"Do I need a master's degree?" is a question many students ask themselves as they draw near the end of their undergraduate years, and for good reason. Some occupations require a master's degree to qualify for entry-level jobs. Others might not require an advanced degree, but graduate education provides a way to stand out in the job applicant pool.
If you're already out in the working world, a master's degree can help you broaden your options in your current career and even transition into an entirely new one.
Graduate school can provide financial incentives representing the deciding factor for prospective students. According to a study from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median income for full-time workers ages 25 and over whose highest level of education was a master's degree was $68,000 in 2013, compared with $56,000 for those whose highest level was a bachelor's degree—a $12,000 difference. In some fields—securities, commodities, and financial services, for example—that master's premium balloons as high as $80,000 per year.
Still, it's worth noting that the salary boost you'll see from a master's degree in some disciplines might not be as significant as the premiums mentioned above. Some may even fail to provide enough of a pay increase to justify graduate school tuition costs. While earning more money isn't the only reason (or even necessarily the most important reason) to earn a master's degree, it is nice to reap the rewards of your hard effort.
Fortunately, master's programs exist across a range of disciplines that offer graduates not only an eye-popping starting salary but also greater earnings throughout their careers. Let's take a look at the best master's degrees for high earnings potential in 2021.
Our guide to the best master's degrees for high paying jobs covers:
Many of the programs included in our list of highest paying master's degrees offer an online optiont, enabling students to advance their careers without having to take time away from their jobs or family.
Computer science grad school programs serve students looking to develop innovative solutions for today's digital challenges. These programs focus on advanced theory and practice in computer science and information technology (IT).
Master of Science in Computer Science (MSCS) programs focus on a mix of core and elective topics like machine learning, programming, software development, engineering, and database management. They frequently allow students to tailor their coursework to their career goals. Since modern computer technology is part of just about everything that touches our lives, this degree opens vast career opportunities.
According to PayScale, which analyzes anonymous salary data collected from millions of people with similar job titles, years of experience, and education, professionals with a computer science master's degree earn an average salary of $103,566 per year. Their degrees also improve their prospects when seeking out senior and leadership roles in a wide range of computer science-related fields.
Especially lucrative careers usually call for significant work experience. They include the following, listed by average annual salary:
Artificial intelligence (AI) has pervaded industries in ways that couldn't be anticipated even 20 years ago. What's more, AI's impact is only expected to grow, expanding the career potential for those with the right skills along with it. However, professionals with the necessary combination of abilities are often hard to come by. Add in the field's competitive job market, and earning an AI graduate degree is a wise choice.
Master's program curricula typically delve into advanced technical and theoretical topics, such as computer robotics, natural language processing, and machine learning, which students apply to real-world systems and processes. Many programs also allow students to specialize. The online Master of Science in Computer Science from Southern Methodist University (SMU) is one example, with AI specializations spanning logic programming to information storage and retrieval.
PayScale reports that, on average, degree-holders take home $102,669 per year. AI can seamlessly integrate itself into any industry, making specialized job opportunities virtually endless. Some of the best-paying include:
As an ever-growing number of organizations scramble to protect their data and information, job projections for cybersecurity professionals increase at a staggering rate. According to the BLS, employment of information security analysts alone is projected to grow 31 percent by 2029, making it one of the fastest-growing occupations in the US.
At the same time, a global cybersecurity skills shortage has left many organizations unable to effectively source the talent they need. Increased threats in both volume and sophistication are driving high demand for professionals with adequate automation skills to build and run the necessary processes.
Fortunately, degree options are available for those looking to gain the required skills. Some are specifically geared for career-changers, offering a direct path to a master's degree for individuals who lack relevant experience. Others, like the online MS in Cybersecurity from the University of Tulsa, target applicants who have a background in computer science and seek to expand their skills and knowledge to pursue technical and managerial leaders in the field.
Overall, this degree delivers an average annual salary of $87,643, with opportunities for senior, management, and executive roles at academic, corporate, or government organizations. High-salary positions include:
While computer science focuses on computational theories and the virtual aspects of computer systems, computer engineering generally centers around the construction of computational systems and devices. The latter field offers varied career paths in hardware engineering and software development, with opportunities to drive computing advances in industries ranging from aerospace and healthcare to telecommunications, retail, and even renewable energy.
A bachelor's degree in computer engineering qualifies candidates for entry-level roles in the field, but a master's degree can help secure management and leadership positions that bring ideas to life through the practical computing applications. The degree offers an average annual salary of $101,693. Some of the most lucrative jobs in the field include:
Graduate programs in computer information systems (CIS) cover a wide range of subjects, including those traditionally covered in the IT and computer science realm. However, CIS represents a specialized domain that bridges the gap between tech innovation and practical application to the business world.
