Program Overview: Master's in Education
Maybe you’ve been teaching for a few years and want to move up in your career or increase your skills and expertise. Maybe you’ve been teaching for a few years and you’re ready to move on, but stay in the education field—maybe look into administration or crafting policy. Maybe you’ve never taught and have no desire to be in a classroom with students, but want to join the nonprofit sector in education. Maybe you’d rather be a school counselor or teach English to adults or teach in a specialized field, like special education.
For these and probably dozens of other goals, a Master’s of Education might be your ideal path.
But hold up there.
“Master’s of Education” isn’t one single degree. Because it touches on so many different aspect of the field, and students come to programs with such varied goals, school often offer half a dozen or more options, including M.S., M.A., M.Ed—and that’s not even getting into the doctoral programs and joint programs that may be available.
So let’s start at the basics, and remember—all of this information won’t apply exactly to any one school.
Types of Master’s of Education programs
Most programs will fall into one of these categories.
Curriculum and Instruction
These programs focus on K-12 teaching strategies. They typically deal with both theory and practice and focus on curriculum planning, creative ways to engage students, and more. So if you’re a teacher looking for effective ways to teach or you want to move to an administrative or policy position, curriculum and instruction programs might be a good fit.
These are usually research-based programs focusing on educational theory and leadership principles in K-12 schools, colleges, and universities. If you want to move into a leadership role where you’ll be crafting policies to solve major issues in education, you’ll want to look at these programs.
“I think for me, I was just so frustrated, like who was coming up with these policies and not thinking it through with the implementation part—just throwing it out there and expecting it to be done,” Soraya Ramos, who started Harvard’s Education Policy and Management program in Fall 2017, said. After getting her undergrad degree, she taught in Chicago through Teach for America for several years. “I started looking into the macro level, which is the policy level, and said there has to be something there. I think that’s partly why I was interested in the politics of education, and then the intersectionality of our kids with their immigration, income, class, gender.”
These programs are great for school psychologists and counselors, of course, but also for educators who are looking for a better understanding of childhood and developmental psychology. Many educational psychology programs also deal with research methods and statistical analysis.
Elementary Teacher Education or Secondary Teacher Education
If you know you’re meant to be in a classroom, these are the programs for you. Elementary programs are for those teaching pre-K to sixth-grade, and secondary programs work with sixth through twelfth-grade teachers. You’ll learn more effective teaching strategies—and most public school districts will offer you a raise once you complete the degree (some may even provide tuition assistance!).
Higher Education Administration
These programs are designed for those who are looking for careers at universities. You’ll learn how higher education is structured, governed, financed, and managed. Many universities also offer internships so students can see what they’re learning in practice.
While a master’s degree isn’t required for K-12 teachers in most states, it is if you want to teach special education classes. These programs prepare teachers for the unique challenges associated with teacher children with emotional or physical disabilities or learning impairments.
Student Counseling and Personnel Services
These programs train students to work in school as well as mental health centers. You may be able to go directly to work as a school counselor, or you may use this degree as a step towards a professional counseling program.
Wow, that’s a lot.
Yep. It can be really overwhelming when you start looking at different schools and trying to figure out which programs are right for you—is Harvard’s Education Policy and Management program the same as Stanford’s Policy, Organization, and Leadership Studies? How does UCLA’s Human Development & Psychology compare to University of Pennsylvania’s Interdisciplinary Studies in Human Development?
Depending on your goals, your options might be pretty straightforward, and it’s just figuring out which school is the best fit for you. Or you might need to just schedule some time to sit down and compare all the programs that seem like maybe they might work out.
Education programs can range from intensive, one-year, full-time programs to part-time programs (designed for those who are still working) that take at least two or three years. They can cost as little as $10,000 and up to nearly $50,000 (for those top Ivy Leagues). Even if you’re looking at a lower-cost program, it’s still not a decision to make lightly.
“Before I even started that process [to apply], someone asked me to sit down and ask myself ‘why am I interested in grad school?’” Soraya said. “They said I should just sit with that question for awhile and write about it, so that’s what I would suggest to people.” Having your answer to that question in mind will help you narrow down your options and write your statement of purpose.
Many school will share information about what students have gone on to do after completing certain programs. Check those lists for careers that spark your interest when making decisions about which universities and programs you’re applying to.
So how do I get in?
The good news is most universities don’t have strict admission requirements—none of the top schools, in fact, have minimums for GPAs or GRE scores. Some don’t even officially require a bachelor’s degree, although if you don’t have one, you have to be a really special applicant to get in. Of course, every program will be a little different (definitely check for requirements like supplemental essays for certain programs), but they will be looking at the whole picture—grades, test scores, work experience, statement of purpose, letters of recommendation.
