Is a master's degree worth it? That depends
Education is always a good thing, but is an advanced degree worth the investment of time and money? Possibly, but answer some questions first.
No matter where you are in your career—whether you’re fresh out of undergrad or a working professional with loads of job experience—surely, at some point, you’ve asked yourself, “Is a master’s degree worth it?”
That depends. Grad school isn’t right for everyone, especially when you consider that the cost of tuition alone can reach well into the six figures. On the other hand, certain specialized jobs require candidates to have a master’s degree—and some of those jobs offer salaries that make the additional education worth it.
Answering these questions can help you decide if getting a master’s degree is the right call for your career.
Do I need a master’s degree to get the job I want?
Obviously, you want to have a job that is fulfilling and keeps you engaged. If that job requires a master’s degree, well, get your backpack ready. While it’s possible to bypass education requirements for certain jobs, some occupations, such as speech-language pathologists, biomedical engineers, and data scientists, demand a master’s degree, no exceptions.
In other cases, though, having a master’s degree—while it makes you a more attractive job candidate—is a “want” for employers and not a “must,” says Katie Bardaro, lead economist at PayScale. If you’re targeting a specific position, “you have to look at job postings and see what’s listed under ‘preferred’ versus what’s listed under ‘required,’” Bardaro says.
Will I make substantially more money?
A master’s degree is a financial investment—and it could be a big one. Therefore, look at it the way you would any other financial commitment. “You have to think about your return on investment,” says Kristen Tolbert, founder of Career CoLabs, a human resources company. “Look at what people earn with this master’s degree versus what people earn who don’t have it.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average median weekly earnings for a person with a master’s degree is $1,434, compared to $1,198 for people with a bachelor’s degree and $730 for people with a high school diploma. But this isn’t the case for all jobs.
“For certain programs,” Bardaro says, “the salary boost that you’ll see might not actually be that much relative to how much you have to pay for the program.” In light of this info, ask yourself again, “Is a master’s degree worth it?” (As in, is it literally worth it?)
Can I realistically afford to pay for a master's degree program?
Not to keep harping on the money thing, but the fact is that student loan debt is a harsh reality for loads of people. Enrolling in graduate school often requires people to take on debt—students who pursued graduate and professional degrees account for 40% of the $1.5 trillion dollars of outstanding national student loan debt, the College Board reported in 2017.
Moreover, graduate degrees are getting more expensive. From 1989 to 2014, the average debt levels of borrowers with a graduate degree more than quadrupled, from just under $10,000 to more than $40,000, a study from the Brookings Institution found.
“If you’re taking on more student loans, you need to crunch the numbers and see whether you’ll actually be able to pay that money back” without defaulting, says Artem Gulish, senior policy strategist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
How much longer do I plan to work?
Though there’s no set age at which you should stop pursuing your education, how much longer you have left in your career matters when weighing this decision. For instance, if you’re planning to retire in five years, shelling out a ton of dough for grad school may not make sense, since you won’t have time to recoup that money in your higher earnings. On the other hand, if you’re just starting out or have a good number of years before you can even consider retiring, graduate school may be worth the cost if it’s going to increase your long-term earnings.
Is this the right program for me?
Have your eye on a particular grad school? Bardaro says you need to analyze how a degree from that program will boost your career. Particularly, look at the strength of the alumni network. “You don’t always need to go to a name-brand school to get access to a great alumni network,” says Bardaro. Getting a master’s degree from a state school may also help you save money.
Of course, the reputation of the university is important, too. Obtaining a master’s degree from an accredited program, as opposed to one that’s not, can make you more attractive to future employers.
Can I work while going to grad school part-time?
In order to finance their education, many people choose to work full-time while they get their master’s degree; however, that can be a hard juggling act, warns Julie Cohen, leadership coach and CEO of Work Life Leader. Balancing grad school and a full-time job requires strong time-management skills and support from your employer.
Pro tip: Depending on your work schedule, getting a master’s degree online—and studying at night and on weekends—might be your best move, says Jaime Klein, founder of Inspire Human Resources, a New York-based HR consulting firm.
Keep your career moving forward
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