Coursework typically focuses on IT project management in the information technology field through a mix of computer and business topics related to software development, data analytics, computer and information systems, business information systems, and business analytics. Some programs also allow students to specialize. The online Master of Science in Information Systems and Technology from Claremont Graduate University is one example, with options in areas covering data science and IT innovation and design.
Most CIS programs also include a capstone project or internship to enable students to use their business savvy and technical expertise across government, corporate, and non-profit settings, and prepare them to pursue jobs across a variety of industries. On average, PayScale data indicates that professionals with this degree make $95,599 per year. Salaries for specific roles include:
As technology continues to change the way companies develop and manage their projects, products, and teams, professionals who can use technological innovation to optimize organizational performance have a decisive advantage. But acquiring the right mix of tech skills and management acumen is easier said than done.
Those seeking transformational leadership positions in IT management will find that master's programs in technology management teach students to align strategic thinking with technology, build quality teams, maximize IT investments, and prepare organizations for change.
Curricula often feature coursework that spans core business topics and technology management tools, such as leadership development, business innovation, IT project management, and security. The goal is to prepare graduates to successfully harness technology to accomplish strategic organizational goals in every industry and business sector.
The BLS reports that the job outlook for computer and information systems managers is above average, with a projected growth of 10 percent by 2029. Compensation with this degree is also substantial, offering an average salary of $99,083 per year. The potential for even higher earnings come with a range of senior-level and leadership positions in the field, such as:
In recent years, the Master of Business Administration (MBA) has become one of the most popular graduate degree options in the U.S., with hundreds of thousands of students a year enrolling in programs at institutions across the country. Many professionals see the degree as a way to grow their business acumen and develop the interpersonal, leadership, strategic thinking, and communication skills that top employers desire.
Overall, MBA programs expose students to business through coursework in accounting, finance, marketing, organizational behavior, human resources, management, and business ethics. They also provide experiential learning opportunities in which students participate in class projects and case studies.
The popularity of the degree has also created a variety of options geared for specific levels of professional experience. Howard University, for example, offers both an online MBA to help motivated professionals take a step up in their careers and an online Executive Master of Business Administration (EMBA) to teach established professionals the skills and mindset of successful executives. Prospective students will also find that MBAs can be further categorized by flexibility. University of Tulsa's online MBA and SMU's online MBA are two examples of programs designed with working professionals in mind, with part-time, synchronous formats.
While an undergraduate education in business administration provides the credentials to pursue jobs like financial analyst, human resource specialist, and similar entry-level roles in finance, technology, healthcare, and other fields, an MBA affords the skills to advance into management positions across industries. Degree holders make an average of $89,935 per year, though some may seek out even higher-paying jobs, like:
The difference between CIS and management information systems (MIS) can be subtle, especially as it's standard to find both disciplines at work in an IT department. IIt's helpful to think of CIS as the technical approach to information systems, such as system maintenance and troubleshooting operations and the planning of major IT projects and budgetary compliance. On the other hand, MIS focuses on how computer information and IT architecture can facilitate organizational decision-making.
Master's programs in the field provide MIS professionals with the skills to understand how the technical components of systems come together to configure platform reporting features and ensure data accuracy, often through integrative courses in topics such as enterprise applications and infrastructure, database management, and business theory. The degree offers an average annual salary of $88,091 and even higher earnings potential in roles like:
In every industry, organizations have to manage their daily operations while wasting as little productivity, time, and money as possible. Successfully achieving this requires input from operations research professionals, whose daily tasks include creating mathematical models to examine data to improve efficiency, manage assets, monitor policies, and drive operational decision-making.
Entry-level jobs in this niche are available for candidates with bachelor's degrees in operations research or in other quantitative fields, such as computer science, industrial engineering, and mathematics. More selective positions typically require a master's degree, which provides students with a strong foundation in mathematics as they explore the latest industry technologies, applications, and processes used by organizations to drive results.
Once graduated, many put their new skills to work forecasting the implications of various business management choices and identifying the best possible alternatives at organizations in every industry. Their degree offers an annual salary of $98,636, as well as a pathway to high-paying roles like:
The last several decades have seen the advent of increasingly complex construction projects in both the public and private sectors, requiring construction managers with the expertise to coordinate these large-scale projects from beginning to end. Certification in construction management can provide a broad view of essential industry-related topics to help current construction professionals grow their career options. Master's programs in construction management, however, dive more deeply into the complexity of the field, focusing on the technical knowledge, practical business decision-making, and leadership skills relevant to successfully leading construction operations.
