Teaching

Should You Get a Master’s Degree in the Subject You Teach?

Should You Get a Master’s Degree in the Subject You Teach?
The benefits of earning a Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) or a Master of Education (MEd) are much more tangible than the benefits of earning a subject-specific master's degree. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry December 27, 2019

A bachelor's degree is usually enough to get you into the classroom, and only some states require teachers to get a master's degree in education to renew their teaching license. That means if you're passionate about the subject you teach, you have the option of getting a master's in that subject (instead of education). The question is, should you?

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Every state sets its own requirements for teachers. Most, but not all, require that teachers working in K-12 schools have a bachelor’s degree in education and pass the PRAXIS exams, teacher certification tests administered by the Educational Testing Service. Aspiring teachers must also submit to a rigorous background check in most states.

Beyond that, requirements differ widely from state to state. In Ohio, for instance, teachers must also pass the Ohio Assessments for Educators (OAE) exam. In Massachusetts, they must pass the Communications and Literacy Skill MTEL test plus subject-matter knowledge exams.

Only some states require elementary, middle, and high school teachers to have master’s degrees in education (either the MEd or MAT), though you should be aware that this is changing. The number of states requiring teachers to eventually earn a master’s degree to maintain full professional licensure is increasing, and the number of teachers getting master’s degrees is increasing as well. You may eventually need to join their ranks to keep your teaching license current.

For now, as long as you’re working in a state that doesn’t require you to get a master’s degree in teaching, you have the option of getting a subject-matter-specific master’s degree instead. It may not be the norm in the US, but it’s one path to consider if you’re passionate about the subject you teach.

In this article about whether to get a master’s degree in the subject you teach, we’ll cover:

  • Do you need a master’s degree to become a teacher?
  • Benefits of getting a master’s degree in the subject you teach
  • Subject-specific master’s degrees versus MAT and MEd degrees
  • How much more do teachers get paid with a master’s in their subject?
  • Career options for teachers with a master’s in the subject they teach
  • Pros and cons of getting a master’s in the subject you teach

Do you need a master’s degree to become a teacher?

Sometimes. Most teachers enter the profession after completing an undergraduate degree program in elementary or secondary education. These bachelor’s degree programs prepare teachers not only to provide instruction but also to manage classrooms and individual students. In some states, aspiring middle school and high school teachers are required to double-major in education and the subject they wish to teach. To become a math teacher, for instance, you could double-major in education and math or pursue a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics Education or Bachelor of Science in Education with a concentration in mathematics.

Some states require teachers at higher grade levels to earn a master’s degree before they can apply for recertification, typically five years after initial licensure. The requirements, including impacted subjects and grade levels, vary from state to state. In all, about 48 percent of public school teachers hold a master’s degree (another 9 percent hold a doctorate).

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Graduate degrees for teachers fall into two categories: the Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) and the Master of Education (MEd). Many resources indicate that the MAT is the best master’s degree for teachers, while MEd programs are primarily for aspiring educational administrators, policymakers, and other current education professionals who aspire to work outside the classroom. In reality, it’s not quite that simple.

Both MAT and MEd programs tend to be concentration-based, and while there are more part-time and full-time Master of Arts in Teaching programs focused on advanced pedagogic theories and skills, there are also plenty of Master of Education programs with grade-level, subject-area, and student-population concentrations.

In some areas of the US, a teacher with a master’s degree at the top of the salary schedule can earn close to $40,000 more than a teacher with a bachelor’s degree. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that going to graduate school will lead to a substantially bigger paycheck. The only way to know how much you’ll earn after graduating with a master’s in teaching or master’s in education is to look at the salary schedule in your district. You should be able to see at a glance how your education and experience will translate into dollars. (source)

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Benefits of getting a master’s degree in the subject you teach

Ninety percent of teachers who earn master’s degrees hold degrees in teaching or education—possibly because the benefits of earning a Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) or a Master of Education (MEd) are much more tangible than the benefits of earning a subject-specific master’s. That said, there are plenty of reasons to go back to school to learn more about the subject you teach instead of enrolling in a teacher preparation program:

