Should You Get a Master's Degree? How to Decide—And How to Get Started.
March 10, 2021
There are a lot of good reasons to get an advanced degree: more money, more opportunities, prestige. But before you start applying to programs, take a moment to familiarize yourself with what master's degrees actually are, what kind of commitment they entail, and what makes a great program.
No matter what field you work in, there's almost always a master's degree path designed to help you broaden your skills, become a subject-matter expert, and advance to better-paying positions. It doesn't matter whether you're a military social worker, a health educator, or a robotics engineer: finding advanced degree programs related to your area of interest and your role is easy. Deciding whether it makes sense to get a master's degree is the hard part. That's because there are multiple factors to consider before investing your time and your money in more schooling.
You may have found this article because you're sincerely interested in expanding your skill set and knowledge base. If that's the case, you'll probably derive ample value from any master's degree program you enroll in. But if you're weighing the pros and cons of getting a master's degree because you're worried about degree inflation (i.e., employers requiring a master's for jobs that previously required only a bachelor's), keep reading. This article explains exactly what you sign up for when you enroll in grad school.
In this guide to whether you should get a master's degree, we'll cover:
- What is a master's degree?
- The different types of master's degrees
- Is an MBA better than other master's degrees?
- How to identify the best master's degree programs
- How long does it take to earn a master's degree?
- When should I get my master's degree?
- How to get a master's degree while you work
- The pros and cons of getting a master's degree
- Should you get a master's degree?
What is a master's degree?
A master's is a graduate-level degree indicating that the holder has high-level theoretical and practical knowledge of a specific area of professional practice or field of study. It is typically the next degree one can earn after a bachelor's degree.
The names of master's degrees can be confusing. Master of Arts degrees are typically conferred in the humanities. Master of Science degrees are typically conferred in science, engineering, math, and medicine. Not always, though. You can, for instance, enroll in a Master of Arts in Chemistry program at Boston University, or a Master of Science in Chemistry program at Cornell University,or a Master of Chemistry program (in degree programs outside the US).
The designations "of Arts" and "of Science" can give you clues about the faculty in charge of the program, which department handles the program, and whether you'll need to complete a thesis… or not tell you much about a program at all; it varies by school. Some degree names only indicate the field of study, as is the case with these degrees:
- Master of Business Administration (MBA)
- Master of Engineering (ME, MEng)
- Master of Education (MEd)
- Master of Laws (LLM)
- Master of Public Health (MPH)
- Master of Healthcare Administration (MHA)
- Master of Public Administration (MPA)
- Master of Public Policy (MPP)
- Master of Social Work (MSW)
Regardless of your area of interest, a master's degree is the lowest level of advanced degree you can earn. Motivated students may go on to pursue doctoral degrees like PhDs or professional doctorates in some fields. In others, a master's degree is considered a terminal degree.
The different types of master's degrees
There are all kinds of master's degrees and programs reflect that. Some programs are designed for students who want to earn professional degrees that provide the skills and knowledge to advance into specific roles in a field. Others are designed for students who want to transition to academic, research, or leadership roles. Some have a broad focus, and some are tightly aligned with students' professional goals.
For example, teachers can earn a Master of Education or Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) in their chosen subject. The former is the better choice for teachers who might want to move into administrative or leadership roles someday, while the latter is the better option for educators who want to spend their careers in the classroom.
Complicating matters further is the fact that there may be many concentration areas or specialization tracks within each broad master's degree. Students in Master of Public Health programs, for instance, may be able to customize their studies by choosing from among concentrations like:
- Health services administration
- Health education
- Community health sciences
- Global health
- Public health policy
- Health promotion
- Environmental health
- Maternal and child health
- Public health management
- Social and behavioral sciences
- Sustainable development and health
In some programs, concentration coursework makes up the majority of a student's workload. In others, it represents only a small fraction of the curriculum.
Choosing among the different types of master's degree programs relevant in your field can be very tricky because there's no standardization when it comes to degree naming conventions. The Master of Science in Financial Services at one school may be nearly identical to the MBA in financial planning at another—or entirely different. The best thing you can do when you're considering whether you should get a master's degree is read master's degree program guidelines very carefully instead of relying on degree names. Read through each school's curriculum and program features to make sure it jibes with your interests and professional goals.
