Is a Master’s Degree Worth It? This Expert Says ‘Yes!’

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In the US and all around the globe, many people are weighing the costs and benefits of getting a master’s degree. After the Great Recession, concerns about employability, ROI and levels of student debt are of great importance.

For instance, a recent analysis produced by the New American Foundation on graduate student debt, brought attention to the higher levels of student debt that is being incurred by students working on master’s degrees. It also questions the wisdom of the public funding of graduate degrees, as well as their overall usefulness.

However, some experts maintain that to paint graduate education as a whole with a negative brush ignores the demand for master’s degree-educated professionals in the US economy.

Master’s Degrees Growing in Significance

As recently as the 1970s, a master’s degree was thought of as a ‘runner up’ prize for people who had wanted a Ph.D. But in the last 30 years, the master’s degree has become a very important credential that is desired by employers. This first occurred with the massive growth of the MBA as a vital business credential. Later, the popularity of master’s degrees spread to other fields, including healthcare, public policy, science and engineering. See all 260+ online masters degrees with No GRE

Today, many employers value the critical thinking, skills and problem solving that a master’s degree education gives people. This is reflected in current statistics: Many job market information companies find that about 20% of current open positions want candidates to have a master’s degree. Universities are responding enthusiastically to this demand by coming up with new types of master’s degree programs, and online delivery of many of them.

Some innovation in education is coming with Massive Online Open Courses, or MOOCs (some of which are offered by Harvard University), but even more innovation is happening in master’s degree programs that can be earned in either online, on campus or hybrid formats. These new models of graduate education are boosting access to graduate level education.

Many experts have also documented how much more you can earn in salary and have in economic opportunities by earning a master’s degree. According to a recent Federal Reserve study, almost all of the growth in wages in the last 10 years came from advanced degrees.

People who hold a master’s or doctoral degree earn 30% more than people who only have a bachelor’s degree. Also, the unemployment rate for people with a master’s degree was just 3.5% in 2013, compared to 6% for all workers.

US News and World Report states that the median salary for all master’s degree holders in the US was $55,242 in 2012; for bachelor’s holders, it was only $42,877. So it would appear that master’s degree holders are financially better off than bachelor’s degree holders. But it is not quite that simple.

Some Master’s Specialties Offer Better ROI Than Others

Of course, not every field has a high demand for master’s degree holders. Earning a master’s degree in women’s studies or English may not be financially worth it for some people. But enrollment and demand for people with advanced degrees in health care, computer science and engineering continues to grow.

Even the MBA degree has changed due to market trends. Many employers now want to see an MBA that is highly specialized. Popular MBA programs include specialities such as Finance or Supply Chain Management.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently published interesting information about the economic pay off for earning a master’s degree in various disciplines. Their findings are noted below per specialty.

Business

As of 2013, more master’s degrees were awarded in business than in all other fields. BLS data indicates that business, financial and sales jobs had some of the highest wage increases for workers who obtain their master’s. Jump to Why Get a Masters in Business Degree? + No GRE Options!.

Specifically, securities, commodities and financial services sales agents had the largest salary increase. Workers in this profession who earned a master’s degree received a salary increase of up to 90%. The data shows that these professionals saw up to an $80,000 wage increase. Financial managers experienced a $32,000 wage increase on average.

Other workers who experienced substantial wage hikes with a master’s degree include accountants, general and operations managers, and HR workers

Not all workers in the business profession saw a premium for their master’s degree. Training and development managers, for example, saw a 6% lower median salary after they earned their graduate degree.

Education

A high number of professionals in education earn their master’s degree each year; 2012 BLS data shows that more than one out of every five master’s that was earned was in education. For some educational professionals, the pay off for a master’s degree is high, but not for all. Jump to Why Get a Masters in Education Degree.

One of the highest wage premiums for a master’s is for education administrators; they typically see a 44% increase in salary after earning their degree. In dollar terms, they see an average salary bump of $23,000.

Preschool and and kindergarten teachers also see a good salary increase of 43% on average. This comes to a dollar amount of $13,000.

The education professionals who do not see a substantial increase in post-graduate salary are postsecondary teachers. They see only a 14% increase in salary from $43,800 to $50,000. The reality is that postsecondary teachers need to have a Ph.D. to qualify even for many entry level teaching jobs. Most postsecondary teachers who are employed have a doctorate, so a master’s degree often makes the person under qualified.

Healthcare and Social Services

A high number of professionals in healthcare and social services earn a master’s degree. This is for two reasons:

  • The high job demand in many healthcare and social services professions means that workers with a master’s degree can enjoy substantial salary increases.
  • Some occupations in this field require a master’s degree at all to be employed, and many of these jobs are high paying. For example, nurse practitioners, clinical social workers and physician assistants must have a master’s degree.

Physician assistants see a median salary with a master’s degree of $101,000 per year. Nurse practitioners also see a wage of $107,000 or so per year; regular clinical nurses earn a salary of approximately $68,000 per year. Jump to Get a Masters in Social Work + 3 No GRE Options.

RNs with a bachelor’s who earn a master’s also see a good wage increase of 19% from $63,000 to $75,000.

Counselors and mental health professionals also experience substantial wage jumps of 35%. In dollar terms, this is an increase of salary from $38,000 to $50,000.

STEM

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics professionals in some cases will see a solid increase in pay with a master’s, but not all.

Mathematicians and statisticians see a solid increase in salary from $60,000 to $80,000 for a 33% increase. Environmental scientists and geoscientists also see a good wage increase from $62,000 to $80,000 for a 29% jump.

Wage increases for engineers vary a great deal according to speciality. Civil, mechanical and architectural engineers see increases of 9-13%. But for petroleum, mining and geological engineers, the median wage was actually lower than for those with a bachelor’s degree.

Best and Worst-Paying Master’s Degrees

Another factor to keep in mind is that some master’s degrees will pay a much higher salary than others. And some will pay a lot less. Even if the relative increase in salary with a master’s in a profession is relatively high (such as a preschool or kindergarten teacher with a master’s), the actual salary still can be relatively low.

Monster.com reports that the following master’s offer the highest salaries:

  • Electrical engineering: $121,000
  • Finance: $120,000
  • Chemical engineering: $117,000
  • Economics: $114,000
  • Computer science: $109,000
  • Civil engineering: $96,200

Worst paying master’s programs include the following. Remember, the wage increase with a master’s could be high, but the actual salary is still low:

  • Counseling: $52,000
  • Social work: $56,900
  • Music: $56,900
  • Library and information science: $57,100
  • Education: $60,000

If you want to earn the highest possible salary, it is important to choose a relatively high-paying field. Even with a master’s degree, many professionals in the liberal arts, for example, never can make a six-figure salary.

Summary

Government statistics and experience show that many professionals do see a substantial wage increase for earning a master’s degree. But while the economic benefits of earning a master’s degree is important, there also are many societal benefits to people earning master’s degrees. Researchers have found that people having more education usually leads to more civil engagement, better well being of society, as well as better longevity and health.

All of these points are a strong indicator that earning a master’s degree in many field is worth it. It is important however to research what the cost of a master’s degree in your field may be, and compare it to the possible salary increase.

Additional Resources

References

Sady Brown
Written by Sady Brown
Sady Brown is Editorial Strategist for Nogre.com