“Should I get a master’s degree?” It’s a question that lingers in the minds of many, from college seniors nearing graduation to established professionals looking to change or advance their careers. “As with most life choices, there is no simple answer to that question,” said Daniel J. Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. When considering going to grad school, there are different factors to consider — the cost of earning a graduate degree versus the potential for higher career earnings, the commitment of time compared to the number of years an individual will be involved in a specific career, professional licensing and certification requirements, and others.
Hurley advises taking the long-term analysis approach by comparing occupational demand to economic forecasts. “Pursuing advanced degrees involves a significant investment of time. Whether or not having a graduate degree may make an individual appear to be overqualified when seeking a position depends on the state of the economy, occupational trends, and the labor market,” he added.
In certain fields, prospective employers may value work experience more than advanced degrees. Hurley said that the overall employment picture needs to be considered. However, in fields like medicine, social work, and increasingly in elementary and secondary education, master’s degrees are required to qualify for certain positions or can be required as part of state continuing education regulations.
As far as financial considerations are concerned, research indicates that on average, an individual with a master’s degree will earn more than an individual with only an undergraduate degree. Citing a study conducted last year, Robert Bernstein of the U.S. Census Bureau said, “We estimate that earning a master’s would result in work-life earnings of $2.8 million — which is $412,000 more than one would earn if they held only a bachelor’s.”
The Census Bureau study predicts that the number of careers that will require graduate degrees will grow by 20 percent by 2016. It notes that average yearly wages increase by up to $10,000 for those with a graduate degree, compared to those with an undergraduate degree.
A Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce study comparing 15 industries concluded that the median earnings of a graduate degree, on average, is 38.3 percent more than the earnings of a bachelor’s in the same career focus.
Of course, the return on investment varies depending on the degree. For example, Hurley said, “a Master’s of Social Work typically costs less to earn than a Master’s of Business Administration, but an M.B.A. generally carries a higher financial return on the investment than an M.S.W.”
There are certainly other good reasons, beyond finances, to earn an advanced degree. “A lot of individuals pursue master’s degrees as a matter of intellectual growth,” Hurley said. “It can provide a sense of well-being, personal accomplishment and contributes to the community well-being.”
If you’re curious if getting a master’s could give you a salary boost, or at least better prospects in the job market, Hurley suggests visiting the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ projections on earnings and unemployment rates by educational attainment, Trends in Higher Education by CollegeBoard, and Payscale.com.
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