Is an MBA better than other master's degrees?
The Master of Business Administration (MBA) is one of the most popular master's degrees; according to Poets and Quants, US institutions confer nearly 200,000 MBAs every year. MBAs make up the largest category of field-specific master's degree programs, possibly because a lot of people believe that MBA graduates are paid more than graduates who hold other types of master's degrees. In some cases, that's true (you'll probably make more with an MBA in tech in hand than with a Master of Science in Computer Science) while in others, it's not (professionals with a Master of Science in Information Technology or Master of Science in Nursing with an anesthesia concentration may make more).
That said, a subject-specific MBA is sometimes more useful than other master's degrees because it's versatile. Students dive deep into business administration and leadership topics in addition to studying concentration subject matter, so they can advance into leadership positions in their chosen field or transition to administrative roles in another field if they feel driven to make a change.
How to identify the best master's degree programs
The best graduate school programs aren't necessarily the ones at the most prestigious universities. You can be sure that you'll get an amazing graduate education if you have what it takes to get into Stanford, Harvard, or MIT, but plenty of schools that don't have the same kind of name-dropping cred still have great master's-level programs.
The most important thing to look for is accreditation. Programs can have regional accreditation, professional accreditation, or programmatic accreditation—or all three. Accreditation can determine whether you can get tuition reimbursement from your employer, are eligible for certain types of student loans or financial aid, and whether the degree will help you get into other master's degree programs or related doctoral programs. Accreditation indicates that a program conforms to specific academic standards set by experts in your field.
- The cost of the program
- Your interests
- How much a degree will increase your earning potential
- Your career goals
- Whether your employer will shoulder some or all of the cost
- Whether a master's degree is necessary or even useful in your field.
You don't have to do a lot of complicated mental math to figure out if a program is right for you. You can identify the best master's degree programs for you by considering the following questions about advanced degrees:
- Do the top professionals in your field tend to be graduates of the most prestigious schools? If so, going to a less prestigious school may not be worth the time and money.
- Will your employer pay for your degree? In that case, you may be able to apply to the top-ranked programs without worrying about paying annual tuition.
- Can you take a sabbatical and study full time? If the answer is no, look for online master's degree programs and executive programs.
How long does it take to earn a master's degree?
There's no one answer to this question because every program is different and every student is different. Most master's degree programs take two years for full-time students to complete, but there are plenty of accelerated one-year and 18-month programs. In some cases, students finish more quickly because they're required to complete fewer credit hours (30 versus 45 to 60), while in others, students are expected to commit to a grueling schedule of classes and coursework.
For instance, there's a one-year Master of Public Health program at George Washington University that requires students (who are not permitted to take on paid employment during the program) to do 60 to 80 hours of coursework each week. There are also part-time programs that can be completed in as little as three years, though some students take five or more. There are also combined bachelor's degree and master's degree programs.
It is obviously essential that you understand the time commitment involved in pursuing a master's degree at a particular school, but it's even more important to be honest with yourself about what kind of commitment you can handle. Some people thrive under pressure and can double down, forgoing a social life and sleep, to complete an accelerated self-paced master's degree program while working full-time. If that sounds like your ultimate nightmare, look for part-time programs that are more relaxed. No matter how long it takes you to finish, you'll still have the same degree.
When should I get my master's?
This depends on your field and your personal situation. In some professional fields and in academia, it's not unusual for students to transition straight into master's programs after earning a bachelor's degree. Some people choose to go directly from a bachelor's program into a master's program because they want to take advantage of a prestigious internship or research opportunities that are only open to students. Even though they won't start accumulating actual work experience for some years, those experiences plus their degrees will make them more attractive job candidates when they do enter the field.
On the other hand, there are many master's degree programs that require students to have a few years of work experience—or even significant work experience—to even apply. Most MBA students, for example, spend between three and five years working before they enroll in a program.
How to get a master's degree while you work
Figuring out how to get a master's degree while you work can be a challenge. The good news is that it's a challenge that many people have overcome. There are lots of part-time, hybrid, online, self-directed, and executive master's degree programs that make it easier to keep working while you earn your graduate degree.
