I admit, I’ve been pretty scarce lately. It’s not that I’ve been avoiding writing (far from it, actually). In fact, I’ve just been having trouble keeping up with EVERYTHING I want to do!
There’s been a lot going on lately…
Next month, we are packing our bags and heading out west to Glacier National Park. We planned this vacation about six months ago, which seems like a long time. I was completely shocked when I realized that we’re a month out and still needed to finalize the details of our itinerary. Therefore, I’ve been a bit obsessed with researching trails we want to hike and making lists. Lots, and lots, of lists. I suspect we will never want to come back…
I’ve also been mixing it up and I’ve embarked on another writing project. As some of you may or may not know, I used to do a lot more creative writing back in high school and college. The problem was, I could never finish anything. I loved writing prose, but I never seemed to finish many projects. I decided to give it another try, actually put effort into an outline (novel idea, I know), and set a goal to finish a larger writing project. It’s going well, so hopefully I can keep up the momentum!
That brings me back to blogging.
I’ve been marinating on a question I was asked a few weeks ago. One of my friends asked me: “Should I get a Master’s degree?”
I responded to the question immediately, but I’ve continued to reflect on the question and my own decision to leave academia and capitalize on my Master’s degree by entering the alt-ac workforce.
I believe it’s important to point out that the title of this post is “Should I get a Master’s Degree?“, rather than, “Should I go to Grad School?” My opinions about master’s degrees and doctoral degrees are very different, as they can serve very different purposes. Often, but not always, doctoral degrees are pursued by people wanting to enter academia. I say not always because many private companies also seek PhD’s for various types of jobs (e.g. Research Scientists, Study Directors, etc.). It just depends on the industry.
Due to the dismal state of the academic job market, lack of graduate student funding and support, and the ever-growing student debt bubble, I do not encourage anyone to pursue a PhD unless they have a very calculated, specific plan and can guarantee they will be fully funded by their academic program in order to avoid taking on student debt.
Long story, short–I couldn’t tell my friend whether or not she should get a Master’s degree.
I say that because my response included A LOT of additional questions. The only way to arrive at a yes or no answer is to carefully consider each one and essentially perform a cost-benefit analysis on your life.
Why do you want a master’s degree?
There has to be a reason you want a master’s degree! A common reason to pursue a master’s degree is that it fulfills the education requirement for a specific job. Do your career goals include a certain degree that gives you the knowledge and skills for a particular job?
In my opinion, earning a master’s degree is one of the best ways to learn how to conduct original research. Depending on the discipline and master’s program, you may be required to develop a research question, perform the research and analysis, and present your findings in the form of a thesis. In doing so, you will demonstrate that you understand how to formulate questions and answer those questions using critical thinking skills as well as present your arguments and findings in a clear and concise manner.
The ability to formulate arguments and back them up with research and facts is not as common as you’d think. Often, it requires people to think critically and think outside the box and consider alternative viewpoints to arrive at the best solution to a problem. I work in a very different industry than the one I thought I’d end up in, but the common denominator is that I’m still involved in research. The skills I learned in my master’s program are invaluable and, in many ways, have given me a leg up over the competition, regardless of the industry.
It’s important to consider whether a master’s degree is absolutely necessary or if experience is also acceptable. This depends on the job, of course, but DO NOT HESITATE to ask a supervisor or mentor what exactly is required for a specific position. There’s no reason to spend a massive amount of time and money if there are other avenues of reaching your goal. However, if a master’s degree will give you the boost you need to reach your goals, then go for it!
If you’re still unsure, check out this article from U.S. News, 5 Things You Need to Know About Graduate School. Ask yourself these questions to brainstorm and help decide whether a master’s degree fits in with your lifestyle and career goals.
What kind of master’s degree do you want?
The type of degree you want can affect EVERY aspect of this cost-benefit analysis. Are you pursuing a master’s in Business, Public Health, Chemistry, Biology, Engineering, Psychology, or Social Work? The type of degree you seek dictates what schools offer it, how much it costs, how much time is required, and how important it is to your field of work.
Again, ask yourself the question: Why do you want a master’s degree?
When I first entered the non-academic job market, I was shocked to find out:
NOBODY OUTSIDE OF ACADEMIA CARES ABOUT YOUR ACADEMIC WORK EXPERIENCE!
