Is It Worth It To Get a Master’s Degree?

Should I Get My Master’s Degree?

Getting a master’s degree takes time and money, so wondering whether this might ‘pay off’ is natural. Many people question whether and when a master’s degree is worth it, and when it is not.

In some careers like doctors or lawyers you need more than a bachelor’s degree. So, there’s no real decision other than where to go to school.

But there are other professions where having a master’s degree might give you an edge. You don’t ‘need’ one to land that entry-level job. But with competition high you wonder whether to return to school to stack the deck in your favor.

There are also intangible potential benefits of earning a master’s to think about. Things like studying modern theories, trends and technology. We’ll cover these points and a few more to help you weight the pros and cons.

How to Know Why You’re Getting a Master’s

A key concern about whether to pursue a master’s degree is whether it has the potential to help achieve goals. Common goals include:

  • To earn more money
  • Find a job
  • Refine skills to step into a promotion
  • Prepare for emerging opportunities
  • Gain quality research skills
  • Work towards a PhD

It may thus be useful to identify why you want to pursue a master’s degree in the first place. Then you can research answers to the following:

  • Do people in your career field earn more money if they get a master’s degree?
  • Is a master’s degree required in your career field?
  • Does a master’s degree impact upward mobility in your career field?
  • Does earning a master’s degree in your field ready people with marketable skills?
  • Is a master’s degree a key step towards a PhD in your career field?

There are a few resources to help you get to the bottom of these questions. One is to review job postings to get a sense of what employers seek. Another is to tap into your college alumni network and/or professional associations.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics also has useful data. Here you’ll find information about entry-level education requirements. Plus, insights about hiring trends, job growth and salaries.

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What is the cost of a master’s degree?

The average tuition and fees for a master’s degree program is about $17,385. This means some schools are more expensive while others more affordable.

Earning a master’s degree may come with financial rewards. But it still comes with obvious and hidden costs. For instance, many programs take about two years of full-time study. For recent undergrads, this may delay entering the workforce. Or, if you work part-time, you likely won’t earn as much.

That said, if you have your heart set on grad school, there are ways to reduce costs. Some possible options are to:

  • Look into scholarships and fellowships. Do so by contacting the financial aid office and sourcing other grantors of aid
  • Find out whether an online version of your degree is available
  • Ask if your employer will pay (or help pay) for your master’s degree while you continue to work
  • Scout for master’s programs with no GRE requirements. If you are returning to school after some time, it is one less hurdle to jump over
  • Compare online versions of the degree you are seeking. Many students pursue a master’s degree while they work and this is one way to do it

Does Getting a Master’s Increase Salary?

At last check, education still pays off in many cases. One study looked at average weekly salaries of fulltime workers age 25 and over. It found that persons with a master’s degree earn $236 per week more that those with a bachelor’s degree. That’s an average of $944 per month and $11,328 per year.

Unemployment Rate and Average Earnings by Degree Level

DegreeUnemployment RateMedian Usual Weekly Earnings
Doctoral Degree1.6%$1,825
Professional Degree1.5%$1,884
Master’s Degree2.1%$1,434
Bachelor’s Degree2.2%$1,198
Associate’s Degree2.8%$862

Source: BLS.gov

There are also a few career fields where having a master’s degree may lead to advancement (and more pay). These areas include business, finance, STEM, education, health care and others.

One report looked at specific job titles in each of these fields. Then compared average annual salaries of people with a bachelor’s or master’s degree.

It found that those with a master’s degree earned from 14 to 89 % more per year depending on the job. Salaries vary by location, setting and as new data comes in. The table below shows some of these occupations and wage premiums.

13 Career Fields Where a Master’s Degree Pays More

Occupation% Workers with a Bachelor’s Degree% Workers with a Master’s DegreeMedian Average Wage (Bachelor’s)Median Average Wage (Master’s)Wage Premium ($)Wage Premium (%)
Securities, Commodities and Financial Services Sales Agents54%16%$90,000$170,000$80,00089%
Financial Managers41%19%$78,000$110,000$32,00041%
Market Research Analysts54%23%$65,000$90,000$25,00038%
Marketing Managers51%17%$80,000$110,000$30,00038%
Education Administrators23%46%$52,000$75,000$23,00044%
Preschool and Kindergarten Teachers33%14%$30,000$43,000$13,00043%
Postsecondary Teachers13%30%$43,800$50,000$6,20014%
Physician Assistants23%43%$66,000$95,000$29,00044%
Medical and Health Services Managers32%24%$70,000$90,000$20,00029%
Social Workers42%34%$40,000$50,000$10,00025%
Mathematicians, Statisticians and Related Areas32%38%$60,000$80,000$20,00033%
Information Security Analysts45%17%$85,000$100,000$15,00018%
Network Administrators39%11%$70,000$88,000$18,00026%

Source: BLS.gov

Preparing for New Opportunities with A Master’s Degree

In some career fields, having a master’s degree may prepare you for new opportunities. One example is the field of nursing where changes are brewing. The profession is moving its entry level degree to the Doctor of Nursing Practice.

