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Should you get a Master’s degree?

Over the years, many people have asked me for advice about graduate school. Usually, they want to know if it makes sense for them to get a Master’s degree.  And they also want advice on where to apply, how to get in, and how to pay for it. Here are some thoughts.

The first thing you need to figure out is whether graduate school will actually help get you where you want to be. For some people, grad school will be an intellectual indulgence—  studying a subject for its own sake, without concern for cost or employability at the end of the degree. Maybe you’ve always wanted to study classics but opted to major in something more practical as an undergraduate. Going to graduate school might be the chance to pursue a lifelong passion. For others, the answer may be more practical: you can see that your career progression will soon be capped without a graduate degree. Or you might want to change careers and a Master’s degree is an effective way to do so.

Aside from the obvious academic benefits that come from doing the degree itself , here are some non-academic benefits to consider:

1) MAs are required for some professions (e.g., teachers, nurses, social work, United Nations, etc.)

2) Career change

3) Upgrade your undergraduate university association

4) Automatic pay increases in some fields (military, teaching, government)

5) New networks of friends, business associates

But Master’s degrees are not all created equal. The benefits that can be derived from an MA will depend on the quality of the program and its students, your career stage, the prestige of your graduate school as compared to your undergraduate institution, your particular career trajectory, and many other factors. Liz Pulliam Weston warns:

In some fields, such as business or engineering, a graduate degree typically boosted income by more than enough to justify the cost. In others — the liberal arts and social sciences, in particular — master’s degrees didn’t appear to produce much if any earnings advantage.

Before you submit your MA application forms, here are some questions to ask yourself:

For those without work experience:

1) Will your job prospects improve more if you do a Master’s degree or instead spend the equivalent time acquiring practical work experience in your chosen field (e.g., internships)?

2) Will your career eventually be capped without a Master’s degree? Does this matter to you? (Not everyone wants to be a manager.)

3) Will the skills (technical, analytical) that you acquire in your Master’s degree help further your career? What evidence do you have to show this?

4) What is the employment rate for students who have recently graduated from the Master’s program you would like to enrol in? What is the average salary? What types of jobs do these students hold? Get the facts and be sure to understand the methodologies used to compile the statistics!

5) Do you already have considerable student debt? What evidence is there that a Master’s degree in your chosen field will improve your job prospects? Are you doubling down when you should be cutting your losses?

For those who already have work signficant experience:

1) Consider the opportunity cost of the Master’s. Not only do you have to pay for your degree, but you are also forsaking your salary during this time. Tuition= US$25k. Cost of living= $15k. Salary= $40k. A two-year degree could cost $80k, with another $80k or more in lost wages.

2) Is work experience more or less valuable than an academic credential at your stage of your career? For those who are just starting off, time in the workplace will be worth more than those who have been working for a long time. Two years spent in a Master’s program might mean that it will take you two more years to climb the career ladder. The Master’s degree may or may not help you advance more quickly depending on your field.

3) Is there a part-time option? This will probably require some flexibility from your workplace, but it may turn out to be much more affordable, especially if you can convince your workplace to pay for tuition and/or other costs. After all, your employer will reap the benefits of your improved skill set.

Costs

Costs vary significantly between programs. This will depend on whether it is a one- or two-year program, the location (big cities have a higher cost of living), whether the institution is public or private, the amount of financial aid available, whether there is a loan forgiveness program, etc.

In addition to scholarships and loans, there are two additional funding you might also consider asking your employer to subsidize your degree in exchange for staying on for a further 2-3 years after the Master’s is completed.

Another important consideration is the amount of debt you already hold. Will you need to take out another big loan out for a professional Masters? Will that loan end up forcing you to adopt a career that you really don’t want? For example, taking on a huge debt burden to do a Master’s in Public Affairs or Public Policy may force you to opt for a career in the private sector because public sector wages are lower. Be realistic about your prospects: think ahead before you unintentionally lock yourself into a career path that you never wanted.

George Roter, a co-founder of Engineers Without Borders, also points out below that “increased debt enormously reduces the flexibility people have. [As]… when purposefulness and lucrativeness are not aligned. Or a higher risk job in a startup that might not pay well (or pay well right away). And for many who are doing a Master’s, this reduced flexibility from debt loads comes at the very time during one’s life when there is maximum structural flexibility (no kids or very young kids, young parents, etc).” The best time in your life to start a new business (or an NGO in George’s case) is probably when you’ve just finished your MBA, especially if you have no kids and no mortgage- but it becomes much harder  when you have a mountain of debt and banks chasing after you.

Career Ambitions

What is your career ambition? Do you need a graduate school degree to get there? What is the profile of a successful junior, mid-career, and senior person in your field? How has that profile changed over time? You should have clear answers to these questions before you apply for graduate school.

The Program

Clearly, the quality of the Master’s program itself matters a lot. The best source of information and advice will be students who are enrolled in the program- typically, they are extremely honest about the strengths and weaknesses of their programs.  Find out whether they are satisfied with their experience. They will prove to be a valuable source of advice about the school and what students go on to do when they graduate.

US, UK or Elsewhere?

