The Pros and Cons of Earning a Master’s Degree
It’s not just you. If it seems like more and more of your peers are applying and attending grad school or already hold a master’s degree, you’re not imagining it. In fact, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that the number of master’s degrees conferred in the US grew 70 percent between 2000 and 2017.1 The NCES projects enrollment in both master’s and doctorate programs to increase by 3 percent by 2028.2
Despite the increasing popularity of earning a master’s or other graduate-level degree, it’s easy to understand if you’re not convinced it’s the right route for you. Continued education and the removal of potential career advancement roadblocks are great, but these factors need to be weighed against potential detractors like cost and the time it’ll take to return for a degree.
So how can you tell if a master’s degree is really worth it? While there’s no way to answer that question without knowing the details of each individual situation, you can at least start getting a clearer picture of what to consider by weighing the pros and cons. In this article, we’ll dive into the data and ask others who’ve weighed earning a master’s degree to provide their perspective on the potential positives and drawbacks.
Pros of earning a master’s degree
Let’s start by considering the benefits of graduate school and how it might impact your future career path.
Potential for more job and advancement opportunities
For some jobs, you need a master’s degree before you even submit your resume. For instance, librarians, doctors, physician assistants, lawyers, counselors and social workers are all required to attend graduate school before joining the working world. Those occupations require specific degrees and sometimes additional licensure you’ll want to be familiar with before pursuing a degree. There’s good news for those considering these positions—the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports employment in jobs requiring master’s degrees is projected to grow nearly 17 percent from 2016-2026, the fastest of all education levels.3
According to the NCES, over half of all graduate degrees earned during the 2016-2017 academic year were in three fields—business, education and health—with engineering and computer science also responsible for a sizable share as well.1 Though there are many jobs that do not require a master’s degree in these fields, many students choose to earn a graduate degree to help them advance into more senior or specialized roles or as a way to stand out for highly competitive roles.
Calloway Cook, owner at Illuminate Labs, says in his field he sees a master’s degree as a leg up for applicants with a similar background and skillset as those without. “Those with a master’s degree in business, marketing or web development will be favored as potential hires.”
Higher earning potential
When taking a broad view, those with master’s degrees earn more than those with bachelor’s degrees. The BLS reports that median usual weekly earnings for master’s degree holders was $1,434 while those with a bachelor’s degree was $1,198.4 That said, this broad look at compensation includes those in occupations where a master’s degree is essential for even being considered—the difference may not be as notable for those who pursued master’s degrees in fields where the degree may be nice to have, but not necessarily required.
In those less clear-cut situations, there may still be some upside for earning potential. Jean Paldan, owner of Rare Form New Media, says that for senior positions a lot of companies require either substantial experience working alongside senior roles on projects or less experience paired with a master’s degree—and that’s where a master’s degree can help.
“You may move up faster than your peers without a master’s, and with those promotions come higher salaries,” Paldan says.
Earning a master’s degree isn’t easy; it takes time, dedication and hard work. “Continued education demonstrates a discipline and commitment to self-improvement and skills development which is a good sign for employers,” says Cook. In addition to the knowledge you’ll gain, your drive and motivation is sure to catch the eye of employers who are looking for someone passionate about their area of expertise.
Beyond just impressing others, earning a master’s degree can and should be an enjoyable and rewarding process. Rachel Wagner, a writer with a master’s degree in English literature, decided to go to graduate school so she could truly focus on a subject she really loves. “A master’s degree is worth it if you love the field of study, would like to be around people who also love it and want time to really dig into the subject matter more,” Wagner says. “Those were my favorite college years.”
In addition to honing practical, day-to-day skills when earning your master’s, you’ll also accumulate big-picture knowledge that you can apply to create plans or strategies at your future job.
Cons of earning a master’s degree
Despite the rewards of earning a master’s degree, there’s no doubt that going back to school can be a costly investment—costing you both time and money, though that investment can vary greatly depending on your choices. Let’s evaluate the risks and your potential options.
There’s no doubt that a college education is a big investment—and that doesn’t stop at the graduate level. For those with a bachelor’s degree and student loans, the prospect of taking on more debt just isn’t palatable.
Even with income-driven repayment plans and federally subsidized loans, the burden of that much debt can weigh heavy on a student’s mind. Those who are pursuing master’s degrees in fields where the potential for higher earnings isn’t great will want to carefully consider the overall cost of earning the degree.
Paldan says that in creative fields like design the expense of pursuing a master’s degree might not match the value employers place on it. “If I am hiring a new designer, I don't care if they have a master’s,” Paldan says. “I care about their portfolio, their ability to produce a wide range of styles, and how fast they can work.”
That said, price-conscious students can still seek out ways to make a master’s degree more affordable—employer education assistance programs, scholarships, research fellowships and pay-as-you-go approaches can all help.
Time spent in school
Balancing your schedule between work, school and family can be the most challenging part of going back to school. Your education is important to you, but you don’t necessarily want to give up your life to earn your master’s degree. Getting your master’s degree will be a substantial time commitment no matter what, but there are many programs with varying timelines and options to help you get it done.
Depending on your goals and your program, you may choose to go back to school either full or part-time. The NCES reports that in fall 2017, 1.7 million postbaccalaureate students were full-time, while 1.3 million were part time.2 Given that more graduate-level students are balancing full-time employment with their schooling, it’s easy to see how a substantial portion of students may opt for a part-time student approach.
Cook believes that if you’re working in the industry you want to stay in, enrolling part-time and working full-time may be the best option. “If someone can continue at their full-time job while earning a degree relevant to their field online—no matter how long the degree takes to complete—I think that person should consider it.”
So, is a master’s degree worth it?
This is a question only you can answer for yourself. There are so many individual factors to consider and discuss with your loved ones, be sure to take your time deciding what’s best for you. Much of this decision will come down to your career goals, tolerance for risk and passion for the field you’re pursuing.
If you’re leaning toward pursuing a graduate degree, check out the Rasmussen College Master’s degree programs—all provide flexible learning options that can help you fit this big educational goal into your schedule.
1National Center for Education Statistics, The Condition of Education 2019, Graduate Degree Fields [accessed October 2019] https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/pdf/coe_ctb.pdf
2National Center for Education Statistics, The Condition of Education 2019, Postbaccalaureate Enrollment [accessed October 2019] https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_chb.asp
3U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment outlook for graduate-level occupations, [accessed October 2019] https://www.bls.gov/careeroutlook/2018/article/graduate-degree-outlook.htm
4U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Data on display: Education pays [accessed October 2019] https://www.bls.gov/careeroutlook/2019/data-on-display/education_pays.htm Information represents national, averaged data for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. Employment conditions in your area may vary.