A Master's Degree Can Be Professional or Academic
A master's degree comes in only two options: a professional, or "terminal" master's degree, or an academic master's degree. Obviously, your field of study can vary wildly, but degrees are distinguished by whether they are professional or academic.
A terminal degree is a means to an end; it will prepare you for entrance into a specific type or group of jobs. A terminal degree implies there is no need for any further education, thus the word "terminal." Degrees from professional master's programs are usually marked by specific initials that denote their area of specialty, such as a Master of Business Administration (M.B.A) or Master of Library Science (M.L.S.) degree.
Popular professional master's degree searches include Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.), Master of Education (M.Ed.), and Master of Engineering (M.Eng.).
Conversely, an academic degree centers on research and scholarly studies in a specific area. These degrees are more likely to lead to continued education at the doctoral level where you can specialize in a very specific area of that field — Pre-Revolutionary Russian Literature, for instance. Academic degrees are denoted as M.A. (Master of Arts) or M.S. (Master of Science), usually in a broad area such as Master of Arts in English or Master of Science in Zoology.
You can explore potential programs that offer academic master's degree with searches such as Master of Arts (M.A.) and Master of Science (M.S.).
Master's Program Workload
Getting your master's degree requires two to three years of full-time coursework. Plan on taking some required courses, but later on you'll be able to focus on an area of interest within your subject area.
You may find you have less flexibility in choosing your specialty if you're in the sciences. This is due to the fact that you'll very likely be completing lab research or field work under the supervision of faculty members. Subsequently, your choices may be limited to the research interests of the faculty.
In professional programs, you may also need to complete internships and practicums that introduce you to working in your field.
Master's Programs May Require a Final Exam or Project
To top off your master's program, expect to participate in some sort of final exam process, complete a final project, or perhaps do both! Final exams are usually cumulative and serve to demonstrate your mastery of the field. These could be oral or written or a combination of the two.
Final projects may be a required master's thesis. Similar to a Ph.D. thesis, they require original research and subsequent conclusion. However, you may just need to prepare a long research paper on a specific topic.
Combined Master's Degree
Many universities now offer combined master's degree programs where you can study in professional and academic areas at the same time. This reflects a trend towards enabling academic students to be more marketable, in part, due to the difficulty they may encounter in obtaining tenured professor positions as a Ph.D. candidate later. At some schools, you can actually design your own degree program, so if you're interested in combining your M.L.S with an M.A. in Pan-Asian Studies, go for it!
In addition, check out this search for combined degrees that may help you find the program that's right for you. If you need some flexibility in your master's degree, an online program may be a good choice; try finding what you need in this online master's degree search.