Today's Master's Degree
Exploring Your Options and Finding Value
By Kelley Jacobs
Earning a master's degree is an investment of your time and money. But the return on your investment is worth it.
The degree shows you're determined and ambitious.
It proves you have advanced knowledge and skills in your profession.
In many career fields it means a higher salary and upward mobility.
These pages contain information and guidelines to help you on your journey.
What is the value of a graduate degree in various career fields today?
Our country's higher education system has continuously evolved over the past 20 years. According to data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2015, 36% of adults ages 25 to 34 had earned at least a bachelor's degree. By comparison, in 2003, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that only 27% of adults had earned a bachelor's degree or higher. There is a general trend showing we are becoming better educated as more of us graduate high school, and go on to college to earn a bachelor's degree.
In many professions a master's degree is becoming the standard degree for entry and upward mobility. As more and more people earn degrees, the job market has become inundated with applicants who have impressive credentials. Graduating from college is no longer an exception that employers find impressive; it has become a basic requirement. Bachelor's degree programs provide students with a solid foundation of general knowledge and work skills. Students complete general coursework in sciences, English, literature, humanities, mathematics, and as well as coursework in their major area of study.
As the demand increases for more advanced critical thinking, specialized knowledge, and innovative practices, we create a demand for a more advanced degree. As this shift takes place, those with only a bachelor's degree are often left out of promotion opportunities, career advancement, and leadership positions. There's a new growing demand for employees who can compete on a global scale in terms of both expert level knowledge and critical thinking skills.
Our society depends on professionals with an advanced degree to come up with the ideas that will influence our future. From a paper published by the Council of Graduate Schools and Educational Testing Service: "The fruits of graduate education touch our lives in countless ways every day." We live in homes designed by structural engineers, launch satellites to collect information about our solar system that are designed by physicists, and grow genetically modified crops to gain better yields using genetic engineering techniques developed by scientists.
The work of those with advanced degrees impacts our lives in every way imaginable. The demand for employees with advanced degrees is increasing as jobs become more complex, requiring more specialized knowledge and training.
Earning a master's degree not only makes you more competitive in the job market. It also increases the likelihood of making significant contributions to your company or profession.
A master's degree is typically a two-year degree program in an area of specialized knowledge offered through an accredited university in an area of specialized knowledge. Programs may allow students to attend on a part time or full time basis. Coursework may be online or offered in a more traditional on campus setting. It focuses on subject areas specifically related to applied behavior analysis and will likely include an internship or externship opportunity to gain professional experience. Students will work closely with faculty and staff (or in their community if attending online) on special projects to gain additional experience and networking opportunities.
Depending on graduation requirements, students typically complete either a capstone project or a thesis. The decision to require either a project or a thesis usually depends on whether or not the student plans to go on to more intensive doctoral study.
What does this look like? An undergraduate student might earn their bachelor's degree in psychology, and continue on to pursue a master's degree in applied behavior analysis, an area of specialization in the field of psychology. Armed with only a bachelor's degree in psychology, an individual might be able to gain entry level employment in settings such as a social service organization, adolescent detention facility, or a community center. With a master's degree in a more specialized area, new employment opportunities become available, often with higher pay.
For example, instead of an entry level position at a social service organization, the graduate with a master's degree in applied behavior analysis may now be qualified for a more specialized position, with higher pay, designing behavior plans for individuals on the autism spectrum.
What are the advantages of having a master's degree in your job and your career field?
Master's degrees have been thought of as merely stepping stones to doctoral study. Not always so. Depending on the field, the master's degree is considered a terminal degree. Areas such as social work, business, engineering, and education have a significant number of professionals with master's degrees and fewer with doctoral degrees. Having a master's degree can open doors to career advancement, career flexibility, and increased compensation.
How many courses or credits are usually involved to earn your master's?
Master's degree programs can typically be completed by taking between 36 and 54 credit hours, or 12 to 18 courses (depending on area of study). Similar to undergraduate courses, most courses are 3 to 4 credit hours. Part time students usually complete two courses per semester and full time students will complete three or four.
Earn it on campus or online?
Historically, master's degrees have been earned in the classroom over a period of two years. By attending class on campus, students develop personalized relationships with peers and instructors. Students also have the opportunity to be engaged in on-campus research efforts which help considerably if you're planning to continue on to doctoral study.
With the increase in technology and the development of online learning platforms, more and more institutions are offering master's degrees online. It's not unusual to find a master's program offered in both the traditional classroom format as well as an online format, with no distinguishing difference noted on the graduate diploma or transcript.
Whether or not to take a master's program online or in person is really a personal decision. Traditional programs are typically more structured, with regular class times and meetings that students must attend.
