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Should I get a master’s degree? The ROI of going to grad school.

November 07, 2019 :: Jacob Allison

Unemployment is currently hovering around 3.8 percent nationwide, but according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the underemployment rate, or the number of people working in jobs that require skills or qualifications below their current education level, is 7.2 percent. These numbers are even higher for people of color and people living in underserved regions of the U.S.

Even with U.S. unemployment levels at record lows, prospects for job seekers with bachelor’s degrees can still be tough. According to the Strada Education Network, a student loan provider, 43 percent of college graduates will be underemployed in their first job, and only a third of those will escape underemployment within five years. Being underemployed as a college graduate with only a bachelor’s degree, especially if you’re also burdened with student loan debt, can have a significant impact on your long-term financial wellbeing.

While many people who already have bachelor’s degrees will take on an extra job or side hustle to fill in the gap of being underemployed, others look to what seems to be a more long-term fix: getting a master’s degree. But how long does it take to get your master’s degree, and is a master’s degree worth it? In this article, we will explore the pros and cons of getting a master’s degree, and hopefully help you decide if the ROI is worth the time, money, and effort required.

Is a master’s degree worth it? The Cons

The Cost

The most obvious downside of earning a master’s degree is the significant financial investment required. Master’s programs vary widely in cost depending upon whether the institution is public or private, the type of program pursued, the prestige of the university, and many other factors. According to Salle Mae, a major student loan provider, the cost of finishing a master’s degree in the US can range from $22,000 to $140,000. 

Compounded with the cost of earning a master’s degree, it’s also important to consider the amount of money you won’t be making during the time you’re back in school. That’s money that you could have been earning, contributing to your retirement account, using to go on vacation, and saving. 

To avoid these financial pitfalls, be sure to map out the costs vs. potential future earnings of getting a master’s degree. Most schools have net price calculators available on their websites, and there are also many non-affiliated cost/benefit calculation tools available online. Many schools also offer options to offset graduate student tuition, including becoming a teaching assistant or working in a research lab. Many graduate students have also formed unions that advocate for higher adjunct teaching compensation and access to medical benefits for students working as TAs and research assistants. 

Many industries also offer their employees continuing education funding through workplace schemes that require the employee to work for a certain number of years after graduation in exchange for tuition assistance. This can be an ideal situation, where your education is fully or partially funded, and you have a job guarantee after graduation.

Remember, no matter how excited you are about the idea of boosting your resume with a master’s degree, you should be conservative in your estimates of how much more money you’ll be making after graduation, and don’t forget to factor in the costs of borrowing plus interest.  

The Time

Similar to cost, the amount of time required to earn a master’s degree can vary widely. Most MBA programs last two years, but some more academically focused master’s programs can last four to five years. If you’re returning to school after a few years of work, it’s important to take into account the amount of time it’s going to take to finish your master’s degree. In the time you were pursuing your master’s could you have earned a promotion instead? Do you have student loans from your undergraduate degree that you’re still repaying? Will you defer those loans during your graduate studies? How much interest will build up over that time?

There are also numerous alternatives to a master’s education that can also help boost your income without taking up a large chunk of time. Professional certifications and online open courses can help you boost your skillset and put you in a better negotiating position at work without having to go grad school for two to three years.

The Effort

Earning a master’s degree is no joke. It’s often a full-time commitment, and getting the most out of the graduate school experience involves much more than simply attending lectures and writing your thesis. 

To make the most out of this considerable investment of time and money, graduate students need to also get involved in the school’s community through clubs and organizations, taking advantage of networking opportunities and attending recruiting events. Expending this kind of effort can take a lot out of you, especially if your living situation is more complicated than “single, no kids, no pets.” It’s important to make sure that your family understands the journey you’ll be going on, that you’ll probably have less time to spend with them, and that they’re aware of the kinds of support you’re going to need from them during your graduate studies. 

The Pigeonhole

Before you even begin classes, rent an apartment, or reach out to clubs, professors, and potential collaborators, a substantial amount of research is required to make sure you’re making the right choice. 

Unlike most bachelor’s degrees, which can help applicants apply to a wide array of jobs and industries, a master’s degree communicates a certain level of specialization and interest to potential employers. For example, an applicant with an undergraduate degree in international relations might be looked at more favorably for an editorial position at a publishing company when compared to an applicant with a master’s in archaeology. An employer might wonder why this person with an MS in Archaeology hasn’t found a job in their field, and if they’re someone who isn’t great at thinking ahead and making plans.