Many nurses enter the field with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) and an RN license. They earn an average of $71,730 per year and are in-demand. The need for Registered Nurses is also growing faster than average (15%) to 2026.

But to prepare for emerging roles and advanced nursing one needs an MSN degree. The Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) is still the entry-point to these careers. Nurse practitioners, nurse midwives, nurse anesthetists for instance. These roles are in very high demand (31% to 2026). Plus, they pay on average $113,930. That’s $42,200 more per year than for BSN-prepared RNs.

Another opportunity that may come hand-in-hand with a master’s degree is leadership. You might enter a wide range of careers with a bachelor’s degree. But to step into a mid-senior executive role requires the skills set gleaned from grad school.

One example are financial advisors. A master’s degree and certification may bump up chances of advancement. If this is your goal, a wide range of masters in finance programs exist. Many are online which may suit you if you already have a job.

The same goes for IT Managers. Many enter the field with a bachelor’s degree in computer or information science. But employers today seek candidates who also have a grad degree like the MBA or MS in Information Technology.

Are you getting the sense that pay, advancement and opportunity often link together? Make sure to research your chosen career to see if this is so. If you stand to make back in salary the cost of attending grad school, a master’s may be worth thinking about.

Can I Do a PhD Without a Master’s Degree?

Whether you are able to pursue a PhD without a master’s varies by program. Many students in the U.S. do enter a PhD program with a bachelor’s degree.

Others enter with a master’s degree either because it is a criterion for admission. Or they want two degrees. Many schools roll a master’s and PhD together if this is one of your aims.

Having a master’s degree may also help you reduce your PhD course load. Fewer credits may mean spending less on tuition. One example is Walden’s PhD in Criminal Justice program. It waives some classes for those with a Master of Science in Criminal Justice or related degree.

Also, while an undergrad degree is often broad and general, not so with most master’s programs. Usually one studies techniques and theory. Then integrates the two in a final capstone project or thesis. This experience may yield solid set of qualitative and quantitative skills.

A PhD demands these skills plus a solid idea of what you want to research. If you are on the fence, a master’s degree might set you up with a clearer focus. You’ll also have the experience of writing a master’s thesis under your belt.

Here are 5 other careers where you need a PhD to conduct research. But you may be able to enter the field in a more general way with a master’s degree.

  1. University or college professor
  2. Medical scientist
  3. Biochemist and biophysicist
  4. Engineering research and development
  5. Provost or dean

Take away? A master’s degree may be a useful step if a PhD and/or independent research is your goal. It is a way to study more in depth and can be a preparation for a specific career.

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Do I Really Need a Master’s Degree?

On the whole, occupations that need a master’s degree will grow at an average rate of 18.4% over the next few years. High growth fields usually feature more jobs.

In some such occupations, you might need a master’s degree to qualify for entry-level jobs. In others a master’s degree may help you land a promotion, but you don’t need one to launch a career.

Below are examples of careers where a master’s degree is an entry point. In some cases, this means that getting ahead may require a doctorate degree.

OccupationEntry-level Education2018 Median Pay
Elementary, Middle, High School PrincipalsMaster’s (E.g. Masters in Educational Leadership)$95,310
Postsecondary EducatorsMaster’s (E.g. Masters in Student Affairs)$94,340
Genetic CounselorMaster’s (E.g. Master’s in Biomedical Engineering)$80,370
Occupational TherapistMaster of Science in Occupational Therapy (MSOT)$84,270
Orthotist and ProsthetistMaster’s (E.g. Master’s in Orthotics)$69,120
Physician AssistantMaster’s in Physician Assistant$108,610
Nurse Practitioner, Nurse Anesthetist, Nurse MidwifeMaster’s (E.g. Master of Science in Nursing)$113,930
Speech Language PathologistMaster’s (E.g. Master of Science in Speech-Language Pathology)$77,510
EpidemiologistMaster’s (E.g. Master’s in Public Health (MPH))$69,660
AnthropologistMaster’s (E.g. Masters in Anthropology)$62,410
Computer and Information Research ScientistsMaster’s (E.g. Master of Science in Computer Science)$118,370
EconomistMaster’s (E.g. Master of Science in Applied Economics)$104,340
HistorianMaster’s (E.g. Master of Arts in History)$61,140
Political ScientistMaster’s (E.g. Master of Public Policy (MPP)$117,570
Urban PlannerMaster’s (E.g. Master of Science in City & Regional Planning)$73,050
Survey ResearcherMaster’s (E.g. Master’s in Data Analytics)$57,700
Instructional CoordinatorMaster’s (Master’s in Instructional Technology)$64,450
LibrarianMaster’s (E.g. Master of Science in Library Science)$59,050
SociologistMaster’s (E.g. Master’s in Sociology)$82,050
Marriage and Family TherapistMaster’s (E.g. Master of Science in Marriage and Family Counseling/Therapy)$50,090
Rehabilitation CounselorMaster’s (E.g. Master’s in Clinical Mental Health Counseling)$35,630
School and Career CounselorsMaster’s (E.g. Master of Science in School Counseling)$56,310
Mathematicians and StatisticiansMaster’s (E.g. Master of Science in Mathematics)$88,190

If a master’s degree is an entry-point to your chosen field, make sure to research options. There are 3 main formats (blended hybrid, online and on-campus). You’ll also want to double-check any state licensure rules and verify accreditation.

