Is a Master's Degree Really Worth It?

College graduates in profile.

Recently, an article by a research company mentioned that people should think twice about earning a master's degree. Their research concluded that only Master's degrees in fields like Business Administration, Economics, Marketing, and Engineering actually yielded a significant increase in pay. In addition, many news organizations have been reporting on the high amount of recent college graduates without employment prospects. While news like this may cause some to pause and re-think pursuing or completing graduate coursework, others charge whole-heartedly ahead with their graduate education based on research that says higher levels of education drastically increase lifetime earnings.

So why the disparities in research? Who should you believe? Well, the short answer is both are true. With an uncertain economy, you can't rely on a degree alone to get you the next job or higher pay. However, you can't discount the fact that historically, advanced education does generally open the door to more earnings and lower unemployment rates over the lifetime of an individual. Several things should be considered before pursuing advanced education and may be important factors in varying research results.

1. Know the labor market. Although you should follow your passion, you must first follow employment trends and labor market information. While economic depressions and recessions may alter outcomes, in general, you should understand what employers will be looking for by the time you are ready to enter the job market. Are you getting the knowledge, skills, and certifications they are looking for through your degree? Is your field growing or shrinking? Can you cross your skill set into a different industry with the same degree?

To begin to answer some of these questions, military members should consider taking the assessments in Kuder Journey. Kuder can help you hone in your interests, skills, and work values to ensure you know what you want to be a "master of". Next, you need to consider marrying that knowledge with labor market information. You may want to consider viewing Bright Outlook Occupations and then local labor market information from the American Job Centers in the geographic area you plan to seek employment.  American Job Centers (formerly called One-Stop Career Centers) can provide information on the local job market like hiring trends, salaries, massive layoffs, job search assistance, etc.)

2. Learn to LEVERAGE your education. You may also want to consider that education is just a small slice of career development. Spending several years in a classroom is no longer enough to become and stay competitive. While you are pursuing your education, are you gaining commensurate experience in your field with relevant experiences through employment, work study, internships, co-ops, rotational assignments, or volunteer opportunities? While some of these options may seem daunting to accomplish alongside your coursework and working to pay the bills, finding a creative, sustainable solution to ensure you gain and document relevant work experience will help employers know that you can apply the information you are learning to their bottom line.

Service members and veterans can access their Joint Service Transcript (JST) for an in-depth overview of their qualifications and experience gained through military service. For veterans using their VA education benefits, consider contacting your local Veterans organizations for work study opportunities (for example, Student Veterans of America (SVA), on-campus VA office, VA Vocational Rehabilitation, VA Hospital or Clinic, County Veterans Service Officer, American job Center Veterans Employment office, etc).

3. Add to your degree. What goes with your degree? Is there a specific certification that employers are looking for with your degree? Is there additional training or professional affiliations that would make you more marketable in your profession? Answering these questions is a natural part of the due diligence that graduate students need to do before they leave school. Often your school may provide assistance with accessing professional organizations or obtaining industry-recognized certifications.

4. Choose your program and school wisely. When selecting your program and your school, what are the job placement rates? While recent legislation is causing more colleges and universities to take measures like affordability and employment prospects into account, some institutions are leading the way. Some programs have professors who have gone beyond being locked in a classroom or research lab, to ensuring they have forged partnerships within their industry and assist students with placement in intern and employment opportunities. Ask the program chair what is their job placement rate and with what employers have hired their graduates over the last 2-3 years.

5. Market and brand yourself. How are you marketing yourself? Have you created a career portfolio of your work and experience?  Do you have strong resumes tailored to each job opportunity? Have you engaged social media outlets and branded yourself professionally online? You know there is a strong chance they will Google you, so give employers something worthy to find that helps you stand out from the other graduates. Join professional associations and network, network, network. In a global economy, it is easy to get lost in the crowd, so be known for the one who is contributing to your professional community. To get started with some of these activities, military members can contact their local Transition Assistance and/or Employment Representative at the on-base/post family service center. If you are in the Guard, Reserve, or are a veteran without a local military facility, contact the Veterans Services department of your local American Job Center. 

So the moral of this story....Even if you are attending an institution who can garner attention from employers by sheer name recognition alone, you have to do more than go to class and pay tuition in order to make your advanced education be a personal benefit to your career. 

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