What Can You Do with a Master’s Degree?

You might wonder whether to pursue a master’s degree. Why do it? Not only is there the satisfaction of gaining additional knowledge, skills and credibility, but you also may become more financially secure.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), people with master’s degrees earn a median annual salary of nearly $70,000 compared with $57,600 for those with bachelor’s degrees and $40,400 for those with associate’s degrees. They have lower unemployment as well: 3.4 percent for master’s-degree holders versus 4 percent (bachelor’s) and 5.4 percent (associate’s).

Even more, jobs typically requiring a master’s degree are projected to grow the fastest over the next decade — 18.4 percent — compared with jobs requiring doctoral, professional, bachelor’s or associate’s degrees, the BLS notes. The slowest growth will be for jobs requiring a high school diploma or equivalent.

But what can you do with a master’s degree? Who gets master’s degrees? What are the trends?

Years ago, postgraduate education was reserved for those who wanted to teach at the college level or to practice medicine or law. But nowadays, many employers, including those in business, education, government, engineering and health sciences, may desire or even require master’s degrees.

Increasingly, health sciences professions have emulated medicine in requiring a doctorate as the terminal degree, although the number of years required is less than that for a medical degree.

Physical therapy once required only a bachelor’s degree. Now, physical therapists need a doctorate to get hired out of school, something that is not without controversy, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. Occupational therapy seems not far behind in promoting professional doctorates, sometimes called clinical doctorates.

“Many professional associations, representing such disciplines as pharmacy, physical therapy and audiology, advocate raising entry-level programs — those that prepare graduates to enter a profession — to the doctoral level,” The Chronicle reports.

Master’s: The Degree of Choice for Advanced Study

But most people who decide to attend graduate school end up graduating with master’s degrees. Eighty-three percent of the 627,000 graduate degrees and certificates awarded in the most recent year surveyed were master’s degrees, according to the Council of Graduate Studies (CGS) and Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) Board. Of the more than 1.7 million students currently enrolled in graduate school in the United States, 72.8 percent are pursuing master’s degrees or graduate certificates.

Sydnee Viray, M.Ed., director of admissions and enrollment management at the University of Vermont, has watched this increased interest in master’s-level programs not only in her current role with the university’s Graduate College but also previously as a counselor in the UVM Career Center.

“Many fields are seeing the need for master’s-level studies at some point in the career progression,” Viray says. “If someone wants to advance, the master’s degree is used as a tool to highlight. We’re even hearing anecdotally that some entry-level positions are requiring master’s degrees.”

For instance, in past years, some K-12 school districts would cut salary costs by hiring only graduates with a bachelor’s degree, she explains. Down the road, those districts would pay teachers to obtain their master’s degrees. Now, many districts want teachers with a Master of Education (M.Ed.). This serves two purposes: It ensures teachers have master-level knowledge right out of the gate. And it also places the additional tuition burden on the teacher, not the district.

Master’s Degrees Required for Professional Training

When Mary Beth Barritt, assistant director of the UVM Career Center, talks to undergraduate students and alumni who are considering returning to school, especially those focused on working in industry and not academia, she describes two types of master’s degree programs.

“One is professional training, where you need specific training to enter that profession,” Barritt says. “To be a physician’s assistant, you need that degree; to be an occupational therapist, you need that degree; to be a counselor, you need a master’s degree of some type, whether it’s psychology or an M.S.W. (master’s degree in social work).”

The BLS lists other professions requiring a master’s degree upon entry to the field, including:

  • Education administrators
  • Mathematicians and statisticians
  • Epidemiologists
  • Hydrologists
  • Economists
  • Survey researchers
  • Urban and regional planners
  • Health care social workers and community and social service specialists
  • Librarians, archivists and curators
  • Speech-language pathologists
  • Nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives and nurse practitioners

Master’s Degrees to Make You More Marketable

The other type of master’s program, Barritt says, “is where you will get a better job in a field because you have the additional study of a master’s.”

