Some of us would love to have our heads buried in a book all day or spend our time learning more about the subjects we love most.
It’s never a bad idea to improve your knowledge and expertise in your chosen career. But going to graduate school is a major investment of time, money, and energy. Deciding isn’t as simple as finding your dream program.
You’ll need to consider factors like the required time commitments, costs, and resources, alongside your career and life goals to consider before jumping into a long-term educational commitment.
Even if you love your field and know your career would benefit from the studies, it’s worth considering: is a master’s degree worth it for you?
Let’s talk numbers: The stats on master’s degrees
Dedicating time to your education could push your career forward. But time and costs should be measured out carefully against potential salaries, job opportunities, and student loan payments if you’ll need to borrow money. Here are some statistics to weigh into your decision:
How much does it cost to get a master’s degree?
According to research by the Education Data Initiative (EDI), as of 2022, the cost of tuition for a master’s degree ranged between $30,000 and $120,000. Tuition changes dramatically depending on the institution, the master’s program, and student residency.
At public universities, the average cost is $29,150; at private institutions, the average cost is $62,100. However, the cost can rise or fall significantly depending on the average cost by type:
A Master of Arts degree (MA) costs an average of $65,880
A Master of Science degree (MSc) costs an average of $61,200
A Master of Business Administration degree (MBA) costs an average of $61,800
The EDI also found that Master’s students typically have fewer opportunities for grants, fellowships, and other financial aid than undergraduate and doctoral students, which may be why master’s students typically hold more debt. In 2022, research showed that master’s students had an average of:
$46,798 in student loan debt
26% more credit card debt than the national public’s average
37% more student loan debt than undergraduate degree holders
How many years of study are required for a master’s degree?
In the United States, full-time master’s programs typically take two years to complete. Timing varies depending on whether you have a job or family responsibilities that require a part-time course load or need extra time to complete a research project.
Some master’s programs may limit how long you can take to complete your master’s degree, like capping the length of study at three years. Always check in with program advisors to discuss estimates and rules of individual programs before applying or accepting an offer.
How much should someone with a master’s degree make?
There is no one-size-fits-all equation for how much a worker with a master’s degree will make. According to a 2021 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), master’s degree holders’ weekly median earnings of $1,574 or $81,848 annually.
But like any degree holder, salaries vary widely depending on several factors, including industry, location, and organization. While a rehabilitation counselor has a median annual salary of $38,560, a mathematician earns a median salary of $108,100.
Math and science majors earn the highest median starting salaries, with engineers and computer scientists at the top of the list at $86,826 and $83,681, respectively.
However, as education increases, an individual’s salary tends to trend up — and unemployment rates trend down.
Likewise, the National Association of Colleges and Employers predicts that salaries will climb for master’s degree holders in all majors in 2023, making the overall outlook for master’s degree holders favorable.
What’s the percentage of people with a master’s degree?
As of 2021, 24.1 million Americans held a master’s degree, representing roughly 13% of the workforce.
But the number of master’s degree holders is expected to increase sharply. Between 2000 and 2018, the number of master’s degree holders doubled. Estimates show that the general trend strengthened during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Between 2022 and 2030, an expected 8.3 million more students will complete a master’s degree, with sharp increases in enrollment in public health fields and online programs.
Does a master’s degree help my job opportunities?
Not all jobs require an advanced degree, although there are some industries where one will position you above other candidates or give you a leg up on promotions. Here are some jobs where a master’s degree is required or particularly helpful:
1. Education administrator
Education administrator master’s programs are fundamental to learning leadership skills to motivate teachers and successfully run schools.
In addition to a Master of Education degree, an education administrator will need a Bachelor of Education degree and a teaching license. As of 2021, the median annual wage was $98,490, with top earners making up to $153,520. The number of open positions is expected to grow by 7% through 2031.
2. Political scientist
A political scientist with a graduate-level degree in fields like political science or economics can go into high school teaching, civil services, market research, or campaigning. A master’s degree will allow you to teach at the college level or work in public policy and governmental legislatures.
As of 2021, the median annual wage was $122,510, with top earners — who work at the Federal level or in scientific research and development — making up to $172,490.
Nurses are in high demand. Nurse practitioners will be one of the fastest-growing occupations over the next 10 years.
A nurse practitioner can develop an in-depth knowledge of a particular field of medicine, opening up more career opportunities, advanced clinical roles, and a higher salary. There are several educational paths to be transitioned from a registered nurse to a nurse practitioner without a bachelor’s degree, including bridge programs that allow a nurse with an associate’s degree to pursue a master’s degree.
As of 2021, nurse anesthetists, midwives, and nurse practitioners with a master’s degree had a median annual wage of $123,780. Of the three specialties, nurse anesthetists are top earners with an average salary of $195,610.
A bachelor’s of engineering or bachelor of science in engineering degree provides the tools required to get a job in most engineering fields. Engineers generally go to grad school to specialize in a specific field that’s required or highly recommended.
