Is it Worth it to Get a Masters Degree?

Cole Mayer  | 

A Master’s degree is becoming the new Bachelor’s — required for some careers, and resulting in better pay for others. Some may enter a graduate program just for the experience. But the process involves sleepless nights, debt, and the risk of little-to-no payoff. Going to school for an advanced degree is usually part financial decision, part personal decision. Knowing whether it is the right decision requires you to address both elements of the opportunity. So: is it worth it for you to get a Master’s degree?

What Is a Masters Degree?

A Master’s degree is the first graduate-level degree available from a university or college. It follows an undergraduate degree, most often a Bachelor’s, which is usually a prerequisite to the Master’s. In some fields, the Bachelor’s and Master’s may be part of an integrated or joint program.

While research may be required for certain degrees, a research program is not necessarily a Master’s degree program. It may be part of summer courses, or even undergraduate studies. Research programs may also be part of doctoral studies (such as for a Ph.D). Ph.D.s typically follow a Master’s degree, and are usually the top-tier of post-graduate study for any field or profession.

Also of note are credential programs for becoming a teacher, either in a single subject or multiple subjects. These require a Bachelor’s degree, and may require a test. Requirements are set by each state’s Board of Education and may differ from state to state, though reciprocity may be granted between states. A teaching credential may or may not also result in a Master’s degree, depending on the program, but is still considered a postgraduate education due to the Bachelor’s degree requirement.

Should I Get My Masters Degree?

The most important question you can ask when considering whether to get a Master’s degree is: 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 associated 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?

Before you can answer whether you should pursue your Master’s degree, you need to ask yourself more questions about why you are thinking about it. The answers to the following questions will help you assess whether it is really worth it, otherwise it will just end up causing you stress and loading you up with student debt.

How to Know Why You’re Getting a Master’s

For Pay

Bottom line: will your job, or your prospective career, pay enough to justify you getting the degree? Do you actually know how much you will earn — do you have an advancement track at work, a job offer you can secure, or any other guaranteed salary — or are you chasing averages and ranges? Even if you are approved for enough student loans to pay the bills, you still want to know where your money will be coming from before you shell out for graduate school. For more information about salaries and degrees, see “Will You Make More Money” below.

For Advancement

Do you want to advance in your current career, and is this is the best way you can achieve that? Or, similar to reasons for better pay, will it simply earn you a better title in the company, even if your responsibilities remain the same? It is important to separate expectations from reality here by taking a hard look at your career field, your commitment to that career, and getting more details from your employer (or prospective employer).

For Opportunity

Earning a Master’s could also help you network with others in the field, more than if you simply earned a Bachelor’s degree and took the first job offered. This can help you improve your reputation within the field, as well. Are there famous people in your field who are associated with certain universities, acting as teachers or lecturers that you can learn from, in turn improving your knowledge?

For Research

If your career field requires research, will a Master’s help you continue your studies? Will it offer a place to conduct research or access to other researchers? Are there specific colleges or universities that provide better research in your field of study than others?

There’s other considerations, as well. If you have a significant other, and are going back to school full time, will you be putting too much pressure on your partner to pick up the slack? If you are only going back part-time due to being employed, are you going to suffer burnout from going both to work and school? Will your partner be the sole breadwinner, and will you be able to pay bills? Is making more money worth it, especially if you are not satisfied with the job?

Do I Really Need a Masters Degree?

All of the above reasons for wanting a Master’s degree are valid, but they don’t completely answer whether it is really worth it. Specifically, is it worth the almost guaranteed student loans that will come with your return to school?

While scholarships (and other financial assistance) are common for undergraduate programs, graduate degrees are often more expensive, and come with fewer alternatives to student loans and debt. Before you sign on for years of debt and monthly payments, determine whether a Master’s degree is something you want, or something you genuinely need.

Does Your Career Path Require It?

The STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, and math — along with business and education all but require a Master’s degree. Some entry-level jobs in these fields won’t hire you (or even interview 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. You could be passed over for high-level management positions in favor of someone with a higher degree.

If none of these career-specific cases apply to you, have you considered alternatives? Advancement at work or even a foot in the door may not depend on a degree as much as other factors. Would an internship serve you better than a Master’s degree? Taking on an apprenticeship could be worth more for the experience gained on the job than the theoretical learning of a Master’s.

Will You Make More Money?

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. 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.  A 2011 Census report 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.

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. 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” 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.

What Graduate Degree Should I Get?

You will likely go with a degree that is a natural extension of your undergraduate degree, but not all Master’s degrees are created equally. For example, Master’s that revolve around teaching, such as curriculum planning, do not offer much in the way of better prospects for jobs or in money-making potential.