Flexible degree options aren't just for dedicated working professionals, however. The average age of master's degree students is actually 33, which means that lots of students in graduate programs have mortgages, children to care for, aging relatives to care for, side hustles, and other responsibilities that make it challenging to commit to or pay for a full-time master's degree program.
Every university requires a different time commitment, financial commitment, and academic commitment. Think about how many hours, how much money, and how much energy you can reasonably devote to your studies at this time. Some programs are much more manageable than others.
The pros and cons of getting a master's degree
Getting a master's degree is not a one-way ticket to financial stability or the corner office. There are some weighty pros and cons of getting a master's degree. Consider them all before enrolling in any program.
The pros of getting a master's degree
- You will learn a lot. For some students, pure intellectual curiosity is the reason to get a master's degree, and there's nothing wrong with that. If your motivation for pursuing an advanced degree is rooted in career ambitions, the good news is that master's degree programs related to your field will give you valuable new job skills.
- A master's degree can open doors. Some jobs are only open to master's degree holders. Your degree can make you more marketable and give you the qualifications you need to step into leadership positions. Earning a master's degree can also help you switch careers.
- You'll probably make more money with one (especially in business, healthcare, education, and STEM fields). While there are no guarantees, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics found that advanced degree holders across industries had median weekly earnings of $1,559 while those with bachelor's degrees earned $1,281.
- Some programs have amazing networks that graduates can tap into. If you get your master's degree from a school with a strong alumni network, you may be set for life when it comes to career opportunities.
The cons of getting a master's degree
- Master's degrees are expensive. This won't be a problem if your employer is willing to pay for your education or you can pay out of pocket, but most of us aren't that lucky. Scholarships for master's students are relatively rare, and student loans can take forever to pay off.
- It can take years to earn a degree. Students who have the means to study full-time can finish master's degree programs in one to two years. That might not sound like much, but consider that you won't be accumulating work experience in that time. And if you have to study part-time, it might take you half a decade to get a master's degree.
- You might not get paid more or get promoted. Your professional success will depend not only on the degree you have, but also on how much experience you have, how good you are at what you do, the size of your professional network, and how hard you work. The quirks of the economy and your industry will be factors, too. You may earn your degree just before a downturn or before job growth in your field stalls.
Should you get a master's degree?
It depends on your field, whether an advanced degree will open doors for you in your field or allow you to switch roles, and whether the money you'll make after graduating with a master's degree makes investing in a master's program worthwhile.
Going to grad school isn't the best way to advance in certain fields, while in others, it's a surefire way to get promoted. When in doubt, ask—and do your research. Talk to your boss about how getting a master's degree could impact your career. Talk to colleagues and other people in your industry about their degrees (or lack thereof). Talk to admissions officers at schools with programs relevant to your field to find out what types of jobs students typically get after graduation. And check out the US Bureau of Labor Statistics' jobs outlook for graduate-level positions.
Is degree inflation a reality in your field? That should factor into your decision. Once upon a time, you could become an occupational therapist, librarian, educational administrator, social worker, or urban planner with nothing more than a bachelor's degree under your belt. Now the barrier for entry to those positions is increasingly a master's degree. If trends in your industry suggest that you'll increasingly be competing for jobs against newbies with advanced degrees, then you may need to get one just to stay relevant.
Unless your employer is footing the bill or you're lucky enough to be able to pay for a master's degree out of pocket, you need to ask yourself whether getting a master's degree will boost your earning potential enough to pay off any loans you need to take out. Don't assume you'll earn a lot more just because you have an advanced degree. Look at the US Bureau of Labor Statistics and sites like Salary to find out for sure.
The bottom line is that you should never enter any degree pathway with your eyes closed. There's nothing wrong with enrolling in a master's degree program because you're super passionate about a subject and want to know everything there is to know about it. If that's your motivation for pursuing an advanced degree, just be sure you understand what you're getting into. If you're looking into earning a master's degree because you think it will boost your career prospects, do what's necessary to make sure it actually will before you start filling out applications. It may be that there are easier, less expensive ways to advance in your field.
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