When’s the Right Time to Get a Master’s Degree?

by Fred Siegmund

There were 693,025 MA degree graduates for the year ending June 2010, the last year of complete data.  The MA is still relatively small compared to 1.6 million BA degree candidates, but the MA degree has the highest growth rate of degrees including the AA, BA and Ph.D. From 1990 to 2010, that growth was 3.87% a year, compared to the average for all degrees at 2.78%.

Completing a master’s degree can be a smart choice, but it is a different choice than entering and completing a BA degree. There are general benefits for the BA degree for all degree programs, but much less so for a master’s degree. The benefit of a master’s degree tends to be specific and attached to a career, and typically after a career is underway.

Education may be the best example because elementary and secondary teachers can begin a career with a BA degree, but most school districts publish pay schedules with step increases that depend on years of experience and education. Finishing an MA degree moves teachers to a higher pay scale and makes it easy to compare financial benefits with tuition. A master’s degree typically opens up other positions in education administration, counseling and curriculum development. These advantages help explain why more than 26.3% of the 693,000 master’s degrees for 2010 are in education.

The Masters in Business Administration ranks second with 25.6% of 2010 master’s degrees, just behind education. The MBA degree will surpass education in the near future because MBA growth rates exceed the master’s in education by a wide margin. The average annual increase reached 7,013 for the five years from 2005-2010, the highest increase for major degree categories.

Many start a career with a BA in business or in professions like engineering, information systems, architecture and design, but return for an MBA degree after getting some on-the-job experience.  However, part of the growth in the MBA results from the growth of the business BA degree itself, which reached 358,000 in 2010. With so many BA business candidates compared to new jobs, finishing an MBA has become a strategy for narrowing the field of job applicants in the corporate job market.

Allied health professions hold third place with 69,000 master’s degrees, 10% of the master’s total. A master’s degree in any health profession assures benefits in a health care career, but even more than most master’s degrees the benefits do not transfer to careers outside the health care industry.

Master’s degrees in advanced nursing specialties had over 20,000 master’s degrees in 2010, more than any other health profession. Nursing does not require a master’s degree, but nursing has a long career ladder with nursing specialties to pursue with master’s training: maternal nurse, pediatric nurse, critical care nurse, geriatric nurse and quite a few more. Other popular master’s degrees in allied health are 5,687 MA degrees in public health, 5,293 in health care administration and management, 4,244 in occupational therapy, 2,437 in audiology, and 2,056 in speech pathology.

Combined counseling and social work have just fewer than 50,000 master’s degrees, equal to 6.7% of the 2010 total. A career in a counseling specialty like mental health, education or family counseling requires a master’s degree and state license, which makes the master’s an entry degree. There were almost 24,000 master’s degrees in psychology including over 7,000 in just the counseling psychology specialty. Mental health counseling offered as part of allied health programs have another 6,000 degrees. Increased flexibility in education opens up more opportunities for obtaining graduate education in counseling and social work. A student can earn a master’s in school counseling online, for example.

Counseling work overlaps some with social work, an area where there were more social work master’s degrees than BA degrees: 19,600 master’s degrees to 14,600 BA degrees. Social workers provide support and assistance obtaining aid more than therapy or counseling, which lets the states be more flexible about license and credentials, but those planning a career in social work should expect to finish a master’s degree.

The four degree fields mentioned so far – education, business, allied health, counseling and social work – account for just over 68% of the master’s degrees in 2010. For people with careers in these fields, a master’s degree will almost certainly be a smart choice.

Not all of the remaining 32% of degrees are as obviously connected to a career. These include 45,000 master’s degrees in area, ethnic and cultural studies, multidisciplinary science, philosophy, history, social science, and visual and performing arts. There are another 17,000 MAs in English language and literature, foreign languages and literatures, liberal arts and sciences, general studies and humanities.

The 85,000 master’s degrees in the sciences – biology, life science, natural science, chemistry, physics – and in the professions – architecture, engineering, information systems – need the basic knowledge implied by a BA degree to enter these programs. For example, someone pursuing a master’s degree in engineering probably already has a BA in engineering and some work experience, which suggests they know what an MA can do for them.

A few master’s degree programs are tailored to those switching careers. Library science had 85 BA degrees and 7,448 master’s degrees for 2010, which makes it ideal for people from many other careers to start another.  Public administration with almost 36,000 MA degrees and theology with almost 13 thousand MA degrees have more master’s degrees than BA degrees, also suggesting people enter these programs from other careers and backgrounds.

In the last few years, many have finished BA degrees only to be plagued by delays moving into career employment. Some decide, “I might as well go on for a master’s degree now while I wait to start a career.” That has a high risk to be a bad choice. It is not only expensive and diverts time and energy away from a job search, but also the many specialties and sub-specialties in master’s programs make it less likely that degree skills will match job needs or advance a career to come in the future. To make a master’s degree pay and advance a career, the evidence suggests the best choice is a career first, and a master’s degree later.

About the author: Fred Siegmund covers America's jobs as part of work doing labor market analysis and projections for a client base of recruiters, trainers and counselors. Visit him at www.americanjobmarket.blogspot.com

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