Considering a Master’s Degree? Here’s What You Need to Know

Things to Consider Before (paying for) a Master’s Degree

(based on US education & jobs market)

It’s not difficult to get a master’s degree these days, especially if you don’t care WHERE you attend and how much you pay. At one time, the graduate credential set people apart as scholars and intellectuals, but with the proliferation of cheap quality and meaningless majors for those seeking simply the ‘M’ after their name, there are plenty of avenues to pursue. The question then shifts from “CAN you get a master’s degree?” to “SHOULD you get a master’s degree?”

As a university educator, it was not unusual for me to hear from prospective students who had a bachelor’s degree from one of the plethora of what I refer to as “quickie, online schools” and who had not advanced out of their retail or fast-food job. I also heard from students who had both a bachelor’s AND a master’s degree from a “quickie, online school” and were STILL stuck at an entry-level, only now with significantly more student loan debt.

Too often the individuals with the questionable “graduate degree” had a poor command of the spoken language, even worse skills in written communication and limited critical thinking skills. It was clear to me in 5 minutes why that master’s degree hadn’t made any rain for them. While I had compassion for them (and anger toward the scam-schools who took their money and passed them along regardless of their ability), I couldn’t offer them much hope other than starting over and getting a bachelor’s degree (or even an associate’s degree) that required them to learn basic skills.

This repeated experience has inspired me to create a guide for making the graduate school decision. I hope you’ll forgive the tech-leaning format of an “If-then” statement.

= IF

Your BA/BS has allowed you to enter a professional role (one that is a step UP from what you were working in before you graduated)

(AND) your peers with more experience in that or similar roles have moved up with the help of good work contributions and a graduate degree,

(THEN) Find a Master’s Degree program that is complementary to your body of knowledge & skill set, from a RESPECTED institution of higher learning. If possible, find one that qualifies for tuition reimbursement or that you can pay-as-you-go, avoiding the need to borrow (student loans).

= IF

Your BA/BS has allowed OTHERS (those you graduated with) to enter a professional role, but you remain in that pre-college job due to preference ,

(AND) you are willing and ABLE to move into a more higher-level position (one that is commensurate with someone working toward a Master’s Degree),

(THEN) Find a Master’s Degree program that is complementary to your body of knowledge & skill set, from a RESPECTED institution of higher learning. If possible, find one that qualifies for tuition reimbursement or that you can pay-as-you-go, avoiding the need to borrow (student loans).

= IF

Your BA/BS has NOT enabled you to enter a professional role (one that is a step UP from where you were working before you graduated),

(AND) you are not getting calls for interviews when you submit your resume, (OR) your classmates from your school are having a similar experience,

(THEN) DO NOT SIGN UP FOR GRADUATE SCHOOL! Walk away from any “advice” (that often comes from the “college” that sold you the sub-par BA/BS degree) that you need more education. What you need is relevant work experience, and you may have to start over at the bottom (entry-level) and work your way up to where other BA/BS degree-holders are coming in. This seems HARSH, but if you eventually want to advance, and have a chance at putting the BA/BS money you spent to good use, you need to do this or you will never realize a return on the school investment.

Spending more money on another de-valued degree is going to do you more HARM than good.

= IF

Your BA/BS was not required for you to get your current job, but was cited as being a “nice addition” when you were hired,

(BUT) you notice that everything you write for your boss or others above you in the organization gets heavily edited for grammar and spelling (basics) (OR) others in the organization are tapped to do work that is normally yours when an important client or meeting is involved,

(THEN) DO NOT SIGN UP FOR GRADUATE SCHOOL without FIRST taking the time toclean up your basic communication skills. A poorly-written cover letter or resume (or poor speaking ability in an interview) will nix a job offer quicker than the wrong suit.

It’s boring, I know but; Reading and Writing are CRITICAL skills if you want to move up into a better (paying) job! The best investment at this point will be returning to your local community college and boosting your critical reading, writing and communication (speech) skills.

Once you do this, work on moving UP out of your current position and into one with more responsibility; then (and only then) you may consider a graduate degree from a respectable institution.

= IF Your BA/BS degree has absolutely no impact or influence on your current job,

(AND) You are working in retail, fast-food, customer service or perhaps a service-intensive job in a specific sector like health care, travel & tourism, etc.,

(THEN) A Master’s Degree is not going to magically transform you from “would you like fries with that?” to “hold all my calls, Sally – I’ll be on the golf course this afternoon“.

A Master’s Degree will not transform a Certified Nursing Assistant into a Hospital VP; a Fry Technician at the Burger Blast into the CEO, or a cashier at the grocery store into a Bank President – even if it is an MBA (MBA degrees are also a dime a dozen – unless it’s from an AACSB-accredited school, there’s no guarantee it’s worth the paper the degree is printed on).

You must have the appropriate WORK EXPERIENCE to accompany that degree for it to make a difference.

There are, of course, a few caveats to this decision matrix.

Traditional undergraduate students, in respected and proven institutions of higher education often stay on to finish a Master’s Degree. While they will often not secure employment at a level much higher than their undergraduate colleagues, once they prove themselves in the work place, they will have the opportunity to move up more quickly than someone without the Master’s Degree.

If Mom & Dad (or Uncle Sam) are paying your way in college and you can afford to stay on after your BA/BS to complete your graduate degree, go for it!

If you’re paying the bills, or borrowing – get a job FIRST and seek out tuition support for that graduate degree. It goes without saying from me that you should find a program of study at a long-standing and respected institution of higher education, preferably one that is non-profit and public (or non-profit and highly-ranked if private).

Professionals who have earned serious work credentials and experience in meaningful positions through the military or other environments will often choose to go the route of the “quickie online degree factory”. They don’t need the Master’s Degree to open any doors; they simply want to spruce up their resume with the ‘M’ or the ‘BA/BS’ because that’s the world we live in. They are doing what I call, “checking the box”.

Do not be fooled by their success with those “degrees”. Their success with the “quickie online degree” is built ENTIRELY on their previous experience in the military or another organization. Without a similar foundation to stand on, your experience with that same “degree” will fall very short of theirs.

As I have mentioned in previous posts and countless blogs: borrow student loan money with great caution. Education can transform your life for the better if you choose wisely in terms of your school/college and your jobs.

As an educator, I have had the opportunity to speak to many community and student groups about education and workforce issues. I’ll close this post with my standard theme:

“In 1950 if you had a degree, you could walk into the Steel Mill across town, show them your “sheepskin” and get a job in management. Our steel mills and factories are mostly gone; lots of people have degrees – many of them of questionable value – and today the BA/BS degree is the new high school diploma. It’s not 1950 anymore.”

Education is a wonderful goal to pursue. Make sure your pursuits are appropriate to your progress to date so you don’t invest in a 1950 ideal for a 21st-century workforce.

By Rebecca Harmon


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