A master's degree provides a mastery or high-order overview of a specific field of study or area of professional practice. Within the area studied, graduates possess advanced knowledge of a specialized body of theoretical and applied topics; high order skills in analysis, critical evaluation and/or professional application; and the ability to solve complex problems and think rigorously and independently.
The master of arts (magister artium) and master of science (magister scientiæ) degrees are the basic degree types in most subjects, and they may be course-based, research-based, or (more typically) a mixture of the two. A dissertation may or may not be required, depending on the program. There are various degrees of the same level, such as engineer's degrees, which have different names for historical reasons.
There has recently been an increase in programs leading to these degrees in the United States; more than twice as many such degrees are now awarded as compared to the 1970s.
In some languages, a master's degree is called a magister, which is Latin for master (teacher), and magister or a cognate can also be used for a person who has the degree. Some universities use the Latin degree names, and because of the flexibility of word order in Latin, artium magister (A.M.) or scientiarum magister (S.M.) may be used; Harvard University and the University of Chicago for instance, use A.M. and S.M. for their master's degrees and MIT uses S.M. for its master of science degrees. Master of Science often is abbreviated MS or M.S. in the United States, and MSc or M.Sc. in Commonwealth nations and Europe.
There are a range of pathways to the degree, with entry based on evidence of a capacity to undertake higher degree studies in the proposed field. The master's is usually offered at a postgraduate level, although it is also offered as an undergraduate degree. Some university programmes provide for a joint bachelor's and master's degree after four or five years.
In the recently standardized European System of higher education (Bologna process), a master's degree corresponds to a one- or two-year postgraduate program (60 to 120 ECTS credits) undertaken after at least three years of undergraduate studies. It provides higher qualification for employment or prepares for doctoral studies. In general, though, the structure and duration of a program of study leading to a master's degree will differ by country and by university:
In countries in which a master's degree is a postgraduate degree, admission to a master's program normally requires holding a bachelor's degree (in the United Kingdom an 'honours' bachelor degree), although relevant work experience may qualify a candidate. Progressing to a doctoral program sometimes requires that the candidate first earn a master's degree. In some fields or postgraduate programs, work on a doctorate begins immediately after the bachelor's degree, but the master's may be earned along the way, as a result of the successful completion of coursework and certain examinations. In some cases the student's bachelor's degree must be in the same subject as the intended master's degree, or in a closely allied discipline; in others, the subject of the bachelor's degree is unimportant.
In some European countries, a magister is a first degree and may be considered equivalent to a modern (standardized) master's degree (e.g., the German university Diplom/Magister, or the similar 5-year diploma awarded in several subjects in Greek, Spanish, Italian, Polish, and other universities and polytechnics).
In the Francophone countries, a DEA is the postgraduate degree and considered equivalent to the master's degree (e.g., in France and the French-speaking Belgium, a DEA is a one- to two-year degree taken after the Licence), after the application of Bologna process, the DEA had been given a new name: MAS (Master of Advanced Studies).
In Denmark the title candidatus or candidata (female) abbreviated cand. is used as a masters equivalent. Upon completion of for instance, a engineral masters degree, a person becomes cand.polyt. (polytechnical). Similar abbreviations, inspired by latin, applies for a large number of educations, such as sociology (cand.scient.soc), economics (cand.polit. or cand.oecon), law (cand.jur) etc. A cand. title requires the obtainment of a bachelors degree. In Sweden, the title of kand. equivalates to a bachlors degree.