Should You Get a Master's Degree?

For soon-to-be college graduates and young professionals, when a job search stagnates and the future seems limited to moving back home and working retail, many people start thinking, "Maybe I'll go to grad school."

Too often, this is socially acceptable code for "I don't know what to do with my life and school seems safe and structured."

There are many good reasons to pursue a master's degree, but it's also a commitment. It requires devoting extensive time and energy to work more extensive and more advanced than what you did in college. Unless you get an assistantship (which I highly recommend) or have the tuition covered by your employer, it's going to add to the burden of student debt you eventually have to repay. It may seem like a good option because you can defer repaying your student loans, but unless you have a strong reason to believe the master's degree will help you get a higher-paying job, you're eventually going to end up worse off than you started.

You should consider pursuing a master's degree if

  • it is considered necessary or highly recommended for the field in which you work or want to work. How do you know? Informational interviews are great for getting expert advice on this.
  • it is tied directly to promotions or pay raises in your field of work or particular company.
  • you have a job you love and your company (where you want to continue working) is offering to cover the cost of your master's program.
  • you have a strong desire to do research in a particular area, and are willing to commit to conducting your own research on a topic for a year or more.
  • you work or want to work in higher education.

You should be cautious about pursuing a master's degree if

  • you are disheartened about a job search that is not going well. You may need to change your strategy or get additional advice, but going back to school does not guarantee you'll have more success taking the same approach when you get done.
  • you are going to be considered overqualified when you finish. This is when employers don't want to hire you for entry-level jobs because they'll have to pay you more than someone with a bachelor's, but won't hire you for higher-level jobs because you don't have enough work experience. How do you know if this applies to your field? Once again, informational interviews are a useful tool for getting real-life advice.
  • you primarily want the "prestige" of having a master's degree. If this isn't going to translate into career success and satisfaction for you, the extensive time, energy, and money you put into getting a degree will not seem worth it in the end.
  • you see it as a strategy for deferring your student loans. There are other strategies for dealing with student loan debt if you're not making enough to pay them back. Deferring payments to add more debt will only push the problem into the future.

What if you want to change careers or gain more skills? That's not necessarily reason enough to commit to a master's program. Again, talk to people in the know. You may be able to switch fields using the skills you already have, or find one-off professional development opportunities or individual classes to learn new skills. This is particularly a good strategy if you're not 100% sure what you want to do; try taking one class, or finding a volunteer or freelance opportunity, to get your feet wet without making a huge commitment.

There are plenty of good reasons to pursue graduate education. Do you have one of them, or are you treating grad school as an easy "default" next step?