Exhibit A: Spending four semesters as a TA grading freshman quizzes for an intro class < Working at a non-profit developing a community outreach program for at-risk teens that increased high school graduation rates by 20% in one year.
Sure, the knowledge and teaching experience (if you get any) is important overall, but we’re talking about career aspirations and professional development right now. Both of these hypothetical positions might pay the same, but if you’re applying for a non-ac position, one is the clear choice for any employer.
It’s sad, but true. I came to terms with this jarring reality while I was still in my PhD program. I had many friends scattered throughout the university, pursuing a variety of different degrees. Most of my friends in the social work program worked regular day jobs while attending classes in the evening. After graduation, they were able to secure different jobs and transition rather smoothly, as they were already working a full-time job and gaining relevant experience while completing their degrees (in addition to required internships and practicums).
This was not the case for some of my other friends, whose programs only offered Teaching Assistant and Research Assistant positions (and only for the lucky few). Sure, these positions came with department funding (which was not the case in other programs), but it was not the same as real-world job/intern experience.
I was fortunate enough to work with a state agency based at the university that allowed me to take advantage of departmental funding, but also transition to a full-time contract employee when that funding ran out. I hated my job at the time, but I firmly believe that’s why I was able to transition out of my PhD program and into a different industry. The employer I worked for when I first arrived in Columbus didn’t care that I used to dig ditches all day, they cared that I worked for a state agency, knew how to operate within a budget, knew how to properly conduct biological research, and I could disseminate the findings.
If you have a specific job in mind that requires said degree, then there’s your answer. However, make sure to consider whether you actually do need the degree in order to be successful. If so, GO FOR IT! But if not, consider whether gaining additional experience or skill sets will benefit you just as much as a degree.
How much will a master’s degree cost?
And how much are you willing to spend?
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average graduate tuition for the 2014-15 school year was $17,389. The average graduate tuition rate for public institutions was $10,979 and $23,266 for private institutions. These figures only apply to in-state tuition, rather than out-of-state, which carries a higher cost.
Does your desired program offer financial assistance or scholarships? Is funding offered through TA/RA assignments? If financial assistance is based on TA/RA work, does this jive with your current schedule (e.g. do you plan to work while pursuing your degree?).
If you’re currently employed, does your employer offer tuition reimbursement? This is a wonderful option depending on the cost and duration of the coursework. Just make sure to speak to HR beforehand to get all the details. Often, an employer will not reimburse for tuition unless it’s a degree that will directly benefit the company. There also may be requirements stating that you will continue to work for the company for a specified amount of time after you earn the degree (so the company actually benefits from their investment in you). If none of these caveats are a problem, then employer tuition reimbursement could be a wonderful option!
Will you need to take out student loans in order to pursue a degree? If student loans are your only option, I’m inclined to say JUST DON’T BOTHER. I believe you’d be hard-pressed to find any degree that’s actually worth going into tens of thousands of dollars of debt.
School is expensive. It is absolutely obscene how much public universities cost (and don’t get me started on private universities). I am of the mind that it no longer matters where you earn a degree. Over the course of my long, drawn out job search after relocating to Columbus, I realized that attending a fancy university doesn’t mean jack if you can’t demonstrate you’ve applied your knowledge and haven’t gained relevant experience.
Each type of degree also carries with it a certain Return on Investment (ROI). If you pay $X in tuition, will your income potential equal or exceed that investment? In other words, will the cost of the degree be worth it in the end?
Sit down and do some math (I know–I’m cringing at this sentence, too. But seriously, do it.). Realistically consider what kind of salary range you will have after earning a master’s degree. You should be able to ballpark this figure because you should have a specific job title in mind. Glassdoor and PayScale are great tools to research salaries for specific jobs located in different cities throughout the United States. And remember–an accountant in Little Rock is not going to have the same salary as one in Los Angeles.
This is where it’s also useful to consider cost-of-living and whether you plan to stay at your current location or relocate. It makes no sense to go into tens of thousands of dollars of debt if the median income of your chosen job position is $45,000 annually. You’d spend your entire life paying for the degree and living in abject poverty! However, if the additional education will increase your salary and provide a greater ROI, then it could benefit you in the long run.
As I mentioned before, you must have a reason you want to earn a master’s degree. Once you find that reason, consider what programs you can afford and whether that fits in with your salary goals.
What is the length of time to complete a master’s degree?
