Last Updated: Mar 21, 2018
Making a commitment to graduate study can be daunting. Many prospective students start out with some qualms about whether they should invest in another one to three years of education. Will the benefit of a master’s degree be worth the cost, considering the sacrifice a student makes in both time and money? This is a legitimate question, and if you are thinking about pursuing graduate study, you can help maximize your return on that investment by clearly identifying your goals and expectations and choosing the program that will best help you meet them.
Motivations for entering graduate programs abound, and there is no single best reason to enroll. Indeed, in a 2017 management education segmentation study, the Graduate Management Admission Council identified seven distinct master’s candidate segments, with descriptive titles ranging from “Respect Seekers” to “Impactful Innovators” (“Beyond demographics: Connecting with the core motivations of business school candidates,” 2016). So, what can you accomplish with the right master’s degree?
Keep reading to find out.
Boost your career prospects through specialization
Relative to an undergraduate education, a graduate degree provides the student with an opportunity to delve more deeply into a discipline or domain—to become a specialist. Graduate courses are generally designed to fully develop technical or professional knowledge, and graduate students are often able to immediately apply concepts and skills acquired in the classroom to the workplace.
Because of this, a graduate degree is a great choice for someone looking to either make a career change or advance to the next level in his or her current profession. For example, an individual with a background in engineering or science who aspires to a management or leadership position would likely benefit greatly from the completion of an MBA, which provides a solid foundation for management of people, processes, and strategic and operational decision-making.
The specialized knowledge acquired from a graduate degree—and, sometimes, the mere possession of that credential—is frequently the deciding factor when employers select candidates for a job opportunity or an internal promotion.
According to data reported by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2017 employment projections, master’s degree holders experience an unemployment rate that is lower than their undergraduate counterparts (2.4% vs. 2.7%) and weekly earnings that are greater than those for baccalaureate graduates ($1,380 vs. $1,156). However, the increase in pay associated with earning a graduate degree can differ significantly from one field to the next.
Data reported by PayScale (“Highest paying graduate degrees by salary potential,” 2017) documents median mid-career pay for master’s degree graduates that ranges from a high of $156,000 for a master’s degree in Nursing Anesthesia to a low of $48,200 for a master’s in Human Services. Thus, a prospective student who hopes to enhance earnings power through graduate study should carefully research the career-related outcomes associated with competing master’s degree programs.
Refresh or augment existing knowledge and skills
Another important benefit of a graduate degree is the opportunity it provides for an individual to update or enhance existing knowledge and skills. The rate of change in many industries makes it quite challenging to keep pace with current trends and practices.
Graduate study can help a working professional maintain his or her currency in job-related skills. The marketing field provides a perfect example. The proliferation of various social media tools and their widespread use by so many different target audiences has created a completely new set of opportunities and challenges for the marketing/advertising function. A specialized master’s in Market Research or Digital Marketing offers a prospective student the opportunity to refresh his or her skills while earning an academic credential. Another example relates to the phenomenon of “big data.” The current abundance of raw data, and the ease with which interested parties can access and analyze that data, has given rise to an increased emphasis on data analytics skills. Graduate schools across all fields of inquiry have responded to that market need by launching programs that provide students with data analysis skills that have strong traction in the workplace.
If a prospective student is interested in acquiring new skills, a specialized graduate certificate that offers the option to roll completed credits into a related graduate degree is an excellent choice. An increasing number of graduate schools are offering discipline-specific “stackable certificates” that can be combined and counted toward master’s degree requirements. This alternative allows a student to build his or her knowledge base while further evaluating the benefits of pursuing a master’s degree.
Strengthen your professional competencies
Master’s degree programs also offer students the opportunity to develop important personal and professional skills. Many graduate programs include learning goals dedicated to the development of competencies such as communication, teamwork, leadership, and problem-solving skills. In addition, in programs where ethics is a key learning goal, students learn how to identify and work to resolve the types of ethical dilemmas that are likely to arise in their chosen fields. Because master’s programs generally consist of a smaller, more select population of students, faculty members can better focus on giving students regular and meaningful feedback that will assist them in strengthening these important skill sets.
Many master’s programs require students to make intellectual contributions to their specialty area, through a thesis or other original research project. Candidates in master’s programs with a research requirement develop valuable investigative, analytic, and writing skills that they can effectively apply to many other contexts. Even in programs where original research is not a requirement, graduate students may have the opportunity to collaborate with faculty in delivering conference papers and publishing in academic journals, an important learning experience as well as a valuable addition to the student’s résumé. At Seton Hall’s Stillman School of Business, for example, over 25% of the faculty regularly collaborate on research with students in our master’s degree programs.
Build valuable connections
Another crucial benefit that master’s programs provide is the opportunity to build powerful networks. A second degree introduces a student to a new set of peers, mentors, and potential sponsors. Graduate programs offer students the opportunity for a much greater level of interaction with faculty, who expect students to engage more actively in the learning experience.
Master’s candidates can also take advantage of opportunities to connect with the school’s alumni through classes or extracurricular programs and events, gaining exposure to a group that is usually quite enthusiastic about mentoring, sponsoring, and hiring graduates. In addition, an important benefit of part-time graduate programs, where many working professionals study, is that students have the opportunity to build relationships with classmates working in a variety of companies and industries. These connections may well lead to future professional opportunities as well as strong, enduring friendships.
New connections and relationships may also help surface unanticipated possibilities. In a recent 2017 Alumni Perspectives Survey conducted by GMAC, 39% of Business master’s graduates reported they were working in an industry they never even considered before entering graduate school.
It is clear that a master’s program can provide a number of important benefits. To maximize payback on the graduate degree investment, prospective students should carefully consider their own personal motivations and seek out the program and institution that can best deliver on those goals.
Related: Master’s vs. PhD