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Interested in some informed speculation on how many links are needed, whether some are more prestigious than others, how long it typically takes to earn a full chain etc.

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How long it typically takes to earn a full chain...

The most obvious canon quotes are from "A Feast for Crows";

"Alleras would make a maester. He had only been at the Citadel for a year, yet already he had forged three links of his maester’s chain. Armen might have more, but each of his had taken him a year to earn. Still, he would make a maester too. Roone and Mollander remained pink-necked novices, but Roone was very young and Mollander preferred drinking to reading."

and "A Game of Thrones";

“He told me that a maester’s collar is made of chain to remind him that he is sworn to serve ....A maester forges his chain with study, he told me. The different metals are each a different kind of learning, gold for the study of money and accounts, silver for healing, iron for warcraft"

In order to earn sufficient links to call oneself a 'Maester', it seems likely that you would need to study as an apprentice for around 10 years but potentially up to 20 before you are awarded the title. This is borne out by the advanced ages of the vast majority of Maesters seen as well as our own contemporary understanding of the time needed to achieve multiple doctorates.

How many links are needed...

From the TV series, we can see that the chains seem to contain approximately 20 links and from a quote from GRRM we know that Maesters can be awarded multiple links of the same metal if they are especially proficient in a particular area of knowledge. This suggests that a Maester never finishes learning or earning links.

Certain links, such as ravenry can only be awarded by an "Archmaster" whereas other links can be granted by the mutual assent of other Maesters or presumably even be self-awarded.

Whether some are more prestigious than others...

Some links such as Black Steel (Ravenry), Copper (History), Silver (Medicine), Pewter (unknown) and Bronze (Astronomy) seem common and relatively easy to attain since they're held by first and second-year students. Others such as Gold (Economics), Iron (Warfare) and Electrum (unknown) are particularly rare and seem to mark the passage into becoming a full-fledged Maester.

Valyrian Steel links (for the study of Magic + the Occult) are exceedingly rare and held by less than one Maester in a hundred. Ironically, they aren't seen as especially prestigious but rather viewed with suspicion.

Maseter Chain

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I agree with your assessment, however my personal impression is that it would typically take longer than 10 years, and more likely 20-30 years. If a chain contains ~20 links, that's roughly one link per year. –  chaiguy Mar 4 at 19:39
    
If you can be awarded them at a rate of 1-2 a year (if gifted) then 10-15 years isn't an unreasonable goal. –  Richard Mar 4 at 19:46
    
True, but I suspect that a feat of three in one year, being in and of itself unusual as per your first quote, probably implies that they were three of the easier links to obtain, thus subsequent links would probably be much harder, many possibly taking several years each. –  chaiguy Mar 4 at 23:41
    
@chaiguy - There's also a reference to an overseas Maester wearing a chain so tight it practically chokes him. –  Richard Mar 5 at 7:12
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Presumably it would take a few years, although I do not recall a specific time being mentioned at any point in the series. The actual length of time seems to depend upon each individual student.

For what it's worth, it is mentioned in the AFFC Prologue that Pate has been at the Citadel for five years but has failed to earn a link. On the other hand, Alleras has been there for a year and has already forged three links.

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Oberyn studied for a few years and forged 6 chains. –  DDFirst Name Dd Apr 9 at 7:03
    
six chains or six links? –  Mooing Duck Apr 14 at 23:18
    
@mooingduck - he means links –  Richard May 15 at 16:31
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I'd imagine that the chain is somewhat similar to the 'badges' that scouts earn. Once you master one thing, you get the link which signifies that you're (at least) competent in that area. I'd also speculate that maesters never really finish adding links . . .

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GRRM said that you can achieve multiple "links" in the same field of study, unlike Scout badges where you only need to be awarded them once –  Richard Mar 4 at 21:26
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