my success in this program?

A: Given what a big investment a master’s degree is in terms of both time and money, it’s important you know what your plan will be once you begin your program. If there’s a school where it’s easiest or most straightforward to plan your pathway to success–through goal-setting, collaborating with classmates and instructors, managing your time, and more–then that school and program may be the best option for you. Remember, planning ahead doesn’t mean that your plans can’t change, but it sets you up for a much easier transition into your master’s.

Resources for Prospective Online Master’s Students

If you think you’re ready to start looking at and applying to online and/or in person master’s programs, it can help to know where to start doing your research. Below are a few resources to get you started in researching graduate programs, taking any necessary standardized tests, and beginning your applications.

  • Amazon Prime: Speaking of student discounts, Amazon Prime offers 50% off for students for the first six months, plus deals on music and streaming. This can be especially useful early in your master’s, as you can get free shipping on textbooks and other materials.
  • BrokeScholar: It’s no secret that grad school is expensive, and student life can mean scrimping. Thankfully, BrokeScholar can help. Their website not only has scholarship-finding resources, but up-to-date lists of student discounts and other money-saving tips for students.
  • CampusReel: Physically visiting in-person programs you’re interested in may fall out of your budget. If that’s the case, consider CampusReel, which provides student-made videos and virtual tours of schools across the country, to get a better idea of what it might be like to attend these programs.
  • HerCampus: One of the largest college lifestyle sites aimed at women, HerCampus has articles about all aspects of campus life, including finances, managing work and school with a social life, and more.
  • Intern Queen: Looking to take on an internship during your master’s? If so, Intern Queen has advice for you. From finding where to apply to preparing for your interview, this blog is a guide to all things internships to help you get a leg up.
  • LinkedIn: While people tend to associate LinkedIn with jobs rather than education, it can be a great place to connect with fellow students and alumni of your preferred program. If you plan to work while studying, a LinkedIn profile can help you get the job you want.
  • Millennial Money Man: A personal finance site focused on millennials and younger, Millennial Money Man can help you figure out your grad student budget while offering tips on how to maintain a source of income while studying to help offset the cost of your master’s.
  • Student Minds Blog: Grad school can be a stressful time for anyone. The blog Student Minds is well aware of that. It’s focused on mental health awareness from a student perspective. It’s vital to take care of your mental health and stay safe during school, so give them a read.
  • The FAFSA: When you’re thinking about how to finance your master’s degree, one of your first steps should be to fill out your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This form, designed by the U.S. Department of Education, can help you find subsidized loans, work-study, and grants to help finance your postgraduate education.
  • The GMAC Test site: Perhaps you’re considering an MBA or other business-related master’s. In that case, you may need to take the GMAT, so be sure to check out the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC) website, the official site for the GMAT which can get you started.
  • The GradCafe: Not only does The GradCafe provide admissions statistics from over 100 different graduate schools, they also have a forum where you can communicate with fellow prospective grad students, post questions, and more.
  • r/GradSchool: Another way to exchange tips, ask questions, and share your journey with current and prospective graduate students, r/GradSchool is a highly popular board on the social media platform Reddit. With over 340,000 members, someone is likely to have the answers you’re looking for.
  • The GRE: For those applying to programs that require a GRE score, be sure to check out the official GRE website, where you can choose a test day, register for the test, find materials to prep for the test, and check and send your scores.
  • The Princeton Review: Continuing with test prep, The Princeton Review is one of the largest test-prep companies around and offers online prep courses for any grad school standardized tests you may be looking to take. Prices vary, and they also publish physical prep books, so check which prep plan looks right for you.
  • U.S. News and World Report: Best Graduate Schools 2023: If you’re interested in prestigious programs, check out US News and World Report’s 2023 list of top graduate schools across the country. Remember that their criteria in defining “best” may not be the same as yours, so keep that in mind as you browse.

Interview with a Graduate Advisor

Dr. Anna Melissa Romualdez

We spoke with Dr. Anna Melissa Romualdez, who holds master’s degrees from Columbia University and University College London and now advises and supervises master’s students at University College London in psychology. In addition to working with graduate students, Dr. Romualdez is an autism researcher who specializes in issues of workplace accessibility. Dr. Romualdez speaks about her experiences as a master’s student and master’s advisor and gives advice for prospective master’s students.

Q. You hold two master's degrees. What drew you to those programs?

A: For the first program I did at Columbia University, it was the prestige of the institution, the fact that they had a master’s focused on Child Development, and the chance to live in New York. I already knew I wanted to focus on autism, but I thought that a program that would set me on the path toward becoming a developmental psychologist was the right one.

My second master’s was very different, as I had been working for five years as a teacher for autistic children before applying. There were two reasons for doing the second postgraduate degree: I wanted to specifically focus on speech, language, and communication needs for SEND students, and I wanted a program that would set me up nicely to pursue a Ph.D. in the United Kingdom. I chose this program because it was small (in terms of students in the cohort), highly specialized, and gave me the opportunity to study across two institutions, City University and UCL. In the end, it was an excellent decision, because I ended up doing a Ph.D. with the UCL professor who supervised my master’s dissertation.

Q. In supervising master's students, are there any qualities successful students seem to have in common?

A: Yes, and it has surprisingly little to do with how much they know about topics within psychology/education or how developed their research skills are. Instead, my most successful students have been those who really care about learning. These are the students who see their dissertation work as a chance to do semi-independent research and learn new skills, and not just as a requirement they need to complete to graduate. The best students I’ve taught have been those who are genuinely passionate about studying autism and becoming better practitioners or researchers as a result. Being able to problem-solve and think independently are both great qualities for students as well.

Q. Do you think there's ever a wrong reason to do a master's degree?

A: Certainly. I would say doing a master’s just because you think you have to is probably not a good reason. Also, remaining a student because you don’t want to face the job market yet is perhaps the wrong way to go about it. My advice is to do a master’s if you have real interest in learning more about something and making a career out of it, and you can clearly see how pursuing a higher degree will help you get there. Master’s degrees are expensive—only pursue one if it’s an investment with the real possibility of a pay-off!

Q. What would you say are some important considerations when choosing between a full or part time master's program?

A: Money is the biggest one. Are you financially capable of being a full-time student and not earning as much by working part-time or not at all? On the other hand, if you choose to go part-time with the degree and work full-time as well as study, can you juggle the workload? Part-time degrees also take at least twice as long to complete, so think about your timeline and how long you are willing to take to complete a degree. It might even make more sense to get it done quickly in a year or two and then go back to working full-time.

Q. Many students choose master's programs based on a specialty within their field. Is this something you'd recommend, or are students likely to find a specialty during their masters' studies?

A: I think by default, master’s programs are already pretty specialized, or at least they should be. For example, my students who do the master’s in autism already know they want to work with autistic people, but they do take some time during their program to decide whether they want to do that in a researcher or practitioner capacity. I think the specialization is something that you should have an idea of ahead of time—and use the time while pursuing the degree to decide on what kind of job you might like to do.

Q. What's the number-one piece of advice you'd give an undergraduate student who's just begun looking at master's programs?

A: A master’s degree is a commitment. It’s a lot of work and expense, and it means dedicating one to two years or more of your life to study. Only do it if you’re really serious about learning, and you’re convinced that this degree is necessary for the career you might want to pursue.