Will an Advanced Degree Advance Your Career?

Things to Consider if You‘re Contemplating a Master’s Degree

Will an Advanced Degree Advance Your Career?

I recently attended commencement exercises at San Diego State University, where I proudly watched as my daughter received dual master’s degrees. She has a bright and promising future ahead of her as an exercise physiologist, and she is fortunate to be starting down that career path without the crushing burden of tens of thousands of dollars in student-loan debt.

Some degrees are no longer the golden ticket to superior jobs or heftier paychecks.

But what about others who are considering pursuing a master’s degree or who just received a shiny new graduate-level diploma? As I looked out at the sea of red-and-black-gowned graduates-to-be that May afternoon, I couldn’t help but wonder what was in store for all of them.

Will an Advanced Degree Advance Your Career?

What’s the value of a graduate-school education? Is attending grad school worth the cost? Let’s take a look.

Tally It All Up

For many, a master’s degree is the key to winning a promotion or landing a first job in a different career field, often with a guarantee of better compensation. But some degrees are no longer the golden ticket to superior jobs or heftier paychecks. Experts agree that some serious soul searching and number crunching are prerequisites to the grad-school decision. Kate Anania, writing for Investopedia, recommended that those considering an advanced degree weigh not only the actual cost of obtaining that degree but also the opportunity cost of temporarily sacrificing a full-time paycheck. “Is it worth it to you to spend two years in school and the next five years working to break even financially?” she asked. ”That’s what you have to decide.”

Anania’s to-do list (what prospective student doesn’t love a good to-do list?) included taking a close look at the cost of the program you’re considering at each of the schools you’re interested in, tallying tuition, living expenses, books, and fees. Deduct from that scholarships, fellowships, teaching and research assistantships, grants, and any employer-sponsored tuition reimbursement to arrive at a ballpark final cost. Be forewarned: This will most likely be a rather sizable figure and one you may have to finance with loans. On average, an MBA degree could cost close to $140,000, while a master of science/engineering degree or a master of arts degree could set you back between $58,000 and $146,000.

Will an Advanced Degree Advance Your Career?

The next step may be the most crucial one. Focused on what Anania calls the “payback period,” this step requires you to assess how long it will take for you to pay back your loans and break even on your investment. Step three is to consider the promotion rates — and earning potential — for someone with an advanced degree in your field. This is where some serious calculations come in. (If numbers aren’t your thing, but the thought of a heavy debt load has you spooked, online calculators can make fast work of the math. A couple to try: LearnVest and Money Under 30.)

“Ideally, people will come out [of graduate school] with the potential to earn a much bigger paycheck and to reach a point in their careers that wouldn’t have been possible without the advanced degree,” Jonnelle Marte wrote for the Washington Post. According to an April 2016 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, the median annual earnings for people with master’s degrees is $74,620, compared to $65,000 for those with a bachelor’s degree. Do the math, the experts advise, and let the numbers guide you.

On average, an MBA degree could cost close to $140,000, while a master of science/engineering degree or a master of arts degree could set you back between $58,000 and $146,000.

But only let them be a guide, not the absolute determining factor. Why? Because there’s so much more to the equation than the bottom line, as important as that is to those considering grad school. The short- and long-term prospects for the specific career areas you’re interested in are also something you’ll want to take a look at.

What Are the Prospects?

In some career fields a master’s degree definitely guarantees a more prodigious paycheck. Many of these jobs are oriented toward technical work. A list of these degrees for 2015 was compiled by Forbes, which reviewed compensation data from the website PayScale. On the list of the best master’s degrees for overall job improvement were biomedical engineering, aerospace engineering, computer engineering, information technology and management, physics, and economics. On the other hand, Forbes found advanced degrees in the following areas to be less promising in terms of improved compensation: criminal justice, English, library and information science, education, architecture, communications, and social work, among others on a list of 15.

The Cash — and Cachet — of an MBA

An MBA most certainly guarantees a robust return on your investment. Forbes reported on a study done by a trio of researchers in 2014 who found that post-MBA starting pay was up 50 percent over pre-MBA pay for full-time students and 41 percent for part-time students. “These results show substantial increases in pay after earning an MBA, suggesting that for most students, an MBA degree from a quality school is a good investment,” Forbes concluded.

Will an Advanced Degree Advance Your Career?

A few additional details worth researching before you make your grad-school decision include the starting salary graduates of your program can expect to make, how much workers in your chosen field or specialization could ultimately earn, how easy it will be to find a job in that field in your desired location, and whether your skills will be in demand when you graduate. The websites Glassdoor, PayScale, and SalaryList can provide you with plenty of salary and lifetime-earnings data, and the career-services department at your prospective university(ies) can enlighten you on the projected growth of your future profession and how your advanced-degree skills and knowledge might translate.

Other Things to Consider

Clearly there are some pretty critical monetary considerations to weigh when contemplating taking the plunge into graduate school. What are some other worthwhile factors to consider? The Huffington Post compiled a list of nine reasons to pursue an advanced degree that have less to do with the bottom line and everything to do with intangible rewards. These include getting to know more about a subject you’re passionate about and having the chance to spend additional time in school (and if you’re a full-time student, avoiding the real world a few more years). William Sharon wrote: “Sure, school is expensive, hard work, and a lot of stress. But it is also short. The typical college grad is out of school by 22, which is about a quarter of a lifetime, begging the question, Isn’t three more years (or more) worth it?”

Will an Advanced Degree Advance Your Career?

The Huffington Post’s list of nonfinancial motivators also included the opportunity to change careers and the chance to delve into coursework you’re truly interested in, as opposed to the typical undergrad general-education courses, which can include a few yawners. The blog post also mentioned these nonmonetary drivers: networking, gaining respect, and being rewarded with intellectual growth. “Just as extended years of exercise will improve one’s physical condition, three or four additional years spent in school will yield a more intelligent graduate,” Sharon observed.

Is This the Right Time?

Earlier this year, Britton Marketing & Design Group’s Meghan Britton-Gross, vice president of online brand buzz, grappled with the grad-school quandary. Fifteen years after earning her undergraduate degree (and having spent the intervening years in the working world), she contemplated a master’s degree in digital marketing, marketing, or communications. She applied to three schools that offer online classes, and had this to say about her thought process: “I am so busy with two kids and a job that it was important to me to find an online program. I was also weighing the programs and electives. I wanted to choose a program that allowed me to extend my knowledge base as well as the capabilities of our company.” Ultimately she decided not to pursue a master’s degree at this time, noting, “I realized that my schedule was ramping up at work and that after my kids went to bed, my evenings would need to be devoted to work, not to classes.”

“Ideally, people will come out [of graduate school] with the potential to earn a much bigger paycheck and to reach a point in their careers that wouldn’t have been possible without the advanced degree.”

As Britton-Gross makes clear, anyone contemplating graduate school needs to look at all the factors, including how the demands of classes, assignments, and exams might fit into an already jampacked schedule. Family and work considerations absolutely need to be part of the equation.

To go or not to go? Grad school can be one of smartest investments you ever make, or it can end up being a pricey gamble. Before you decide, take a long, hard look at the numbers and at all your reasons for wanting to head back to the classroom. In other words, do your homework.


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