Engineering students typically choose between a research-focused Master of Science in Engineering or a skills-focused Master of Engineering degree. Engineering students can specialize in software development, chemical processing, construction management, product and design, systems development, and many more.
Salaries vary widely depending on the specialization — top earning computer hardware engineers make above $208,000 while a mechanical engineer working in manufacturing makes closer to $79,770. However, the median across industries is $91,010, according to BLS.
5. Computer scientist and information researcher
Computer and information research scientists are responsible for developing solutions to computing problems and creating innovative computer technologies. Over the next decade, increased reliance on technology is expected to make the demand for the profession grow by 22%, according to the BLS.
For many careers, a master’s degree in Computer Science or Information Technology is required. As of 2021, the BLS found the median annual wage was $131,490, with top earners making up to $172,490. Top earners work in computer systems design and software publishing.
6. Business Administrator
An MBA program gives you a stronger business management expertise with several focus areas, including business development, finance, marketing, and risk management. MBA programs can also specialize in industries like entertainment or healthcare.
Bachelor of Business or Bachelor of Commerce degree holders will find work in the business world, but advanced business degrees give the tools and specialized knowledge to set workers up for greater success.
That might look like starting a business, attaining a higher earning potential, or earning promotions or sought-after roles at competitive organizations. Alumni networks from these programs are also quite beneficial to building the right network and career advancement.
Due to the myriad career specializations these degrees offer, measuring a median annual wage is difficult. However, in some industries, MBA holders can earn up to 65% more, on average, than their counterparts with only a bachelor’s degree, depending on the industry.
Librarians must attend graduate school to learn skills like digital preservation, records management, and archiving and obtain a Master of Library Science degree.
As of 2021, the median annual wage for librarians was $61,190. While the annual salary is lower than many other occupations that require a master’s degree, most job opportunities are with the government or universities, which means librarians may receive retirement benefits, medical benefits, and a 401k.
12 questions to ask yourself before applying for a master’s program
Beyond practical questions like costs and time commitments, there are several things you should consider before enrolling in a master’s degree program, including:
Your current financial situation
Why do you want to pursue the degree
If the degree will advance your career
If you’re pursuing a subject you’re passionate about
Where you’ll live while you study
Whether you’ll study part-time or full-time
How long is your preferred program
Consider reading books about career changes or development to stimulate self-reflection. Then, talk out important questions with a life or career coach, colleague, or friends who have done graduate school to decide whether the master’s degree benefits outweigh the potential disadvantages.
Does a master’s degree help advance or let me follow my purpose in my career goals?
Is this the next logical step in my career, or am I going through a life crisis?
Is higher education necessary to advance on my career path?
Does my current college degree limit me from achieving the opportunities I want?
What alternatives do I have to develop more work experience or credentials?
Do I want to change careers or specialize in my field?
Does my current schedule allow me to participate in a graduate program, or would I need to quit my job?
What’s the job market like for my desired occupation?
Is a master’s degree worth a strain on my financial wellness?
Will my future occupation give me a return on investment, or will my earning potential stay the same?
Do I have the necessary support and resources?
Am I willing to take out student loans if needed, or should I set a new financial goal of saving for grad school?
Can I get an online degree?
During the COVID-19 pandemic, online graduate programs increased enormously in popularity — by 63%.
Though this was largely due to necessity, the trend will likely become a new reality, as colleges have seen the benefits of enrolling talented students regardless of their location. Likewise, students have more flexibility to determine their schedules, study in a hybrid model, and manage other life responsibilities.
You may ask yourself, “Is an online master’s degree respected?” The short answer is: it depends. While the shift to online work and study during COVID-19 has changed perceptions about fully online degree programs, some employers may be hesitant about online study, especially from lesser-known schools. Always ensure you are signing up to look for an accredited university.
It’s also important to remember that hiring managers pay attention to more than just education. Plus, the initiative to improve your skills and education, especially when not required, is enough to capture many hiring managers’ attention.
While an online degree offers a lot of conveniences, take the time to weigh out the possible disadvantages. Studying remotely may make it difficult to make friends online with other students and requires careful time management and organizational skills.
You might also not be able to access campus resources like the library or laboratory materials. But you might also save money living at home or balance your studies with your current job. It’s all about what’s most important to you.
Alternatives to graduate school
If your action plan for the next step of your career was to expand your knowledge and expertise but you’ve realized a master’s isn’t the right option, don’t worry. There are many other ways to learn more about a field or industry.
If you’ve set a goal to continue improving your education and specializing in your industry, there are several alternatives, including:
To study or not to study at the graduate level
So: is a master’s degree worth it?
There’s no straight and narrow answer. It depends on your industry, career goals, and financial security. Choosing to enroll in a master’s program and dedicate significant money, time, and energy to study is a deeply personal question.
Take the time to properly weigh out the benefits and disadvantages. Know that there are roads less traveled to help you gain the knowledge and expertise that will push your career in the right direction if you decide this commitment isn’t right for you.