  • You may make more money: Don’t assume you need a MAT or MEd to boost your earning potential. Data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics for 2015-16 show that teachers with master’s degrees earn 26 percent more than their peers without advanced degrees ($60,140 vs $47,770), regardless of the type of master’s.
  • Your students may do better: It’s not clear how teacher education impacts student achievement, but as you learn, you’ll have more information to pass on to your students. You may not learn curriculum design in a subject-specific master’s program, but the curricula you put together after you complete that program will likely be much richer and more engaging.
  • You may be more hireable: A master’s degree in any subject can help you stand out in a crowd of teachers who have bachelor’s degrees. While not every school district will see the value of a subject-specific master’s degree, some will—especially if you teach math or another STEM subject.
  • You can pivot more easily: Having a master’s degree in the subject you teach means you have the option of transitioning out of education if you decide teaching isn’t for you. That’s not to say it will be easy to switch careers, but you’ll have the requisite educational background to move into a different field.

Subject-specific master’s degrees versus MAT and MEd degrees

MAT and MEd degree programs are often lumped together, but they can be quite different. The students in these two types of programs typically have very different goals, and the coursework in each program type reflects that. MAT students usually plan to stay in the classroom for their entire careers, and MAT programs accordingly focus on teaching methodologies. MEd students more often hope to transition to administration, policy, or curriculum design, and MEd programs are designed to serve those objectives.

Both the MAT and the MEd are recognized in education as valuable by educational administrators and others responsible for education hiring decisions. Getting a master’s degree in the subject you teach may or may not confer the same benefits as getting a master’s degree in education. If you’re currently working as a teacher and you’re considering enrolling in a subject-specific master’s program, there is one way to get a feel for whether your supervisors will appreciate the value of your degree: ask them directly.

How much more do teachers get paid with a master’s in their subject?

This question is almost impossible to answer if you’re teaching at the K-12 level because every district has a different opinion of the value of your subject-specific master’s. Your degree will expose you to the newest theories, trends, and practices in your field of interest, but you’ll have missed out on learning about the latest trends in teaching and opportunities to complete fieldwork hours through student teaching. Some school administrators may not want to offer you the same compensation as a teacher with a MAT or MEd for that reason.

On the other hand, if you’re getting a master’s degree in the subject you teach because you want to move into a teaching position in higher education, you may make $10,000 or more than you would in teaching positions in elementary and secondary education. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, elementary school teachers make about $58,000, high school teachers make about $60,000, and professors make about $78,000. If you can find a teaching position at the college level, your lifetime earning potential will definitely increase.

Career options for teachers with a master’s in the subject they teach

Provided your state doesn’t require a master’s in education for licensure and you’re not looking to teach special education, you can teach at any level with a bachelor’s degree in education. A subject-specific master’s can augment your teaching in—and value to—public or private schools (the latter may actually value your specialization more). Having a master’s in the subject you teach may also qualify you for teaching positions in higher education, especially at smaller schools and two-year community colleges.

Most college- or university-level faculty are experts in their subject, not in pedagogical theory and curriculum design. And while it’s true that many college-level instructors hold—or are at least pursuing—PhDs or doctorates, it’s possible to teach in higher education with just a master’s. You’ll also have the qualifications necessary to work outside the classroom if you decide it’s time to transition out of education and into your field of interest.

Pros and cons of getting a master’s in the subject you teach

A master’s degree can translate to higher pay, better opportunities, and better outcomes for students. Paradoxically, the first two are more likely if you earn a master’s degree in teaching or education, even though the value of these degrees, in terms of classroom outcomes, is at best uncertain. A master’s in math or science is much more conclusively linked to improved student achievement, even though some school systems don’t offer financial incentives for it.

A master’s in the subject you teach will help you transition out of education should you later decide to change careers. If, however, you hope to spend your career in the classroom or in school administration, the MAT or MEd might serve your purposes better.

The bottom line is that if you plan to stay in the K-12 classroom until you retire, think carefully about getting a master’s in the subject you teach. At the end of the day, there’s nothing wrong with learning for learning’s sake, but you shouldn’t let your passion for your subject cloud your judgment when it comes to your career.

Questions or feedback? Email editor@noodle.com

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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