Examples, she says, include:

  • Business administration: “Some people are working quite well with a bachelor’s degree, but having an M.B.A. may add a credential that brings another level of credibility, knowledge and skills,” Barritt says. Programs such as UVM’s one-year Sustainable Entrepreneurship MBA (SEMBA) can give students a focus that makes them attractive to more innovative companies.
  • Public administration: “The M.P.A. program brings in many practicing professionals in the community who want to enhance their skills and maybe gaining a different kind of experience,” she says. “There also are folks recently out of school who want to enter public service and want targeted professional competencies that are a focus on UVM’s program.”
  • Public health: “The master’s in public health might attract people who don’t necessarily want to practice medicine but are interested in systemic issues or broad-based international or community issues,” Barritt says.
  • Health care management
  • Engineering
  • Computer science
  • Accounting

Why Do You Want to Pursue a Master’s Degree?

The choice to attend and pursue advanced study is so personal, Viray says, that it’s difficult to make a blanket statement on why it’s worth it.

“What are we measuring as the benefits of attending graduate school?” is really the question, Viray points out. “If it’s an intrinsic reward because it’s such a fascinating topic, and the benefit is to have advanced doctoral work, then you’ll have one answer. If the benefit is to have more pay, it’s going to be a different answer.”

Undergraduates sometimes have the hardest time sorting out whether they should attend graduate school primarily because they have not yet entered the workforce or been there long enough to refine their interests.

“Probably one of the most common conversations we have with undergraduate students about graduate school is whether to go,” Barritt says. “When there is a recession, and it’s going to be hard to find a job, some students think they might as well go on to school. Or in high school, they’ve heard about graduate school as the final phase of their schooling, and even though they’re ready to be out of school, they think, ‘Well, I might as well go and get this finished.’ Those are some of the students for whom graduate school, at this point, doesn’t necessarily make sense.”

Undergraduates often benefit from working a few years before pursuing graduate school. “Sometimes you need to be out of school for a little bit to start thinking out of the box,” she says. “Sometimes working a little shows you that there is something different out there that is of interest, or questions you want to explore in graduate study.”

Most master’s-level programs take one year of intensive study or two to five years, depending on how much you need to balance work, school and other responsibilities – and how much time your college allows you for degree completion. With the time and money it takes to pursue a graduate program, you need to be ready for the commitment.

“Some good reasons for attending graduate school would be if you are thinking about a profession that requires it,” Barritt explains, “or a profession where it’s advantageous to obtain additional schooling to give you a deeper skill set and make you a better job candidate.”

She recently worked with a student who had a bachelor’s in public communications. “He had done internships in health care, and he was really interested in the administrative side of health care,” she recalls. “He believed he would be a much stronger candidate if he had a master’s in health care management. He knew he wanted to add those skills to the strong skill set from his undergraduate education.”

Graduate School for Career Changers

While undergraduates lack job experience and may not have necessarily thought through their reasons for attending graduate school, working professionals in their 30s, 40s and 50s may be crystal-clear about their goals.

“There are infinite reasons as to why someone might want to pursue a master’s degree,” Viray says. “It might be personal or tied to a career goal. On the one hand, there is the whole idea about being fresh or innovative, having a particular knowledge in a particular industry, an intellectual curiosity. Then there are the career changers. We’re seeing a lot of that nowadays. It can be global or local, like if IBM is releasing people, we’ll see interest in graduate programs from those individuals looking to freshen up on the latest theories and skills.”

The recession of 2007-08 and the sputtering economy have played a fairly significant role in people’s decisions about graduate school.

“The economy plays a more active part in the graduate college conversation than it has before,” she explains. “On one side, it’s ‘where can I get a job that fits my interest area?’ On the other side, it’s ‘how can I pay back my loans and make a financially responsible decision? How does that play into what I can pursue?’ ”

Trends in Master’s-Level Programs

Viray sees a number of trends in master’s-level programs. In academia, including at UVM, programs are becoming more interdisciplinary. Of course, this was always the case; for instance, a biology major studied chemistry and the environment. But now the walls are coming down, and there are more degree programs that straddle several disciplinary areas.

