Is a Master's Degree Worth the Investment?

In a difficult job market, many people are considering furthering their education to advance their careers. But is an advanced degree worth the investment of time and money? Although a master's degree can help set you apart from other job applicants and may help you earn more money, it won't, by itself, get you your dream job.

"A lot of people go after a degree and think there will be magic in it," says Norm Meshriy, a master career counselor and owner of Career Insights.

You have to determine whether you'll earn enough afterward to make up for the money you spent -- and the income you lost, if you stopped working to go to school -- getting the degree.

It's hard to tell for certain whether a degree will pay off. But if you do your research, you can increase your chances of making the right decision.

You can start by using a salary calculator to compare salaries in your chosen profession; then consider these questions:

Is the Degree Closely Tied to a Job You Want?

For certain occupations, such as occupational therapy, a master's degree may be the only way to enter the field. And top-level business-management positions can be extremely difficult to get without an MBA.

A degree can also help in certain fields, such as engineering, especially if you didn't major in that area as an undergraduate, says Al Lee, director of quantitative analysis for PayScale.com.

However, Lee adds, in some fields, a master's degree can put you in a kind of "gray zone" in which "you finish, and you're still not qualified for a specific job." He says that, for example, people with master's degrees in English literature probably want jobs related to literature, unlike someone with a bachelor's degree in English, who may work, and would be considered qualified to work, in a wide variety of fields. Since a master's degree isn't usually enough to teach at the college level, the options in this case may be limited.

Will You Make More Money?

This is very difficult to answer, Lee says, since people who get a master's degree are often hoping to change jobs. This means you have to compare the likely pay in your new field with what you would get if you stayed in your current position without the degree. (In a few fields, such as teaching, a contract spells out how much more you'll make if you get a master's degree, making the calculation easier.)

Also, pay varies widely for people with master's degrees. At the high end, a PayScale.com survey found that the median salary for mid-career professionals with a master's degree in electrical engineering was $121,000. A counseling master's degree, on the other hand, led to a mid-career median salary of $53,500.

Are You Genuinely Interested in the Program?

"If you don't have the interest in the content of the program, you might benefit initially, but long-term you'll fail," Meshriy said. The reason is that you probably won't stick with this new career.

How Respected Is the Program?

And is it accredited? The reputation of the program will affect how much it helps you.

Can You Keep Working While Getting the Degree?

Doing so isn't easy, but working while going to school can definitely help your finances.

How Much Longer Do You Plan to Work?

There's no set age at which you should stop getting more education. "Why not get an advanced degree at the age of 55 if you can?" Meshriy said. But if you're counting on increased earnings to help pay back loans, you do need to consider how many years you plan to work.

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