11 Masters Degrees That Are Worth It

Master’s degrees that end up being “worth it” are ones where there is a return on your investment. This may happen when:

  • Employers in a field prefer to hire candidates with a master’s
  • A master’s degree is the entry to a career or to a PhD
  • The field is fast-growing with many jobs for skilled workers
  • There is a big difference in salaries for master’s prepared workers

Here are eleven popular masters degrees. We’ve paired them with some examples of careers to highlight their potential usefulness.

1. Master of Business Administration (MBA)

Also known as Master of Business Administration, an MBA covers key business skills. Then helps students apply managerial practice to a concentration area. Top executives of large corporations often have one. On the flip side, experience may be an invaluable substitute.

2. Master of Social Work (MSW)

To become a clinical social worker, you need a Master of Social Work. You also need 2 years of post-degree supervised practice. These things ready you to take licensure exams, a rule in most states. Make sure you look for MSW programs accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.

3. Master of Public Administration (MPA)

Like an MBA, a Master of Public Administration is a professional degree. It blends studies in leadership and policy analysis. If you want to manage a nonprofit or pursue a C-suite role in public agencies, it may be useful.

4. Master’s in Human Resources

Some companies prefer to hire HR managers with a Master’s in Human Resources. Such programs often cover the finer points of labor relations, and benefits. They may also help you become familiar with new software and employment laws.

5. Master’s in Accounting (MAcc)

A Master’s in Accounting may help bachelor’s prepared accountants prepare for the CPA exam. The rule in most states is 150 semester hours of college coursework. This is 30 hours more than the usual 4-year bachelor’s degree. Most MAcc programs fill this gap.

6. Master’s in Engineering

Engineers who want to gain business skills may pursue a master’s degree. There are two options to the MBA. The Master’s in Engineering Management (MEM or MsEM) or technology management (MSTM). These programs often focus on how to manage complex projects and large teams. Many go back to school while working.

7. Master’s in Physician Assistant

Physician Assistants (PAs) need a master’s degree from an accredited PA program. This is one of the fastest growing careers, with 37% more jobs on the horizon by 2026. It’s an option for registered nurses and others with patient care experience. Usually taking 2 years of full-time study, they cover clinical rotations and lots of labs.

8. Master of Healthcare Administration (MHA)

Many medical and health services managers today have a master’s degree. A common path is the Master of Healthcare Administration or MHA. Such programs focus on the business side of the industry. They often include courses in budgeting, staffing, health economics, IT and health care law. Job prospects are great (20% growth to 2026) and more so with a grad degree.

9. Master’s in Cybersecurity

Cyberattacks are on the rise and so is the need for skilled analysts. Estimates show that employment of InfoSec analysts may grow 56 % to 2026. Especially in computer systems design and related services. If this is your goal, there are a wide range of Cybersecurity Masters programs. These often stack relevant technical skills with leadership training.

10. Master’s in Statistics and Data Analytics

Most statisticians have a master’s degree (or PhD). Common paths are mathematics, economics, computer science, or data science. These programs often set students up with the technical skills to manage and make sense of big data. Growth in this area is not slowing down – 33% more jobs forecasted to 2026.

11. Master’s in Education

Employment in education-related careers is on the rise by 9% to 2026. You do not always need a master’s to begin a teaching career. But in some states, you’ll need one after you have a teaching certification and a job. Or to earn more (see table). For career switchers there are Master of Arts in Teaching programs. MAT programs often pave the way to a first teaching license as long as you have a bachelor’s degree in any field.

What are the Benefits of a Master’s Degree in the Job Market?

The benefits of a master’s degree might include:

  • Higher pay
  • More focused knowledge
  • Skills that meet the needs of today’s workplace
  • Getting a promotion
  • Vital research skills that pave the way to a PhD
  • Open to new ideas, methods, networks

But not in every situation. As such, it is a good idea to assess some options. Here are a few to think about.

  • If you are already working, ask your employer what you need to do to get a higher paying position. Career sites often list things like attending conferences related to your job role. Networking and redoing a LinkedIn profile may help too
  • If you want to refresh a resume and add a credential, look into certificate programs. There are graduate certificates in many areas. They are usually from 12 to 15 credits and take about one year to complete. Plus, many schools allow you to transfer the credits to a master’s program later

In 2016–17, postsecondary schools conferred 805,000 master’s degrees. The most popular fields are:

  • Business – 187,000 degrees
  • Education – 146,000 degrees
  • Health professions – 119,000 degrees
  • Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) – 139,000
  • Engineering – 52,000 degrees
  • Computer and information sciences – 46,600

Take away? In some fields a master’s degree may help you achieve your goals. In others, the cost of getting a degree may outweigh the benefits.

Finding the perfect solution for you will take a bit of homework. You need to research whether a master’s degree lines up with your industry, goals, and regional job market. Then search to find the program that may match your lifestyle and career path.