Did you know that U.S. universities are on track to award roughly 837,000 master’s degrees this year? The numbers are impressive, that’s certain, but the growth of students seeking out graduate programs across the country is nothing new.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the U.S. labor force has become increasingly educated over the last several decades. From 1992 to 2016, the share of the labor force made up of people with an advanced degree grew by 5 percent. By 2016, 11 percent of the labor force had a master’s degree.
So, why the uptick? Many connect the rise of graduate students to the growing sentiment that bachelor’s degrees are becoming increasingly inessential as more students graduate from college. In some industries, a bachelor’s may be enough to prove a candidate’s worth, but it may take a master’s degree to rise to the top of an applicant pool—especially in the case of job descriptions that include “bachelor’s required, master’s preferred."
The many benefits of a master’s degree should also be considered, whether taking into account their necessity among some of the fastest-growing occupations or their ability to help students form professional connections to use throughout their careers.
Those who have completed graduate programs are also slightly more likely to benefit from job security. The BLS reports that in 2018, bachelor’s degree holders faced an unemployment rate of 2.2 percent, while unemployment for people with master’s degrees held at 2.1 percent. A minuscule difference, until you clock the size of the American workforce, which was comprised of an estimated 155.76 million that same year.
Why master’s programs are going as strong as ever is more or less a no-brainer, particularly for students who feel confident knowing they’ve laid out a plan for the next steps of their careers. But what about students who want to return to graduate school for another degree?
In short, the decision to complete two master’s degrees—and not to mention, put ample time, money, and effort into doing so—guarantees a lasting impact on your life and career. And though it certainly isn’t odd to have a pair of graduate-level diplomas under your belt, acquiring them will come with a collection of perks and pitfalls you’ll need to think through.
If you have a master’s degree and want to pursue a Ph.D. at some point in your career, you may find that your top doctorate program makes a second master’s degree mandatory.
This is because while some Ph.D. programs only accept students with master's degrees in the program’s specific area of study, others design their programs for students to earn a combined master's and Ph.D. Meaning, as an applicant with an existing master's degree, you’ll have to earn a second in your doctorate program.
This pursuit is particularly feasible for students who receive Ph.D. funding through sources like scholarships, grants, and fellowships to finance their education. Unlike master’s programs, most Ph.D. tracks offer students partial or full funding for their studies and many even pay them a stipend on top of a tuition waiver, making a second master’s degree more feasible than completing it on its own.
In a move to reduce Ph.D. program timelines and attrition, some schools are even changing their approach to funding. The University of Chicago, for example, which introduced a framework in 2016 that guarantees full funding to doctorate students in the humanities, social sciences, divinity studies, and social service until they graduate, with no limits—save they stay in good academic standing.
It’s no secret that employers favor candidates who show a desire to learn—and with two master’s degrees in hand, you’ll easily be able to demonstrate your hunger for doing that in a professional setting.
What’s more, it’s likely that two advanced degrees can enhance your chances of getting noticed in a crowded applicant pool, especially when applying to jobs in a field like social work, psychology, education, and medicine, where most, if not all, candidates have a master’s degree of their own.
Those with two master’s degrees in entirely different areas may have an upper hand in the job market too, especially for candidates seeking positions in either of the two fields they studied in graduate school. For this group, backing from two master’s degrees is somewhat similar to the credentials gained through a dual master’s program.
For example, a master’s in business administration (MBA) and a master’s in public health may open doors to a career in hospital administration. Meanwhile, a master’s in curriculum and instruction incorporated with a master’s in software engineering could be the winning combination to land a senior instructional design role.
It’s never too late to get a jumpstart on a new career, and for many, a second master’s degree is a fail-proof way to embrace a new role within their organization or a different professional field altogether.
It’s also not unheard of for people to enroll in grad school during a career rut and occasionally, without a real plan. Others may come to learn that the reality of the degree program or field doesn’t match their expectations.
If you’re still passionate about your work but no longer interested in the types of jobs commonly available to it, a second master’s degree may help you apply your passion in a different or more specialized way.
If you’re a current or recent graduate student who’s changed your mind about your chosen path, heading back to graduate school may stand as an opportunity to pivot into a new field, especially if the field you’re banking on requires graduate-level training.
Yes, two graduate degrees will make you more well-rounded, help you hone high-level skills, and possibly qualify you for a greater number of jobs. But will it increase your earning potential?
According to the BLS, graduates with a bachelor’s degree earned a median weekly wage of $1,198 in 2018, while those with a master’s degree earned $1,434 in the same time frame.
Though the BLS’s findings prove that a master’s degree generally lays the groundwork for a salary increase, little research has been done on the impact of two master’s degrees on earnings. At the same time, certain master’s degrees come with the near guarantee of lucrative pay, which may motivate your first or second lap around graduate school—and your choice of which degree you’ll put to work in your career.
__The ten top-paying master’s degrees, listed by national average annual salary:__
There are many reasons to give thought to a job you’re overqualified for, whether to switch industries, opt for a less stressful workload, or focus on a company with a mission you support. But when applying to entry- or associate-level positions, it can be challenging to be taken seriously with a master's degree—let alone two.
A hiring manager in this situation may be concerned about the chances you’ll find something that better matches your training and expertise, and consider leaving their organization after it’s invested time and money into on-the-job training. It’s also typical for employers to assume that if you have more education than the job requires, your target salary is probably higher than the role offers.
The most available recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) indicates that the average student loan debt was $66,000 for graduate students in 2015-16. That same year, 60 percent of students completed a master’s degree program with debt, compared to the 47 percent of students who completed their program with debt in 1999-2000.
Here’s how average debt stacks up for graduates with specific master’s degrees:
The type of school you attend also affects your level of debt as well. For example, students who completed a master’s at a public college or university in 2015-2016 pulled in an average student loan debt of $54,500. That number increased to $71,900 at private nonprofit and $90,300 at private for-profit institutions.
Additionally, despite the benefits of online master’s programs, it’s unfair to assume they’re more financially feasible than their traditional counterpart. As Jeff Olson, Associate Provost for online learning and services at Saint Johns University, puts it in a 2013 U.S. News and World Report article, "Some online programs are more expensive and some are less expensive, but in general they are the same price."
While you have little control over the cost of two master’s degrees, you do have a say in whether adding to any existing student loans are worth it. In the end, it’s up to you to think critically about the financial undertaking that is returning to graduate school—and the degree of student loan debt you can live with.
Master's programs can vary from intensive, full-time programs that take only a year to complete to part-time programs that can take several years or longer. Like any master’s degree, a second master’s will take a considerable amount of time, especially for students who have full-time jobs, families to care for, or other obligations.
What’s more, tacking on additional time in graduate school may detract from the combination of theoretical and practical skills that employees typically want candidates to have. More significantly, a second master’s degree may hinder your chances of acquiring the professional experience that employers increasingly look for while hiring.
According to a report on recruitment statistics for hiring top talent in 2020, 82 percent of recruitment professionals say they view candidates’ experience as very or extremely important.
At the same time, the importance of training gained through higher education may be slowly taking a back seat. Recruitment industry trends show that 36 percent of employers are lowering their education and experience requirements, while 33 percent look to recruit from outside the traditional talent pool.
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