For many students, earning a bachelor’s degree is their academic end goal. But between the increased earning potential and opportunities of a master’s degree—not to mention the talk of a master’s becoming the new bachelor’s degree for many positions—your next logical step might be an advanced degree too.
But beyond those vagaries, what can you really do with a master’s degree? Here are some possibilities.
Qualify for a better job
Perhaps the chief thing you can do with a master’s degree is pave the way to a great(er) career. In a variety of fields, a master’s degree is required. For many others where it is not an absolute requirement, job applicants with a master’s may be given preference over those with only a bachelor’s.
Take teaching. For anyone aspiring to teach at the college level, a master’s degree is generally the minimum standard. Similarly, it’s required for most jobs in educational administration. It’s also a plus in public schools.
In the corporate world, holding an MBA (Master of Business Administration) is expected for many jobs, especially at the management level and higher. The same expectation holds true for a wide range of jobs in the government and nonprofit sectors.
Any student willing to put in the work needed to complete a master’s will find an extensive range of degree possibilities available to them. Interested a becoming a statistician, aerospace engineer, or database manager? Can you see yourself as a nurse practitioner, speech pathologist, or health care administrator? Would a career as a financial advisor, marketing director, or IT manager be attractive to you? These are just a few of the options that a master’s degree can make possible.
For Joanne Munekawa, who earned a master’s in educational studies from the University of Michigan in 2015, the degree has opened up new pathways. “Attaining my master’s right after my bachelor’s was a tough decision, but I looked at the long-term return on investment before I jumped in with both feet,” she says. “While my target path was education, I also understood that I was very early into my career and what I wanted from life could change, so being able to lean on my advanced education in the future could be beneficial.”
The move paid off when she landed a job with a company that specializes in career planning, coaching, and résumé writing. “Things have come full circle,” she says. “I can now help others make better decisions when they are in the middle of an academic or career transition.”
Stand out from the hiring crowd
In a competitive world, it may help to have credentials not everyone can bring to a job interview or on-the-job challenge. It’s another one of the bigger advantages of holding a master’s—while plenty of people have earned this degree, it’s still a pretty exclusive club.
Just look at the numbers: About 91% of Americans aged 25–29 have a high school diploma, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. About a third (34%) hold a bachelor’s degree. But fewer than one in 10 (8%) have a master’s. In a variety of situations, that MA, MS, or comparable degree can differentiate you, particularly in a stack of résumés.
“In today’s marketplace, you always have to find a way to differentiate yourself,” says Mark Libierto, who earned his MBA from Clarion University, a public school in Pennsylvania, in 2014 and now works as a senior consultant for a Pittsburgh-based IT firm. “There [are] millions of bright, hard-working women and men out there, thirsty for an opportunity. Having a master’s degree certainly enables you to stand out.”
Earn higher pay and/or promotions
While there’s no guarantee that you’ll make more money if you earn a master’s, the odds are good. According to the US Department of Labor, workers with a master’s degree earn about 18% more on average than those with a bachelor’s as their highest degree. And in some fields, such as teaching, a graduate degree often automatically leads to a higher salary than for a bachelor’s degree grad doing the same work.
That higher income potential applies not just to starting salaries but also to career advancement once employed. In competing for promotions, a master’s may provide an edge over coworkers who lack an advanced degree.
Christy Girard is confident that the Master of Public Administration degree she earned in 2016 from Post University will bring advancements in her job as a police detective. “I knew that the knowledge and skills that I would acquire would help me on promotional exams to advance within my department,” she says of her graduate study. “And my employer provides financial incentives to employees who obtain advanced degrees.” She adds that when reaching higher-ranking positions, the skills she developed during her master’s program will help her be a more effective leader.
Enhance your professional profile
A graduate degree can also affect how others see you. Like it or not, our society places great value on credentials. This can be especially important when dealing with others who hold graduate degrees and will regard you as a peer.
At the same time, interacting with professors and colleagues at the graduate level can help you sharpen your intellectual skills. “Getting a master’s degree was undoubtedly the right move for me,” says Caitlin Kasunich, who earned a master’s in journalism from Columbia University in New York City in 2011 and now works in public relations, also in NYC. “Throughout my studies, I was surrounded by some of the most intelligent, thoughtful, and ambitious people I've ever met, who not only challenged me on a daily basis but also pushed me to become better at what I was there to do.”
Build or strengthen your portfolio
Don’t forget that a master’s degree isn’t just a credential; it represents mastery of a certain body of knowledge. With graduate study, you can build on what you have learned as an undergrad in any number of ways. One path is to study in the same field as your undergraduate major and grow your expertise in that area. Or you could explore an entirely different field that complements your bachelor’s. For example, a bachelor’s in French might be combined with a master’s in international relations, or a bachelor’s in business with a master’s in public administration.
The latter approach has worked well for Libierto, who completed his MBA after earning a bachelor’s in history. “The MBA I achieved helped ‘fine-tune’ me, and it gave me some practical technical skills and insight on a field I was greatly interested in already,” he says. By the time he finished his master’s, he was already employed at a Fortune 500 company, working with brands and launching products worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Making it work
In some circumstances, a master’s can help you transition from one stage of career development to another. If your ultimate goals involve doctoral studies, it might make the most sense to barrel on through a master’s program right after undergrad. Another possibility is gaining the credentials you need to enter a vastly different career field.
One more consideration in going for a master’s is that someone else may be willing to pay for it. Through assistantships, fellowships, and other awards, many graduate students have their tuition covered by the university where they are studying or by a third-party sponsor. At the same time, companies often pay for employees to pursue additional education or offer tuition reimbursement (though often with some stipulations, like maintaining a certain GPA or even staying at the company for a year or two after completing the degree).
You may also be able to work and study at the same time. Most master’s programs take only one or two years to complete if pursued on a full-time basis, but a master’s is also an achievable goal as a part-time student while holding down a full-time job. Master’s degrees typically require only about a quarter of the number of credits needed to complete a bachelor’s degree. And online degree programs have blown open the options for part-time graduate programs (and full time, for that matter).
Of course, grad school—whether part time or full time, online or in person—is still a huge undertaking. “Make sure it’s something that you really, really want to do,” Kasunich says. “Not only is grad school a ton of work, but it’s often a major financial investment that you will be committed to for several years after graduation.” For some students, she adds, the best option might be to work for a couple of years after graduating from college to get some job experience and see whether grad school still seems like a good idea down the road.
“Will this degree get you where you are trying to go professionally and academically?” says Terry Jackson, an Administrative Director of two master’s degree programs at Delaware Valley University in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. “We sometimes see students apply to our counseling psychology program with the goal of becoming a school psychologist. These two fields are very different and require different types of academic preparation.” It’s crucial to pinpoint your grad school goals, what you need to reach them, and which programs will fill that gap.
“It’s important to remember that everyone is different, and everyone has his or her unique reasons for wanting to get a master’s degree,” Kasunich says. “There’s no right or wrong answer—it just has to be something that you are unequivocally passionate about and want for yourself.”