Is it Worth it to Get a Master’s Degree?

Cole Mayer  | 

A Master’s degree is becoming the new Bachelor’s – required in some fields, and resulting in better pay in others. Some may get one just for the experience. But the process involves sleepless nights, debt, and the risk of little-to-no payoff. Is it worth it for you to get a Master’s degree?

It May Be Required…

The STEM fields – science, technology, engineering, and math – along with business and education all but require a Master’s degree.1 Some entry-level jobs in these fields won’t consider you without a graduate degree. In other fields, advancement or higher pay may only be given to those with a Master’s or doctorate.

For example, many universities may not hire you on as a full-time professor, or offer tenure, unless you have a Master’s degree. Instead, you may only be hired as a part-time lecturer, or will not be offered tenure. For occupational therapists, it’s likely to be a requirement of the job.2 You could be passed over for high-level management positions in favor of someone with a higher degree.

…Or it May Just Give Better Pay

In other cases, it may not be required for the job, but having a Master’s paves the way for higher pay. Engineering and business workers, for example, earn more than their counterparts with just a Bachelor’s.3 In 2013, workers in the securities, commodities, and financial sales fields earned a spectacular $80,000 more if they had a Master’s. The earning potential for most fields ranges between $10,000 and $20,000 more per year.1  A 2011 Census report 4 revealed that, over a lifetime of 40 working years, the earning potential with a Master’s degree is about $400,000 more than with just a Bachelor’s.

Except in Some Areas

There are some areas that don’t see quite the same raise in pay. Arts and psychology fields, for example, only see a widened pay gap with both experience and a graduate degree.5 In other fields, promotions may go to those with more experience on the job rather than those with a graduate degree.

A Master’s degree in certain lines of work could put you in a “gray area”2 in terms of hiring. A Master’s in English literature likely means you want a job related to literature, perhaps teaching a course based on classic novels. A Bachelor’s in English, however, opens up a wide variety of jobs, from writing reviews for a local newspaper to becoming an editor for a website. Not getting a job that is specifically tied to your Master’s degree could feel like a waste, and thus not worth it.

The Cost of a Master’s Degree

If your employer is paying for your Master’s degree, skip this section. If you are paying for the degree yourself, the cost-benefit ratio is something you need to carefully consider. The average debt in 2012 for earning a Master’s in Liberal Arts was about $59,000.6 Depending on money you have in the bank, and earning potential – as well as the Master’s program and university you attend – the cost of the degree may be less. The average cost of a Master’s degree depends not only on the college, but the degree. A Master’s could cost $30,000 total,7 or $30,000 per year 8 – up to $120,000 total.

However, this also depends on whether you are working during this time. If you attend school to get a Master’s full-time, you deal with opportunity cost.9 That is, how much you likely would have made, plus the actual cost of the degree. Someone in their late 20s, for example, taking two years to get a Master’s in Business Administration, will lose out on about $100,000 they could have made working.

Factor in the cost for the degree, which will take, for example, about two years at about $100,000 total for an MBA from a Top-20 business school, and the opportunity cost is $200,000 over two years. If the Master’s is for the legal or medical fields, and you intend on practicing, this may not be much of a consequence – in a few years, that debt will be paid off, the opportunity cost accounted for. For many other fields, however, this may be a significant concern. This is also the draw of night school, and especially for degrees an employer may help or full cover.

The Experience

There is one more part to determining whether obtaining a Master’s degree is worth it, and it is not factually based. Is it personally worth it to you, increasing your education and having the degree to your name? Do you enjoy learning and want to broaden your horizons even more? These questions alone can make it worth it – but that’s something only you can determine.

Another question, directly related to the above questions, is something you must ask yourself. Why do you want a Master’s degree? Are you even interested in the program, or are you just doing it for the benefits? If so, the experience will not be enjoyable, and you may not finish. Or, you may not stick with the career in the long run. Another question: How long do you intend on working in this field or career? Is it worth it to obtain a Master’s if you don’t particularly enjoy the field you find yourself working in? All of these questions are important, but only you can answer them.

Is it worth it to obtain a Master’s degree? In many career paths, the answer is “probably.” But it’s not a solid “yes.” The field itself, the cost, the time commitment versus working, actual benefits such as promotions and pay raises, and even questions only you can answer all factor in. In the end, the choice is yours – and now you’ll be able to make an informed decision.


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Cole Mayer is an online marketing specialist and corporate blog writer. A former newspaper journalist, he spends his free time freelance writing, playing video games, and learning about every subject under the sun. Follow Cole on Twitter: @ColeMayer42

This post was updated February 9, 2017. It was originally published February 9, 2017.