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Is My Master's Degree Worth It?

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Conventional wisdom holds that higher education gives a return in both increased earnings and job stability. And data from sources like the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) support that claim.

So if the numbers are clear, why are so many people questioning the value of a master's degree?

At the height of the recession in 2009, The New York Times ran a feature on the value of a master's degree and hundreds of readers wrote in to comment on how their own master's degrees had--or hadn't--paid off. As one commenter wrote, "While I believe my master's education was excellent, it is very sad to see so many of us getting nowhere with it so far."

While the job market has picked up since 2009, the master's degree remains an uncertain investment for many students. A recent study from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) provides new data on just how good of an investment a graduate degree can be. It's no surprise that the results vary significantly by field of study.

Does a master's degree pay off?

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that education was the most popular master's degree program in 2007-2008, with 175,880 degrees conferred that year. Indeed, the Georgetown University study found that in most fields in education, somewhere between 40 and 60 percent of education majors go on to graduate school. The average earnings boost for these students was 33 percent.

The second most popular master's degree program, according to the NCES, was business, with 155,637 degrees. Fewer undergraduate business majors went on to graduate school--less than 30 percent in all business fields--but the average earnings boost was 40 percent, the CEW reported.

Biology and life sciences--a major group that includes fields such as biology, environmental science and zoology--had the highest percentage of students go on to graduate school at 54 percent and the highest earnings boost for those students at 101 percent. The physical sciences--including physics, astronomy, and geology--came in second, with a 48 percent graduate school attendance rate and a 70 percent earnings boost.

The least valuable master's degrees were in the arts, with only a 23 percent earnings boost, and communications and journalism, with only a 25 percent increase in earnings.

Online master's degrees: 3 questions to ask before you get started

Of course, earning a master's degree is about far more than just dollars and cents. A master's degree may be an opportunity to take your career in a new direction by adding management training to your nursing degree or getting teaching credentials to complement your science background. It can also be an opportunity to update your resume after time away from the workforce or pursue a passion. Whatever your goals, make sure you can answer these questions before enrolling.

  1. Is my master's degree part of a defined career plan?

    Some master's degrees, such as nursing or information systems management, lead to very specific careers, while others, such as English or economics, provide advanced training that can be applied to a wide range of industries. Depending on your career goals, you may want to pursue a master's degree that fills a specific resume gap, or you may be looking for an opportunity to update your credentials more broadly. Talk to employers, college career counselors and former students from prospective programs to make sure your master's degree training matches your goals.
  2. Should I work for a few years first?

    While work experience can help you define your career goals and focus your master's studies accordingly, it can be hard to give up the perks of a professional life to become a student again. However, some schools--often professional schools like business or health--may require work experience before you can be admitted. If work experience is important but you want to keep your momentum as a student, consider an online master's degree program that allows you to work during the day and take classes at night.
  3. Can I afford my master's degree?

    Master's degree students qualify for many of the same government loans as undergraduate students, but scholarship and grant opportunities may differ. Master's degree students may also be able to get tuition waivers and stipends in exchange for work in their department as teaching or research assistants. Online master's degree programs allow many students to keep working while attending school, helping them balance the costs of a master's degree with an ongoing income. If you opt to pay for your master's degree with loans, personal financial advisor Liz Pulliam Weston recommends students not borrow any more in total than they expect to make their first year out of college. Kiplinger offers a handy calculator to help students assess the impact of loans and lost income compared to potential increase in earnings from a master's degree.

Earning a master's degree is an opportunity to dive deep into a topic that interests you or to develop key skills for your career. A master's degree may not make you rich, but with careful planning, it can be a solid career investment.