There are important considerations as well such as the cost of living in the country, your ability to get a student visa, whether you have the right to work part-time, whether you will be able to stay and work in the country after you graduate, whether you can bring your spouse and children, whether your spouse will have the right to work (No in the US, Yes in the UK), your ability to speak the language (or prospects for learning it quickly), how far away from home it is (in case you need to return frequently), etc.

This may be an excellent opportunity to polish up another language, improve your international credentials, travel abroad, or soak up another culture. Bear in mind that where you study often affects where you end up: you will have greater access to job opportunities in the country or region where you study, and on the personal side, you may fall in love with someone from that area and decide to stay. By way of example, I did my doctorate at Oxford and I’m now a permanent faculty member at King’s College London. Similarly, after I studied in the US, I ended up working in the US for two years afterwards.

Less obviously, your outlook on the world and your ambitions might change- to the point where you realize that it is not possible to achieve your (now enlarged) ambitions in your home country. Going abroad can be eye-opening, but it also means opening up a Pandora’s box of opportunities. Having seen the career and financial possibilities that are available in another country, some realize that they need to be (or simply want to be) where the best people in their field are. Going home might mean making career sacrifices and that can be difficult.

Do you need to go to a big name school?

This really depends on your particular profile. Going to a well known school will add cachet to your c.v., especially if your undergraduate institution was relatively unknown. But if you simply need to get a Master’s to be considered for a managerial position at your firm, then an MA from a good local institution will probably suffice.

You might also consider your personal background. Alan Krueger and found that for undergraduates, attending an Ivy League school made a difference for “Latino, black, and low-income students, as well as those whose parents did not graduate from collegebut not for students from other backgrounds. They speculated that:

While most students who apply to selective colleges may be able to rely on their families and friends to provide job-networking opportunities, networking opportunities that become available from attending a selective college may be particularly valuable for black and Hispanic students and for students who come from families with a lower level of parental education.

Family Considerations

I’ve resisted writing about this because I think it deserves an extensive discussion, but see Cynthia Neudoerffer’s comments below.

If you have thought about all of these factors and have answered the questions I’ve posed to your satisfaction, then you’re in a good position to figure out if a Master’s degree makes sense for you at your particular stage in your career.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. George Roter permalink
    November 30, 2012 7:41 pm

    Great post! Now I have somewhere to point the legions of EWBers who ask this question each year.

    One important comment…You missed what I believe is a really big financial factor:

    The increased debt enormously reduces the flexibility people have. This could be to take a job when purposefulness and lucrativeness are not aligned. Or a higher risk job in a startup that might not pay well (or pay well right away).

    And for many who are doing a Master’s, this reduced flexibility from debt loads comes at the very time during one’s life when there is maximum structural flexibility (no kids or very young kids, young parents, etc).

    I personally believe this can have the effect of slowing down learning and discovery of what you’re great at and what most excites you.

  2. Cynthia Neudoerffer permalink
    November 30, 2012 9:03 pm

    Another big factor you have not mentioned is the whole family dynamic. And, yes, I think both women AND men should think about this and discuss this. Are you married yet? Do you want to get married? Do you have kids or want to have kids? There are, broadly, two paths one can pursue – if you’re in the position to do so – have your kids young (in your 20s) after your undergraduate degree and then return to pursuing your career goals when your kid are into school full time or get all your schooling out of the way (may include both a masters and PhD) and get established in your career before having kids, which usually means putting off kids till you are in your mid 30s. In the latter case, you’ll be established, but possibly unable to have kids – or spend years trying to have a child and might mean you end up having few kids than you might have wanted. Graduate school can be a good time to have kids – you have more flexibility in grad school than in the work force to balance parenting and academic responsibilities. What kind of maternity /paternity leave is given in your country? (or country of choice). Are you comfortable with putting your kids in full-time care from a very young age, or would you like to work part time (often difficult to find) and be an at-home parent part time? Do you think you want to be an at-home parent for several years while your children are young? How will you and your partner split this? It may make sense to choose a graduate school close to home – so you would have the support of your parents for childcare. It also makes sense, if you are going to be so lucky as to live near your parents, to have your kids while your parents are young enough to be able to help you out. If you want to spend time (years) at home with your kids, then it might make sense to have your kids first, then go to grad school and establish your career, so you are not taking time out from career (which can be very difficult in many careers) to have your kids later on. I actually think figuring out how you are going to balance career and family is one of the most critical decisions we make in our lives and I know I was not given any advice in this regard. I think young people should be reminded to think about the choices they will have to make and what choices will be best for their outlook on life.

    • November 30, 2012 9:34 pm

      Yes, yes, yes, and yes. I think family considerations are essential and I’d like to write a separate post about some of these issues, especially for female PhD students.
      In the post, I directed people to your comment because it raises so many important points.

      • Cynthia Neudoerffer permalink
        December 1, 2012 1:37 am

        I’d happily collaborate on such a post – I think it is a huge discussion that is not happening – I know the choices I really had to make were not made clear to me until so many avenues were already closed. I think that it is something to think about *before* you do a PhD. Because academia still, in general, does not allow for any gaps in your academic career where tenure is concerned, it is really important, I think, for women especially, to think about if they want kids, how will they balance that with the demands of a tenure track position. If you want a tenure track position while you have small children, unless you have a partner who can take on primary parenting responsibilities, you need to be prepared to put your kids in full time daycare from a very young age.

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