Is a Highly Specialized Graduate Degree Worth It?
March 10, 2021
Don't spend time and money on something that won't pay off—either literally or figuratively.
When you look at the most popular master’s degrees in the United States, business, education, and healthcare are the most sought-after fields. Within them, there are some rather general degrees, like the master of business administration (MBA), while others are very specific and practical. A look at the top 10 master’s degree programs from 2010, broken out by gender, also reveals that highly specialized degrees can be quite popular. Would something like that be the right fit for you, though?
When I say “highly specialized," by the way, I mean a degree that restricts the types of jobs you can obtain once you graduate. Elementary education, for example, could potentially lead you to become a teacher, an aid, or other educational professional, but beyond that, it’s fairly limiting. A degree in marketing could lead to manifold opportunities, but might not give you specific skills that you’d get with something more focused. It’s somewhat of a tradeoff, depending on the degree: specialized knowledge vs. general skills.
When to consider earning a highly specialized degree
I myself graduated with a very specific degree in art business that I later regretted because I didn’t love the subject matter, or industry, as much as I thought. So this advice comes with a fair amount of personal insight behind it. I wouldn’t want you to spend time and money on something that doesn’t pay off, either literally or figuratively. So here are a few things to consider when asking yourself when to consider earning a highly specialized degree.
When there’s absolutely no need to branch out.
I realize that it’s no fun to think about the worst-case scenario. Isn’t it more enjoyable to think about all the opportunities you might obtain with your new degree? I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but economic downturns, decline of certain industries (print journalism, to name one), overabundance of similar candidates/degree-holders, and lack of opportunity in a particular geographic region are all important things to consider when you’re thinking about more school.
Consider the following questions. If the answer to all three is yes, you should be safe with your very specific degree. If you’re not sure, rethink, or at least understand your risks.
- In every scenario you can think of, will your degree still enable you to make money?
- Will your chosen career (to the best of your knowledge) not be obsolete anytime soon?
- Most importantly, will you always want to pursue exactly this profession?
One of the most formative conversations I had as an undergraduate was with a fellow student in an art history class. Only a small group of people studied the major, and I didn’t recognize her. “Oh, I’m not an art student," she laughed. “I’m an accounting major—but I realized I hate accounting, so I’m branching out a bit."
I was both horrified and impressed by what the student (who was a senior, with no chance of changing majors) had told me. On the one hand, what a waste of an expensive education—so I assumed, anyway. On the other hand, good for her for recognizing it and figuring out what she did want to do. But with the benefit of hindsight, she probably wouldn’t have picked something quite so specialized as accounting, if she could’ve done it all over again.
My point is, take some time for deep reflection not just for the end result and the money, but also the process to get there and your relevant hopes and interests—then pick your major from those values. If a highly focused degree still makes sense, go for it!
When you care deeply about the subject matter.
This might go without saying, but when you care deeply about a subject, and when there are a few types of jobs that’ll help you pay off your debt when you graduate, go for it. I saw a fellow writer change course to pursue a highly technical degree in climate studies because she felt called to help the planet—a very worthy goal, in my opinion—and she could afford to dive into the specifics because she knew her passion would lead her to fulfilling work.
Even if she changes her exact focus, she still cares very much for climate change and will find a way to use her degree. If, for example, she decided to get a law degree hoping to specialize in climate legislation, then she realized she hated being a lawyer, she might be stuck with a degree that has no value to her. When in doubt, pick the degree that matches your strengths and interests simultaneously.
In my case, had I gone to graduate school for writing (as would’ve been a better fit for me), I would have selected journalism or some other practical focus. Concentrating on a very specific kind of art form like poetry may be a good fit for some, but for me, I thrive when outlets and companies pay me to write. General journalism, marketing, and communication skills would allow me to branch out and adapt to certain types of writing once I got rolling.
Please also note that I'm not suggesting poets can’t ever get paid—just that there wouldn’t be enough flexibility in a degree like that for me to pursue different modes of employment, should I want to.
When there’s just enough wiggle room.
Don’t just ask yourself: what do I want? Make sure to also ask: what am I willing to live with? Put yourself in the scenario in which, despite all of your best efforts, this career path ends up not being for you. You fall out of love with or become overwhelmed by the particular frustrations of your work. Some law or organizational change means you can’t continue in exactly the same way as you did. Something happens to block your way forward—at least, the exact path you’ve laid out for yourself.
What else can you do with your degree? Think about the skills and skill-stacking possibilities you’d get, not just the title. Would you have to take a lower-paying job if you couldn’t find your ideal job? Is that something you can live with, even if it’s temporary? In other words, can you be agile within your chosen profession?
Take a computer science degree, for example. It’s somewhat specialized, sure, but when you graduate you could become an engineer/data scientist, data manager, games developer, technical writer, consultant, or programmer, to name a few. You’ve got the skills, but you can apply them in different ways. Such a degree allows for wiggle room if you know you like something but you don’t know exactly what you want to do. You should still have a basic interest in the subject matter, though.
When in doubt, give yourself more options rather than less. If you want to specialize later on, you can always get on-the-job training, take a certificate or course, or even change the direction of your graduate degree while you’re doing it—depending on how far you’ve gotten, and whether it’s acceptable to the school. So a specialized degree isn’t a “never," but it isn’t a good fit for everyone. Just make sure you go with both eyes open.
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Katherine J. Igoe is a full-time freelancer in Boston. She has direct experience working in education and higher ed, helping students make important academic decisions. Follow her, ask questions, or suggest story ideas on Instagram @kjigoe or on Twitter @kjigoe.