How Valuable is a Graduate Degree in the Job Market?

Stephanie Small - September 20, 2013


image-diplomaIn 2012, The Chronicle of Higher Education and American Public Media’s Marketplace conducted a study of employers who hire recent college graduates. The goal was to assess employer’s perceptions of how universities and colleges are preparing students for career settings. Though the end product addressed graduates holding a bachelor’s degree, this study has important implications for graduate students as well. Here are some of the highlights:

“A bachelor’s is a dime a dozen.”

For many of the hiring managers surveyed, a bachelor’s degree was the minimum requirement for an applicant to “get their foot in the door.” While obtaining a bachelor’s demonstrates “discipline and motivation”, “dedication and responsibility”, it’s also considered “a dime a dozen”, and because of that, has “declined in value.” In fact, one disgruntled individual commented

 “If not in philosophy, math, any of the hard sciences, then it has NEGATIVE value (unless from a top 20 school). Those with degree in easy major (communications, psychology) are likely to have acquired many bad habits and attitudes during college. It takes a long time to train these habits and attitudes out of them. Better for them to not go to college.”

While this opinion most likely represents an extreme end of the spectrum, it’s also clear from other comments that a master’s degree is often preferable to a bachelor’s. A sampling of feedback about the value of a master’s degree includes:

“A bachelor’s degree is the lowest degree possible to succeed. In reality, a master’s is preferable.”

“Everyone has a bachelor’s…A master’s is the beginning of degrees/experiences that cause a person to stand out now.”

“It seems that for a lot of the higher paying jobs you will still need graduate level education.”

“To remain competitive in today’s market there is a need for a master’s level degree in lucrative majors that can rebuild the jobs industry in this country.”

The Desirability Factor – Hard Data

Overall, employers surveyed prefer a five-year combined bachelor’s and master’s degree to a three-year bachelor’s or a competency-based bachelor’s. That’s probably obvious, but it’s worth noting exactly how much they prefer it. Using a rating scale of 2 (far less desirable) to 4 (far more desirable), with 3 representing the mean of “equally desirable”, the five-year combined master’s and bachelor’s received a score of 3.50. In contrast, the three-year bachelor’s came in at 2.88 while the competency-based bachelor’s received a 2.61. The education field is most desiring of a five-year combined degree, followed by government, business/nonprofit, and media/communications. In addition, hiring managers that were surveyed have a slightly more favorable perception of individuals who enroll in a graduate program rather than taking an unpaid internship (the exception being the media/communications industry).


Balancing Academics and Experience

While it’s clearly helpful in many ways, a graduate degree isn’t everything. This study also demonstrates that hiring managers may value experience as being slightly more important than academic credentials. Interestingly, the full study references several examples that demonstrate the difficulty recent college graduates experience when attempting to get jobs to gain that experience. Therefore it is important for undergraduate students to gain as much experience as possible before entering the full time workforce, through internships, shadowing, and volunteer activities. Graduate institutions often offer students opportunities to gain experience as well.  Teaching and research assistantships not only look good on your resume and provide you with great experience, but they can help defray tuition costs. Summer internships in various settings, as well as any practicums or internships that are part of some programs can also provide you with a well-rounded range of on the job experiences.


Bottom line: while a bachelor’s degree proves you’ve got a degree of follow-through and certain skills, they’re also so common that instead of helping you stand out, they simply get you through the front door. The results of this survey indicate that the attractive resumes to employers may include both a graduate degree and some solid work experience.





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