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A master's degree[note 1] (from Latin magister) is a postgraduate academic degree awarded by universities or colleges upon completion of a course of study demonstrating mastery or a high-order overview of a specific field of study or area of professional practice. A master's degree normally requires previous study at the bachelor's level, either as a separate degree or as part of an integrated course. Within the area studied, master's graduates are expected to possess advanced knowledge of a specialized body of theoretical and applied topics; high order skills in analysis, critical evaluation, or professional application; and the ability to solve complex problems and think rigorously and independently.
The master's degree dates back to the origin of European universities, with a Papal bull of 1233 decreeing that anyone admitted to the mastership in the University of Toulouse should be allowed to teach freely in any other university. The original meaning of the master's degree was thus that someone who had been admitted to the rank (degree) of master (i.e. teacher) in one university should be admitted to the same rank in other universities. This gradually became formalised as the licentia docendī (licence to teach). Originally, masters and doctors were not distinguished, but by the 15th century it had become customary in the English universities to refer to the teachers in the lower faculties (arts and grammar) as masters and those in the higher faculties as doctors. Initially, the Bachelor of Arts (BA) was awarded for the study of the trivium and the Master of Arts (MA) for the study of the quadrivium.
From the late Middle Ages until the 19th century, the pattern of degrees was therefore to have a bachelor's and master's degree in the lower faculties and to have bachelor's and doctorates in the higher faculties. In the United States, the first master's degrees (Magister Artium, or Master of Arts) were awarded at Harvard University soon after its foundation. In Scotland, the pre-Reformation universities (St Andrews, Glasgow, and Aberdeen) developed so that the Scottish MA became their first degree, while in Oxford, Cambridge and Trinity College, Dublin, the MA was awarded to BA graduates of a certain standing without further examination from the late 17th century, its main purpose being to confer full membership of the university. At Harvard the 1700 regulations required that candidates for the master's degree had to pass a public examination, but by 1835 this was awarded Oxbridge-style three years after the BA.
The 19th century saw a great expansion in the variety of master's degrees offered. At the start of the century, the only master's degree was the MA, and this was normally awarded without any further study or examination. The Master in Surgery degree was introduced by the University of Glasgow in 1815. By 1861 this had been adopted throughout Scotland as well as by Cambridge and Durham in England and the University of Dublin in Ireland. When the Philadelphia College of Surgeons was established in 1870, it too conferred the Master of Surgery, "the same as that in Europe".
In Scotland, Edinburgh maintained separate BA and MA degrees until the mid-19th century, although there were major doubts as to the quality of the Scottish degrees of this period. In 1832 Lord Brougham, the Lord Chancellor and an alumnus of the University of Edinburgh, told the House of Lords that "In England the Universities conferred degrees after a considerable period of residence, after much labour performed, and if they were not in all respects so rigorous as the statutes of the Universities required, nevertheless it could not be said, that Masters of Arts were created at Oxford and Cambridge as they were in Scotland, without any residence, or without some kind of examination. In Scotland, all the statutes of the Universities which enforced conditions on the grant of degrees were a dead letter."
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