The following detailed description applies to the United States and Canada, although the principles are similar in most other English-speaking countries. In England and Wales, bachelors degrees are normally completed in three years, so the timing is rather different. In countries that follow the German or French models of higher education, arrangements are very different: in German-speaking countries, for example, students do not take bachelor's degrees, and the Diplom, which takes a minimum of 4.5 years to achieve and is recognised as equivalent to a master's degree, may be either an academic or a professional qualification. Within the European Union, further standardisation of masters-level qualifications is to be expected in the near future, as a result of the Bologna process.
There is an exception to the rule that a candidate must already hold a bachelor's degree in the case of so-called "5th year" professional master's degrees. Candidates in these programs apply to the relevant graduate program while in their junior/third year. They are admitted into the program their senior year, during which they not only complete the requirements for their but begin taking courses for their professional master's degree program. The advantage such programs have for the candidates, is that they only require one extra, or "5th" year to attain a professional master's degree. Generally, most professional master's degree programs require two years of academic study.
A second exception arises in relation to mid-career programs, aimed at professionals already working in the field. Such programs typically require one academic year of coursework.
The commmon theme shared by all professional master's degrees is that the education provides a balance between theory and practical skills, so that graduates from these programs are capable of working in the respective fields. Most professional master's degrees are terminal in the sense that they are not generally used as an intermediate step to the doctorate degree in the field, though this is not always the case (e.g. for the MBA and M.P.A). See Master's degree for a sampling of such degrees as well as to distinguish between a professional master's degree and an academic master's degree.