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Bachelor’s Required; Master’s Preferred

Have you seen this statement on a job application yet?

The mantra chanted by educators, parents, and employers that a bachelor’s degree is essential to succeed within today’s workplace has been heard loud and clear; over 33% of today’s 25-29 year olds hold a bachelor’s, up from 17% in 1971[1]. This signals an important societal shift toward bachelor’s completion specifically, and credential completion generally, as 43% of today’s job openings require a bachelor’s, and 76% require some training/education after high school[2].

iStock_000019775890SmallThe problem is that a bachelor’s may no longer be enough for those entering occupations that expect a higher degree, or for those rising above entry-level positions. In some industries, the deeper skill set and knowledge base earned through a graduate degree is essential. In others, a bachelor’s may be enough to prove competence within the field, but it may take a graduate degree to rise to the top of an applicant pool.  Put yourself in the hiring manager’s shoes…two resumes sit before you from candidates with very similar experiences, but only one lists a master’s. Assuming similar personality and skill-set fits, who would you hire?

This is the real situation facing many employers. The position they are attempting to fill does not necessarily require the background one gains through a master’s, but it sure doesn’t hurt if a candidate has one. And, for jobs that do prefer a master’s degree, it is likely few individuals applying for that same job will have completed graduate work. Because of this, now might be the right time to look at pursuing a graduate degree, particularly if you continue to see “master’s preferred” in job descriptions.

While graduate school isn’t for everyone, the benefits of a master’s degree make it at least worth considering. First, you differentiate yourself within an important selection criterion — education. Most, if not all, employers consider education when hiring, making salary decisions, and offering raises. Second, a master’s will move you into a smaller percentage of today’s workforce, where 8.1% of those over 25 years old have a master’s compared to 19.9% with a bachelor’s[3]. Third, those who have completed graduate work are more resilient to economic downturns like the one we recently faced, or some argue, are still in. The current unemployment rate for bachelor’s holders is 4.9%, but dips to 3.6% for those with a master’s[4].

This argument for differentiating yourself through education applies broadly across all industries, but is it valid for your field? See what the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports about the educational attainment breakdown within your occupation, and share your experiences with us here.

[1] Pew Research Center tabulations of March Current Population Surveys, 1971-2012
[2] Brookings Institution
[3] Current Population Survey, Bureau of Labor Statistics
[4] Current Population Survey, Bureau of Labor Statistics

11 thoughts on “Bachelor’s Required; Master’s Preferred”

  1. Getajobwithtom

    I am really not sure I agree with this post. 2 Resumes sit in front of you. One has a Masters, one has not done a masters, but got a good job working in the real world. Which one do you take? For me its the one with a years experience.

    Passing a masters just shows that your clever, not that you can make it in the real world.

    1. Great point, Getajobwithtom. When you include
      the additional variable of job experience, a hiring decision becomes much more
      difficult. I have seen committees face a clear hiring decision because they
      only receive one application describing directly relatable skills and
      However, most selection committees I have been a part of receive numerous
      applications detailing valuable work experiences, and often no one set of
      experiences rise above the others in terms of applicability to the position
      opening. When this is the case, education and training usually play a part in
      making the final hiring decision.
      I don’t mean to portray that education is the
      only factor or even that it rises above other factors, but in today’s world
      where many people are working full-time and going to school, it certainly tips
      the scales in the right direction for an applicant.

  2. Eloise Williams

    What are the disciplines of graduate study that are marketable for future employment? Does is matter or just having any Master’s degree will suffice?

    1. Hi, Eloise. I’d point you to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, which will let you parse out this question in much greater detail than we can do here. On that site, you can search for careers based on the expected education for entry level positions, median pay, projected new jobs, industry growth rate, and required training. This should give you a good understanding of which industries are growing, which are requiring an increased level of education or training, and the pay ranges for each profession.