She sees this trend across the board in:

  • Health/social sciences:“All of the interdisciplinary health sciences also are becoming more specialized,” she says. “So instead of only offering a doctorate in psychology, UVM now offers doctoral programs in experimental and in clinical psychology.”
  • STEM (science, technology, engineering math) programs: They are becoming more interdisciplinary “out of a desire to solve the world’s problems, so you see programs in complex data systems, which combines mathematics, computer science and public policy. We’re seeing more master’s programs that are being created because of the pressures and challenges in the industry. They don’t have the people they need. There’s a skill set needed in those industries.”
  • Food systems: UVM started a master’s degree program in this area, a reflection of the growing needs of industry, government and non-profit organizations. The program integrates social science, humanities and natural science.

Another trend is the increase in online education, allowing professionals to work on master’s degrees while still working in the field.

“With a lot of the programs, there is the flexibility of part-time participation,” Viray says.

Over 59 percent of first-time enrolled graduate students in the United States attend full time and some 41 percent part time, according to the CGS-GRE survey. However, the percentage of part-timers is higher at institutions granting only master’s degrees: 60 percent.

This flexibility, coupled with more professions requiring advanced study, has led to an increase in the number of Americans holding master’s degrees, according to Viray.

“Maybe 15 or 20 years ago, if you asked about the percentage of Americans holding master’s degrees, it was maybe a little over 5 percent,” she says. “Now that’s around 11 percent. It’s a real difference, and it will tell you about the trend line.”

Where Do Recent College Graduates with Advanced Degrees Work?

The BLS tracks recent college graduates ages 20 to 29, their degrees and the industries that hire them. It compares graduates with bachelor’s degrees and those with advanced degrees, but does not break out master’s degrees.

However, if you remember that most advanced-degree holders pursued master’s degrees and certificates, not doctorates, then you can get a good idea of (1) where recent college grads with master’s degrees end up working and, if you compare where advanced-degree versus bachelor’s-degree holders work, (2) which industries seem to prefer hiring advanced-degree holders.

Here’s a breakdown of where those with advanced degrees work (versus those with bachelor’s degrees):

  • Educational services: 30.4 percent (while only 20.2 percent of bachelor’s-degree holders choose this field)
  • Health care and social assistance: 24.6 percent (18.3 percent of bachelor’s-degree holders)
  • Professional and business services: 23.7 percent (14.1 percent of bachelor’s-degree holders)
  • Wholesale and retail trade: 11.7 percent (10 percent of bachelor’s-degree holders)
  • Public administration: 4 percent percent (3.2 percent of bachelor’s-degree holders)
  • Goods-producing: 1.1 percent (7.8 percent of bachelor’s-degree holders)
  • Financial activities: 3.7 percent (6.7 of bachelor’s-degree holders)
  • Leisure and hospitality: 0.3 percent (11.2 of bachelor’s-degree holders)

What Type of Master’s Degrees are Students Pursuing?

Of the 522,350 students graduating with master’s degrees in the United States in the most recent year, what did they study?

Here is a breakdown from the CGS-GRE survey:

  • Education, 21.7 percent
  • Business, 22.3 percent
  • Health sciences, 11.3 percent
  • Engineering, 8.4 percent
  • Social and behavioral sciences, 7.5 percent
  • Public administration and services, 6.2 percent
  • Arts and humanities, 5.8 percent
  • Math and computer science, 4.9 percent
  • Biological and agricultural sciences, 3.3 percent
  • Physical and earth sciences, 1.6 percent
  • Other fields, 6.9 percent

What’s Gender Have to Do With It?

These days, more women than men are pursing higher education, including advanced study.

In the latest year reported by the CGS-GRE survey, women earned 59.2 percent of the 522,350 master’s degrees. The areas that saw the highest percentage of female graduates included:

  • Health sciences, 80.5 percent
  • Public administration and services, 77.5 percent
  • Education, 76.6 percent

On the other hand, the areas that saw the most male graduates included:

  • Engineering, 76.1 percent
  • Mathematics and computer sciences, 70.2 percent
  • Physical and earth sciences, 58.6 percent
  • Business, 57.2 percent






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