Along with a comprehensive introduction to industry principles, construction management master's programs typically touch on civil engineering, project management, management science, business and economics, and legal relations. Prospective students also have specialization options, with some schools providing construction management master's degrees focused on real estate development, cost estimating and cost control, and safety management. Others offer concentrations in emerging fields, such as sustainable and green construction and construction technology.
According to PayScale, a master's in construction management offers an average salary of $75,256 and opens doors to even higher-paying opportunities in the field that include:
Like technology management, informatics focuses on helping organizations function more efficiently through technology. Still, the field differs in that it doesn't just examine technological innovations but how, why, where, and when to use them. Better yet, it explores how we can use data to deliver the best user experience possible.
Health informatics master's programs are among the most widespread programs of study in the field and stand ready to work at the forefront of the current technological shift in medicine. Coursework typically combines information science knowledge and technical skills training with an understanding of business fundamentals and the strategic thinking needed to address real-world issues of information strategy, data governance, ethics, and patient care.
Many programs also allow students to gain knowledge in a specific discipline through a specialization or by completing a certification in addition to their degree. The online MS in Health Informatics from the University of Pittsburgh is an example of the latter, with certification options in health data analytics, health information cybersecurity, leadership in health informatics, and revenue cycle management.
PayScale data indicates that, on average, professionals with a health informatics master's degree take home $73,394 in annual salary. High-paying jobs with this degree include:
While it's undoubtedly possible to have a successful, dynamic nursing career with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) alone, earning a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) allows RNs to pursue advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) roles such as a nurse practitioner (NP), clinical nurse specialist (CNS), certified nurse-midwife (CNM), or certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA).
Many master's degree programs also allow graduate students to tailor their coursework to focus on patient care or healthcare administration specializations, among many other areas in the field. The online Master of Science in Nursing at the University of Michigan - Ann Arbor, for example, offers a leadership, analytics, and innovation specialization, as well as options in family primary care and adult-gerontology primary care.
Overall, it's a degree that promises anaverage salary of $95,922 per year, and, depending on your program choice, the opportunity to pursue a range of some of the highest-paying specializations in the nursing field. They include:
From transportation and manufacturing to regulation, engineering, and research, aerospace remains an integral part of what makes our world go 'round—or rather, up and down. It's a fascinating area of study requiring a knack for accuracy, an eye for detail, and a technical background spanning the field's core areas.
Master's programs in aeronautics generally require two years of full-time study. Depending on the program's focus, topics may range from engineering-focused coursework in statistical analysis for aerospace, aircraft design, and aerodynamics to management-based areas like aviation leadership, civil aviation regulatory systems, and process improvement and simulation.
Graduates pursue careers in aircraft and spacecraft engineering, space exploration, commercial space transportation, military service, and various related technology-intensive fields, making an average salary of $116,164. Specialized roles and responsibilities in the field include:
The engineering field encompasses various industries and innovations, from chemical engineering to biomedical engineering, civil, architectural, and electrical engineering. Generally, it involves scientific and mathematical foundations that require expertise in design principles, advanced technological concepts, and problem-solving. Though many seeking jobs in the field can succeed with just an undergraduate degree in a relevant engineering discipline, a master's degree opens doors to high-level and specialized positions, including those teaching at the university level and conducting research.
Master's program curricula vary depending on program specialization. Still, generally, core coursework includes engineering management, advanced engineering mathematics, and statistics and combines advanced technical work with leadership and management skills.
According to PayScale, degree-holders make an average salary of $92,738 per year, with management and leadership positions offering even higher earnings. They include:
Petroleum engineering is primarily concerned with crude oil and natural gas production from reservoirs, wells, and other areas where oil or gas exists. Rooted in mining engineering, the field has developed as the world's energy needs have changed, and today is crucial to modern business, industry, and society at large.
Petroleum engineers are primarily concerned with maximizing the use and production of energy sources. They also evaluate oil and gas reservoirs to determine profitability and ensure that the drilling process is completed as safely and efficiently as possible. As demands increase for alternative energy, forward-thinking professionals in the field have turned their focus to clean energy products that produce fewer carbon emissions.
While these positions typically require a bachelor's degree in petroleum engineering, mechanical engineering, or chemical engineering, a master's degree can provide an edge in the job market and is generally required for positions in higher education research. Degree-holders make an average salary of $99,960, while earnings from specialized roles in the field include:
When you're weighing the pros and cons of a prospective graduate program, the idea of a cushy paycheck and the freedom associated with it can be tempting. But it can't be the only factor in mapping out your future. After all, what good is six figures after a soul-deadening 8 to 10 hours in the office, five days a week? Look for a balance between careers that offer enough money to support yourself with work in a field that energizes and engages you and doesn't leave you feeling compromised in the long run.