    2. AmyJoMillerCSUOnlinePlus

      Hi Eloise,

      In addition to Matt’s response, Claire Pettner, CSU OnlinePlus director of recruitment and retention wanted to add:

      The answer to your question ‘will any masters degree suffice?’ will actually differ depending on what field you are currently in (or interested in transitioning into), what program you might be researching, and ultimately the needs of any given employer. There are some fields that require advanced graduate study in very specific areas, some that require graduate study in specific areas along with a field placement, internship, additional requirements for licensure or other exam or testing requirements above and beyond graduate study, and some fields that do not require graduate study at all — and every type of variation in between. One of the best ways to start researching what the specific requirements would be for a job or field you are interested in is to begin to review open job descriptions for their educational requirements, or even to pursue some informational interviews with HR professionals at those employers you are interested in or with individuals who currently hold the job you would one day like to pursue. Ask them questions about the educational requirements for their profession in today’s world, and what they anticipate will be the trend in the future for that specific role, profession or industry. Like Matt suggested, you can supplement your research with data from the Occupational Outlook Handbook on the Bureau of Labor Statistics website or other similar sites and resources to help guide you in your decision making process. You will also want to keep in mind that simply pursuing (or completing!) graduate studies and any supplemental requirements in a given area will never be sufficient to guarantee employment into any field, even if graduate studies are considered a minimum qualification to be considered for individuals within that field. Since pursuing graduate studies requires a significant investment of time and energy (and often
      money) you should carefully weigh out all of your reasons for pursuing a graduate degree before beginning. While future employment considerations should be one part of that ‘mix’ of decision making, it should not be the sole reason for pursuing graduate studies, since there are many elements that go into any hiring decision — and there may be additional ways to increase your marketability in any given field independent of your educational pursuits or supplemental to them.

  3. comment_comment_comment

    My issue with the current line of thinking that many employers seem to share is that they will state “Bachelor’s required, Master’s Preferred.”

    Why? What specific skills sets are you increasing during work towards a Master’s that are deemed a requirement for this position? Or better yet, what is the justification for tapping an employee on the shoulder and saying “We’re going to need you to stop everything you’re doing, dedicate two years of your life, and take out another $40k in loans to pursue a Master’s degree.”

    To me, and according to your article, it isn’t a requirement. It’s simply an easy way for employers to spend other people’s time and money in an effort remedy their own indecisiveness.

    As an Aerospace Engineer, that’s a hard pill to swallow. Until I’m able to squeeze every last drop out of my Bachelor’s degree, I have no intention of paying the Master’s degree tax. That doesn’t even take into consideration the knowledge gained from on-the-job and personal learning.

    A Master’s degree used to just be a necessary step towards a job in academia. Now it’s simply a coin to get passed a filter.

    1. You make good points, and I would respond with the
      following: tangible and necessary learning does occur within master’s programs, and if a master’s is necessary for a step within your career, it is better to be partially through a program when that step presents itself than to have to start from the beginning.

      Your argument, and part of the blog’s thesis, is a master’s degree is a necessary credential to gain access to some positions within some fields. This view is accurate based on employment data. However, we would be short-changing academic departments if we did not account for the time and effort they put into developing degrees that are beneficial to the industry they support. Typically, there is a robust give and take among academic programs and organizations/corporations hiring graduates to assure the skills and knowledge gained within courses are applicable and contemporary. In short,
      it is not just about the diploma on the wall. Learning and the development of
      applicable skills result from the completion of master’s degrees, making the
      degrees desirable by varying industries.

      Regarding getting everything out of your bachelor’s degree, I completely agree. Your degree has great value, and likely helped you earn your first position in engineering, which then allowed you to learn the specific skills your position would require through on-the-job learning. The only point I would stress is that your future may hold opportunities for other positions or greater responsibility. If a graduate degree is not necessary within your field, getting a master’s is not a concern. However, if education is a factor when considering who gets a promotion or is qualified for a new position, it would be better to have started a program at least, and to have finished one at best. Often, those that have started a degree are given the same opportunities as those that have finished the same degree.

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  7. Academic advisors counsel students on what courses to take and the graduation requirements of their specific programs. They help students with career planning and coordinate orientations for new and transfer students. They also review placement and other standardized test scores, transcripts and course prerequisites to help determine whether a student is eligible to join certain programs or classes.

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