How many credits is a typical Masters Degree?

Quick Answer

A typical master’s degree requires 30-60 semester credits or 45-90 quarter credits, with most programs falling in the range of 30-36 semester credits. This usually equates to 1-2 years of full-time study beyond a bachelor’s degree.

What is a Credit Hour?

A credit hour represents the equivalent of one hour of classroom instruction per week over the course of a semester, which is typically 15 weeks long. Most courses are worth 3 credit hours, meaning they include 3 hours per week of lectures, discussions, labs, or other activities.

Some key facts about credit hours:

  • 1 semester credit hour = 15 hours of instructional time
  • 1 quarter credit hour = 10 hours of instructional time
  • Most courses are 3 credits
  • A full-time course load is typically 12-15 credits per semester

So a 3-credit course would involve 45 hours of instructional time over a 15 week semester (3 hours x 15 weeks).

Typical Credit Requirements

While requirements vary by program, here are some general credit guidelines for master’s degrees:

  • Research/thesis-based master’s: 30-36 semester credits
  • Course-based/non-thesis master’s: 30-36 semester credits
  • MBA: 36-60 semester credits
  • MFA (arts): 36-60 semester credits
  • M.Ed (education): 30-36 semester credits
  • MSW (social work): 36-60 semester credits

So a typical course-based master’s will require around 30-36 credits, while more extensive programs like an MBA or MFA may be up to 60 credits.

Research-based master’s programs with a thesis requirement tend to be on the lower end of the range, around 30 credits, since part of the program involves working on a thesis. Course-based programs without a thesis have students take more courses to make up the credit requirements.

In some cases, a bachelor’s degree and relevant experience may allow a student to waive up to 6 credits of foundation coursework in a master’s program. This can slightly reduce the overall credits required.

Typical Course of Study

While each program is different, here is an example of a typical 2-year, 36-credit master’s degree course of study:

Year 1

  • Semester 1: 3 courses (9 credits)
  • Semester 2: 3 courses (9 credits)

Year 2

  • Semester 1: 2-3 courses (6-9 credits)
  • Semester 2: 2-3 courses + thesis/capstone project (6-9 credits)

As shown, students take around 9 credits per semester, or a full-time course load, allowing them to complete the degree in 2 years. The final semester may involve a master’s thesis or capstone project.

Some programs front-load most of the coursework into the first year, followed by the thesis in year 2. Others spread out the courses evenly over the 2 years.

Factors ThatInfluence Credit Requirements

Several factors account for the variation in credit requirements among master’s degree programs:

  • Field of study – STEM and social science degrees tend to require more credits than humanities or arts programs.
  • Thesis vs. non-thesis – Thesis-based programs usually require fewer credits since part of the work involves independent research.
  • School standards – Some universities or departments have standardized credit requirements.
  • Accreditation – Accrediting bodies may set benchmarks for minimum credits required.
  • Full-time vs. part-time – Full-time programs typically call for more credits per semester.
  • Tuition costs – More credits mean more tuition, so schools may try to limit requirements.

These factors help explain why credit totals are not identical across all master’s degrees. But the majority fall in the 30-36 credit range for course-based programs.

Are There Alternatives to Credit-Based Master’s Degrees?

While most master’s degrees are based on completing a set number of credit hours, some alternatives are emerging that do not rely exclusively on credits. Some examples include:

  • Competency-based programs – These assess student mastery of competencies through projects and assessments, rather than time spent in courses.
  • Self-paced programs – Students progress at their own pace by passing assessments until they demonstrate mastery of all program competencies.
  • Executive-style programs – Offered for working professionals and focused more on real-world applications rather than credits.
  • MicroMasters/course bundles – Allow students to take a set of online courses before applying credits toward a full master’s degree.

While these represent more flexible approaches to earning a master’s, credit hours are still the predominant system used in graduate education today. Even competency-based programs usually equate competencies to some minimum number of equivalent credit hours.