This is where I go on a diatribe about why doctoral programs screw up so many people’s lives. Not all of them, of course, but there is a substantial difference between how long it takes to complete a doctorate versus how long it takes to complete a master’s degree.
According to CollegeRank, a master’s degree typically takes between one and three years to complete. This, of course, depends on the type of program and the academic institution. It also depends on whether you’re a full or part-time student. If you have a full-time job and your employer is paying the tuition, it might take longer because you can’t devote your entire day to courses.
I can say, without a shadow of a doubt, that a master’s degree will take less time to complete than a doctorate. Often, master’s programs have a very defined timeline regarding when students must finish the program. Unlike doctoral programs, where students can be strung along anywhere from five to ten years, master’s programs don’t want their students hanging around too long. The goal is to earn the degree, get out, and get a job. Many master’s advisers even drop students if they’re taking too long to finish.
The longer you stay in a graduate program, the more you delay your life and career. Therefore, make sure you do some research and ask the following questions:
1) What is the expected time of completion for the degree?
2) How long does it actually take students to complete the degree (don’t be fooled by #1, as it’s not uncommon for faculty to expect students to complete the program, but the reality may be completely different)?
3) Are both full- and part-time students enrolled in the program, and if so, how do their completion times differ?
These questions are important because your time is important. If a master’s degree does not fit into your future career and life plans, then there’s no need to needlessly derail those plans. This brings me to the last question…
Will earning a master’s degree be conducive to your lifestyle?
What is your life like right now? Are you a college student about to graduate and you’re trying to figure out which path to take next? Have you been in the workforce for a few years and you’re wondering if earning a graduate degree will help you take the next step in your career? Do you have a family? Are you established in one location or are you open to moving around?
There are so many factors to take into account when considering a master’s degree. Most of these factors pertain to the current state of your life. This is where you need to take your responses to the previous questions and compare them to your everyday life. The reasons, the cost, and the time to completion could change what your life is like. Maybe that’s good! But that also may not be good for you or other people in your life (e.g. time with family, your household budget, etc.).
I’m not of the mind that, as an adult, you should ask anyone permission to do anything. However, there is a difference between seeking co-dependent approval from someone and considering how your actions affect people you care about. For example, if you have a family then decisions that involve your time will need to take your partner and/or children into account. If you’ll need to pay out-of-pocket for the degree, this also involves anyone else who depends on part or all of your finances. It might not even be an issue, but these are real considerations.
It’s also important to consider your future career goals. Earning a master’s degree might be great for your current position, but will it still be applicable a few years from now? If you want to stay in the same industry or the same company, then an master’s degree could greatly benefit both you and your employer. However, if you’re not sure you want to stay in the same industry, you’ll need to consider whether the particular master’s degree you want will apply to other industries or positions.
So… should you get a master’s degree?
My super annoying cop-out answer was that I had NO idea whether or not it was a good idea.
Seriously, there’s no best answer because everyone’s situation and goals are different!
But since this is (I hope) an informative blog post, I will say that if you’ve carefully considered all of the questions above, answered them to the best of your ability, and pursuing a master’s still sounds like a good idea…
THEN DO IT!
Regardless of whether or not you actually pursue a master’s degree, it’s not required to be successful. Hell, I know people that didn’t go to college, but they found something they like to do, they’re great at at, they’ve honed their skills and grown their knowledge, and they make more money than I ever will.
That being said, the degree doesn’t define you as a person. Gone are the days when you could get a degree of any kind and be guaranteed a job straight out of school. Yes, a bachelor’s degree, and often a master’s degree, will significantly increase your chances of earning more money than people who do not have these degrees. But these days, it’s all about creating a plan, working hard, and gaining the experience, regardless of whether or not that plan includes school.
If the only reason you want a master’s degree is because you think having those letters after your name might increase your chances of getting a better job, then you’re probably better off just working harder and building your professional experience. If a master’s degree will provide you a specific set of skills for work in an industry that you like and plan to stay in (or at least offer you broad enough skills for professional mobility), then you should definitely pursue one as long as it fits in with the rest of your life.
The best advice I can give is to talk to people who have done it. Ask a million questions and carefully consider why you want a master’s degree, what kind of degree you want, what the costs are (financial and otherwise), the time to completion, and whether the grad school life is conducive to your lifestyle. Earning a master’s degree can give you that bump you need for success, but if not, you’re no worse off and you’ve gained that much more time to acquire professional experience.