Masters Degrees That Are Worth It

As mentioned, STEM fields all but require Master’s degrees, and according to Fortune, were actually some of the most worthwhile Master’s degrees to earn in 2016.

Among the top 15: multiple math subjects, computer science, and software engineering ranked among high-earning career paths that offered good job growth projections, job satisfaction and stress levels.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics also has a list of career paths that greatly benefit from Master’s degrees. Their selection of business jobs, for 2012-2013, saw between a 36 and a whopping 89 percent increase in median salaries after earning a Master’s degree.

Know the Requirements


The Graduate Records Examination, or GRE, is the most widely required admission test for graduate programs. The GRE is to grad school is what the SATs or ACTs are for undergraduate admissions. It measures verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, analytical writing, and critical thinking skills. Some institutions may require a specific GRE subject test, as well. You can learn about the GRE at the official Educational Testing Services site.


The Law School Admission Test is, as the name implies, required for admission to the vast majority of law schools. The test measures reading comprehension, analytical reasoning, and logical reasoning. According to the Law School Admission Council, 98.5 percent of law schools require it, while three schools allow either the GRE or the LSAT. While some schools only use the GRE, the American Bar Association has cautioned these schools to do so at their own risk.


The Medical College Admission Test is much like the LSAT, but for medical professions. Over the course of more than 7 hours, it tests “problem solving, critical thinking, and knowledge of natural, behavioral, and social science concepts and principles prerequisite to the study of medicine,” according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, which administers the test.


The Graduate Management Admission Test is often used for business and management admissions, in particular the Master in Business Administration, or MBA. It’s also used for financial and accounting degrees. More than 6,500 business programs accept the GMAT, and nine out of 10 MBAs are accepted based on the test. It tests “analytical writing and problem-solving abilities, along with the data sufficiency, logic, and critical reasoning skills that are vital to real-world business and management success,” according to the Graduate Management Admission Council.

Know How You’ll Pay for Graduate School

It’s important to know a few things before applying for a postgraduate degree. What’s the average cost of a Master’s? Can you handle any debt you might incur? Do you have a plan not just for paying, but for how going back to school (or continuing on) will affect your life? How will you pay bills? Are there alternative ways to pay for a degree?

Average Cost

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. 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, or $30,000 per year – up to $120,000 total. The average cost for a Master’s was $30,000 at a public school, $40,000 at a private institution, and left the student with $57,000 of debt from undergraduate and postgraduate studies combined.

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. 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.

Ways to Pay

Now that you know how much it costs, how are you going to pay? If you don’t have the cash on hand, there’s a few different ways to pay for a Master’s: an employer, work-study, research grants, scholarships, and debt.

A question to ask before pursuing a Masters: Will your employer help? They may see a Master’s degree as an extension of your training. In order to be a better employee, they may help pay for a postgraduate degree. Tuition reimbursement may already be a benefit you can access, or a benefit to ask your potential employer about. It is becoming more common, so it can pay off in a big way to know about this as early as possible.

If you pursue a Master’s part time, such as only taking night classes, you can also work while earning your degree. This also encompasses work study, where working is a fundamental part of earning the degree.

With a research-focused degree path, commonly found in some of the sciences, you may be able to get a grant for your research, which can also help defer the costs of your degree.

There are also plenty of scholarships available to postgraduates, both locally and nationwide, and your college or university of choice may offer scholarships for postgraduates.

Know How Long It Will Take

Like everything in life, planning is essential for making a Master’s degree worth it. Knowing why you want or need it is important, but you still need to be realistic about the time commitment you are making. In general, Master’s degrees take between a year and half and two years to complete, assuming you pursue your studies full-time.

There is, however, a trap some students fall into, especially if they are full-time students.

The “Professional Student”

If a student doesn’t have a job lined up or is not ready to face “the real world” outside of academia, they may become a “professional student,” continuing their studies indefinitely. This could take the form of multiple Bachelor’s degrees, or applying for postgraduate degrees aimlessly. There is no goal other than to stay in academia. They are either not actively pursuing job opportunities, or have been discouraged by rejection. Instead of continuing the job hunt, they listlessly continue their studies.

This is dangerous for a few reasons. First, with no source of income, it means mounting student debt. Without a solid goal in mind — such as actively trying to get a job in their field, or advancing in their field — they might continue forever, hoping they will figure everything out by the time their finish their degree. Or, they will continue on to a doctorate, further extending the deadline where they need to have a solid goal. In order to combat this, have a goal set out before you apply for a postgraduate degree.

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.

For more college financial tips and guides, visit our student finance learning center.

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A former newspaper journalist, Cole spends his free time reading, writing, playing video games, watching movies, and learning about every subject under the sun. He lives with his wife and daughter in Idaho. Follow Cole on Twitter: @ColeMayer42