Typical Credit Range by Degree

Here is an overview of the typical credit range required for common master’s degrees:

Degree Typical Total Credits
MA (humanities, social sciences) 30-36 credits
MS (sciences, engineering) 30-36 credits
MBA 36-60 credits
MFA 36-60 credits
MHA (health admin) 36-60 credits
MPA (public admin) 36-60 credits
M.Ed (education) 30-36 credits
MSW (social work) 36-60 credits

As shown, most master’s fall in the 30-36 credit range, with a few professional degrees extending up to 60 credits. But the majority of programs will require 2 years of full-time study and 30-36 semester credits to complete.

How Long Does it Take to Complete a Master’s Degree?

Most full-time students complete a master’s degree in 1-2 years. Here is a breakdown:

  • 1 year: accelerated programs, lighter credit load (e.g. 30 credits)
  • 18 months: intensive course of study with higher credit load
  • 2 years: typical timeframe for most master’s students
  • 3-4 years: extended timeframe for part-time students

So while 2 years is standard, it may take longer if studying part-time, but can be accelerated to just 1 year with a heavy course load or streamlined curriculum.

The key factors influencing duration are the total number of credits required, enrollment status (full-time or part-time), and pace of study.

Students should select a program that fits their timeframe – whether aiming to finish quickly in 12 months, or needing a more relaxed pace. Most master’s are flexible for either full-time or part-time study.

How Many Classes Do You Take Each Semester for a Master’s Degree?

For full-time students, a typical semester course load during a master’s program is:

  • 3-4 classes (9-12 credits)
  • 1-2 classes (3-6 credits) if also working on a thesis

Part-time students generally take:

  • 1-2 classes (3-6 credits) per semester

Factors that influence the number of classes per semester include:

  • Degree requirements and total credits needed
  • Pace of study: full-time vs. part-time
  • Enrollment in a thesis, internship, or capstone project
  • Tuition costs and budget constraints
  • Ability to balance school with work or family life

While a full course load is roughly 4 classes or 12 credits, taking fewer classes allows students to focus and perform well academically. It’s important to not overburden yourself each semester.

Is There a Minimum Credit Requirement for Federal Financial Aid?

To receive federal financial aid, graduate students generally must enroll at least half-time. Here are the minimum credit requirements:

  • Full-time: 9-12 credits per semester
  • Half-time: 4-6 credits per semester

So federally backed loans, grants, assistantships, and work-study require at least half-time enrollment of 4-6 credits. Students should factor this in when deciding how many classes to take each semester.

Some other key considerations for financial aid:

  • Requirements may vary for certain university or private scholarships and grants
  • Doctoral students have higher minimum credit requirements for federal aid
  • Veteran’s benefits also have minimum credit thresholds
  • Always check with your school’s financial aid office for exact policies

Taking at least 4 graduate credits per semester is advisable for qualifying for financial assistance. But double check specific aid program rules.

What’s the Difference Between Semester and Quarter Credits?

Schools use either semester credits or quarter credits depending on the academic calendar system:

  • Semester credits – 1 semester = 15 weeks of instruction
  • Quarter credits – 1 quarter = 10 weeks of instruction

Since semesters are longer, each semester credit represents more instructional hours than a quarter credit.

Here is how semester and quarter credits generally convert:

  • 1 semester credit = 15 instructional hours
  • 1 quarter credit = 10 instructional hours
  • 1 semester credit = 1.5 quarter credits
  • 1 quarter credit = 0.67 semester credits

So for a 36 semester credit master’s program, this would convert to approximately 54 quarter credits at a school following quarters rather than semesters.

When transferring credits between schools using different systems, credits get converted to ensure comparable program requirements.


In summary, a typical master’s degree ranges from 30-60 credits, with 36 credits as the most common program length. This involves 1-2 years of full-time graduate study, with most students completing their degree within 2 years. Semester credits represent more instructional hours than quarter credits, but both systems aim to result in equivalent master’s degree program requirements. Factors like field of study, accreditation standards, and part-time or full-time status account for differences in credit totals across programs. But a 30-36 semester credit curriculum taken over 2 academic years remains the standard model for most master’s degrees.

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