A master’s degree is becoming the new bachelor’s — required for some careers, and resulting in better pay for others. Some students 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 for the attendee. 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?
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What Is a Master’s 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. Doctorate studies typically follow a master’s degree, and are usually the top-tier of postgraduate 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 you to hold a bachelor’s degree, and may require that you take a test.
Each state’s board of education sets credential requirements, which may differ from state to state, though reciprocity may be granted between states. A teaching credential may or may not grant the student 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 Master’s Degree?
To determine whether a master’s degree is right for you, you should consider factors such as the cost, your personal goals, your industry, opportunities for advancement, and the time necessary to complete the degree.
A master’s degree is almost always beneficial to some extent, but it is vital that you weigh those benefits against the potential negatives, such as student debt.
Potential Benefits of a Master’s Degree
There are many potential benefits of earning a master’s degree, but these benefits are all relative and will depend on your unique circumstances. As such, you will need to assess your circumstances and goals.
If your future income is an important factor for you, consider the following:
- Will your job, or your prospective career, pay enough to justify you getting the degree? The struggle of paying off student debt could seriously undermine the monetary value of your master’s degree.
- Do you actually know how much you will earn? Consider whether you have guarantees or safety nets such as an advancement track at work, a job offer you can secure, or any other guaranteed salary.
You shouldn’t blindly chase averages without a plan. 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.
If you are considering a master’s degree because you are seeking advancement in your company or industry, ask yourself the following:
- Do you want to remain in a similar line of work? You will want to ensure that you intend to stay within your field and that advancement will align with your long-term goals.
- Is a master’s degree the best way you can achieve advancement? Sometimes avenues such as experience, networking, or increased demonstration of initiative can go further than educational credentials when it comes to career advancement. This will largely depend on the field and the individual company.
- What benefits will advancement afford you? It is important to separate expectations from reality here by taking a hard look at your career field, your commitment to that career; be sure to get more details from your employer (or prospective employer).
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. A master’s can help you improve your reputation within the field, as well.
To this end, if you are thinking about using a master’s program as an opportunity to build your professional reputation, consider the following:
- What individuals will you have the opportunity to meet through your program? Consider what prominent figures in your field or industry you may be able to meet through your program, e.g. through lecture or other meet-ups.
- What are the social opportunities afforded by the program? Consider how often you will get to interact with other people in your field, and under what circumstances.
- How important is reputation and networking in your field? Reputation is more valuable in some fields than others, and it is important that you weigh this value against the cost of your degree.
If your career field requires research, there are even more factors to consider:
- Will a master’s help you continue your studies? Consider any additional resources for your research that the program may offer you.
- Will a master’s program offer a place to conduct research or access to other researchers? Opportunities for collaboration are often an invaluable resource for researchers.
- Are there specific colleges or universities that provide better research in your field of study than others? You should weigh the opportunities and reputations of each program carefully.
There are 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? Is making more money worth it, especially if you are not satisfied with the job?
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, a master’s is 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.
Will You Make More Money?
In other cases, a master’s degree may not be required for the job, but may pave the way for higher pay. In fact, according to some estimates, graduate degree holders make $17,000 more per year than their peers who only hold bachelor’s degrees. Engineering and business professionals, for example, earn more than their counterparts who only have 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.
Know the Requirements of Your Master’s Degree
There are often unique entry requirements for master’s programs, and these may vary by field.
The Graduate Record Examination, or GRE, is the most widely required admission test for graduate programs. The GRE is to grad school what the SATs or ACTs are to 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% of law schools require the LSAT, 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. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, the MCAT tests “problem solving, critical thinking, and knowledge of natural, behavioral, and social science concepts and principles prerequisite to the study of medicine.”
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. According to the Graduate Management Admission Council, 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.”.
Paying for Graduate School
It’s important to know a few basic things about cost and payment options before applying for a postgraduate degree.
If you are paying for the degree yourself, the cost-benefit ratio is something you need to carefully consider. The cost of a master’s degree can vary widely from $8,000 to $120,000 a year, depending on the institution and the program. Private institutions will typically charge more than public institutions.
You should also consider whether you will be 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, may lose out on about $100,000 they could have made working. In order to mitigate this loss, it may also be helpful to consider online or evening classes.
Ways to Pay
Now that you know how much it costs, how are you going to pay? The following are some of the most common options:
- A tuition reimbursement program through your employer: Employers will sometimes offer to reimburse employees for some or all of their tuition. This may be specific to programs related to your career in some cases.
- A work-study program: Work-study programs allow students to secure jobs guaranteed through the program that can help them pay for educational costs.
- Research grants: These are grants that support research endeavors.
- Scholarships and grants: These can vary widely in terms of both amount and eligibility requirements, and do not need to be paid back.
- Loans: Loans can be privately or publicly funded, and must be repaid, typically with interest.
- FAFSA: FAFSA is a publicly funded option for financial assistance based on need.
However, it will be difficult to appropriately plan for payment if you don’t have a good idea of how long you will be in school.
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 a half and two years to complete, assuming you pursue your studies full time. It also may take even longer if you are uncertain of your end goal and find yourself constantly changing direction academically.
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, the cost, the time commitment, the benefits, and consideration for your unique circumstances all factor in.
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