Applicants that hold a master’s degree also generally demand a higher starting salary, which can make them less competitive when the job market is tight. All of this is to say that, without a serious amount of research and planning, pursuing a master’s degree can actually narrow the range of jobs for which an applicant can apply and make the post-graduation job search more difficult. 

Is a master’s degree worth it? The Pros

The Payoff

In the majority of cases, obtaining a master’s degree will help you boost your potential future earnings. According to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, people holding graduate degrees in the physical sciences, social sciences, and business can expect to earn from $22,000 to $32,000 more a year than those people in the same fields who only hold a bachelor’s degree. Compare that difference in earnings over a thirty-year career and the numbers add up: for many, earning a master’s degree is worth it. 

For some specialist graduate degree holders, like MBAs, the boost in earnings potential is drastic. According to the Financial Times, the average person who earned an MBA from a top program goes from earning around $70,000 pre-MBA, to $142,000 three years after graduation. Improvements that massive can certainly put a $120,000 MBA tuition cost into perspective. In an interview with Georgetown University education researcher Martin Van Der Werf in Forbes, Van Der Werf advised that when deciding whether or not to go to grad school, potential students should be looking for a post-graduation salary boost of up to 20-25% for the investment to be considered ‘worthwhile.’ 

The Knowledge

Earning a master’s degree isn’t all about earning more money. People holding professional master’s degrees such as accountants, consultants, and engineers are considered to be experts in their fields. Prestige isn’t the only benefit—holding a master’s degree is oftentimes a pre-requisite for moving to middle and upper management, and it could help you bypass several years of a more traditional career path. The time and work you put into earning that master’s degree can also communicate to upper management that you’re prepared to take on leadership roles within your company and industry. 

If the planning of your master’s degree path was conducted in a responsible and thorough manner, the chances that you’ll have opportunities to do work that you’re interested in and passionate about after graduation is also more likely. The personal reward of leading and inspiring others, and doing work that you’re personally invested in can’t be measured in dollar signs.

The Network

In addition to the financial and personal benefits of obtaining a master’s degree, there is also an additional professional benefit to pursuing a graduate education. The professional and academic connections that can made during your time in grad school can open up many doors seen and unseen for your career. 

Many of the professors you’ll be working with are top experts in their fields, making them valuable resources for brainstorming and problem-solving when you encounter obstacles throughout your professional life. If you’re entrepreneurially-minded, grad school is also a great place to meet future partners and collaborators, and depending on where you’re going to school, even future sources of start-up capital. 

Before starting your program, it’s a great idea to reach out to alumni and ask what the most influential networking opportunities were for them during their time in grad school. Keep your ears open and eyes peeled for interesting conferences, job fairs, and recruiting events where you will have the chance to build these invaluable relationships. 

Opportunity to make a career switch

Did you earn your undergraduate degree in finance, but after three or four years in the industry, decide that you were much more fascinated by the exciting stories of the oil and gas project managers whose accounts you were auditing? Pursuing a master’s degree in business management or project management could give you an opportunity to make a career transition into something you find more interesting and rewarding. This is just one example, but many of our clients, particularly in business fields, look to a graduate degree as an opportunity to facilitate a career switch. 

While the opportunity to move to a more exciting or rewarding industry may seem enticing, simply earning a master’s degree doesn’t mean you’ll be successful in that career switch. A logical, well-thought-out plan for that transition should be laid out in an applicant’s admissions essays. Some simple rules to keep in mind when attempting to facilitate a career switch through grad school are to either switch roles within the same industry, or to pursue a similar role but in a different industry. The hardest argument to make to the admissions committee is that you plan on using your graduate degree to pursue a new role in a new industry. From our experience, applicants seeking a career transition through grad school are looked at with a fair amount of skepticism and scrutiny by adcoms, and your argument for admission has to be airtight just to get through the door.

So, is a master’s degree worth it?

Many of the costs and benefits of graduate school can be calculated with some certainty. Tuition, rent, food, and interest on student loans can be compared with conservative estimates of the earnings you could make armed with your new qualification. 

However, some elements of the graduate school decision can’t necessarily be calculated, including the value of the effort required, the time spent earning your degree, and the potential of alternative career paths you could have been pursuing while in grad school. It’s hard to determine how much more rewarding your career will be with a master’s degree than without one. Additionally, ebbs and flows in the job market can’t be predicted and can confuse a potential graduate student’s decision-making process. 

These unquantifiable questions are exactly why it is essential to not rush into grad school. Only a solid plan and a complete understanding of the pros and cons of pursuing a graduate degree will ensure that you don’t end up wasting your time, effort, and money.


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