If you’re like most prospective master’s of education students, you’ve probably been out of school for at least a few years, so the toughest part could be getting back into that mindset of going to class and studying. When Soraya decided to apply, it was already fairly late in the application process, and she still had to study for and take the GRE. “I was working eight, nine hours a day, but I said I need to make this time for myself. When I days off I was like nope, those days are mine,” she said. She signed up for Vince’s GRE bootcamp and committed to studying every chance she got. “It is possible, when you really make that commitment, so during the GRE course it was a lot of studying after work. I remember studying from six to nine or seven to ten and then going home, sleeping, doing it again. But that was only a month, and I put in a lot of time for studying and I focused.” She also said she asked her friends to be a support system and hold her accountable.
There’s no singular master’s of education experience. Soraya, for example, will be going to school at Harvard full-time for one year. That particular program offers a lot of flexibility, with dozens of options for required courses and the opportunity to take electives from other Harvard schools, like the Kennedy School or Harvard Law. Students can also take advantage of internship and fieldwork opportunities throughout Boston and Cambridge. “I expect this program to be flexible and have options in where I want to take it. From what I can tell, it’s gonna give me the ability to make the experience for myself,” Soraya said. “These courses will teach you how to be a better leader in education—that’s what I’m looking forward to, just really learning how to take on that role.”
If you can expect anything, it’s that your coursework will probably be interdisciplinary. Education programs can touch on psychology, neuroscience, media studies, public policy, sociology, business, the arts—and any or all of the above. You’ll also see a lot of theory and research mixed with hands-on practice.
What exactly can you do with the master’s?
Let’s look at a few possibilities besides the obvious—teacher, community college professor or university faculty, administrator in K-12 schools or colleges and universities, school counselor, special education teacher, and the like. Depending on your program, an M.S., M.A., or M.Ed can mean careers like:
- Education coordinator at a museum, aquarium, zoo, etc.
- Corporate trainer
- Educational consultant
- Curriculum developer/Instruction specialist
- Content developer/Item writer for standardized tests, lesson outlines, and textbooks
- Education Specialist for government agencies like National Endowment for the Arts
- Policy Advisor for nonprofits, lobbying groups, politicians, or government agencies
- Researcher or Research Director
- Program Manager for nonprofits like Girls Who Code
Let’s look at the top schools:
(Note: These rankings reflect the overall education programs at each school. When focusing just on, say, Curriculum & Instruction programs, the rankings may differ slightly—another reason to really look closely at each university’s program offerings.)
- U.S. News & World Report Ranking: 1st (#3 in Educational Administration & Supervision, #2 in Education Policy)
- Application deadline: January 5 (application info & instructions)
- $45,008/year (tuition only, full-time)
- U.S. News & World Report Ranking: 2nd (#5 in Curriculum & Instruction, #1 in Education Policy, #3 in Educational Psychology; tied for 4th in Secondary Teacher Administration)
- Application deadline: January 10 (application info & instructions)
- $47,331/year (tuition only, full-time)
University of California - Los Angeles
- U.S. News & World Report Ranking: tied for 3rd (#4 in Higher Education Administration)
- Application deadline: December 1 (application info & instructions)
- $11,220/year (CA resident, full-time)
- $26,322/year (out of state, full-time)
University of Pennsylvania
- U.S. News & World Report Ranking: tied for 3rd (#2 in Higher Education Administration)
- Application deadline: rolling admissions (a few programs have priority/final deadlines, but most accept applications until the programs are full, which usually happens in mid-late spring. Also, the application fee is waived for applications submitted from September 15 - March 15) (application info & instructions)
- $48,304/year (tuition only, full-time)
- Accepted students are automatically considered for merit-based scholarships; most master’s students receive some form of financial aid from the school and are eligible for assistantships
University of Wisconsin - Madison
- U.S. News & World Report Ranking: tied for 3rd (#1 in Curriculum & Instruction; #2 in Educational Administration & Supervision; #4 in Education Policy, #1 in Educational Psychology; #4 in Elementary Teacher Education; #3 in Secondary Teacher Education; tied for 4th in Student Counseling and Personnel Services)
- Application deadline: Each department sets its own deadline and process
- $10,728/year (WI resident, full-time)
- $24,054/year (out of state, full-time)
There’s so much you can do with an education degree—but how much you get out of the graduate school experience and whether or not your degree is ultimately “worth it” depends on how well you articulate your goals going into it.
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