Online programs typically offer more flexibility, which can be important when juggling work or family obligations. Online programs require more discipline since there are fewer set course commitments. Both types of programs allow students to complete practicum experiences, externship opportunities, and hands-on learning activities.
Many schools are starting to offer hybrid programs. A hybrid program offers some coursework online and some coursework on campus (or at an alternate location). Students may complete a course online during one semester, and come to campus for a week long intensive to engage in hands on learning related to the course. By offering both types of structure, students don't feel isolated and have the opportunity to bond with peers and faculty in a face-to-face setting.
What does having a master's mean in terms of advancement and earnings in various career fields?
A master's degree in biology is a great choice for individuals interested in pursuing a career as a wildlife biologist, zoologist, biochemist, or even a marine biologist. A master's degree in biology is often required for significant career advancement, although a Ph.D is required to do independent research.
A master's in biology is also a smart choice for individuals who are pre-med, pre-dental, or pre-veterinary. The master's program in biology typically offers both a thesis track (for those going on to doctoral study) and a non-thesis track. Both tracks have heavy research and science content. The median salary for a zoologist or wildlife biologist is $59,680 per year.
Master's degrees in broadcasting are typically offered in two areas: broadcast journalism and radio and television broadcasting. Programs usually take two years to complete and include an internship opportunity. Areas of specialization in broadcast journalism may include global journalism, multimedia broadcasting, or U.S. policy. Radio and Television Broadcasting areas of specialization may include sound and visual production or writing. The median annual salary for a producer (a higher level position) is $89,670, while the median annual salary for a radio or television announcer who may have a bachelor's degree is $30,960.
A bachelor's degree in business is a versatile degree that can be useful in a variety of areas including bankers, retail and sales, and office management. The Master of Business Administration degree provides additional knowledge and training needed to understand management and finance on a more global manner. Areas of concentration may include international business, analytics, marketing, and finance. These programs are offered in a variety of formats including intensive, accelerated, online, and on campus. They can take anywhere from 18 months to two years to complete and include hands-on experience, workshops, presentations, and leadership training.
The median annual salary for positions such as administrative assistant and loan officer, which often require a bachelor's degree in business, range from $53,370 to $63,430 per year. The median annual salary for positions that might require an MBA such as a public relations manager or advertising manager range from$95,890 to $104,140.
While a bachelor's degree in chemistry is acceptable for entry level positions in research firms, medical labs, and materials work, a master's degree (or higher) is required to advance in the field. Master's degree programs in chemistry are designed for students who want to conduct more advanced field work or complete advanced study in chemical biology, molecular structure, or environmental chemistry. This hands-on advanced degree offers considerable time in the laboratory and can last anywhere from 18 months to two years. While the median salary for a bachelor's level position as a medical and clinical laboratory technologist is $60,502, the median salary for an advanced position as a chemist is $71,260.
The field of communications encompasses writing, editing, publishing, and public relations. Most positions in this industry require at least a bachelor's degree and competition for advancement is fierce. Businesses want to hire the best writers and public relations specialists to help communicate their brand in a positive light. An advanced degree can provide the competitive edge and the additional knowledge and training needed to be successful. The salary for these positions can vary greatly depending on how successful the individual is. A public relations manager (usually requiring a master's degree) has a median annual income of $104,140, while an editor has a median salary of $56,010.
There are people who love computers and then there are those who really love computers. Computer science gurus focus on algorithms, database systems, and numerical analysis. While individuals with a bachelor's degree in computer science can address overall computer needs of an organization, those with advanced training and knowledge can design and maintain systems for large businesses or educational institutions. Computer science master's programs offer areas of concentration such as network and computer systems administration, computer programming, software development, and computer and information systems management. Salaries can range from $80,000 to $140,000 per year.
Criminal justice is a popular field for law enforcement professionals including police officers and correction workers. Earning a master's in criminal justice can open doors to opportunities with law enforcement organizations such as the FBI or CIA, who often require advanced degrees for specialized positions such as forensics and criminology. Criminal profilers and some administrative positions also require a master's degree in the area of criminal justice. The salary for a positions in probations or loss prevention is around $40,000 per year, while the salary for a correctional treatment specialist with a master's degree could be almost $50,000 per year.
Individuals who go on to earn a master's in engineering, regardless of the area of concentration, develop the skills and knowledge needed to develop or research new technologies and theories. Those who earn their master's in engineering management can advance to higher leadership positions within a corporation. The average salary for a person in this type of position with a master's degree is $132,800 per year.
A master's degree in education opens the door to other professional opportunities including those in administration, curriculum and instruction, leadership, and special education. These programs are typically offered in both an online or traditional format, allowing students to complete practicum requirements in the student's own district. These advanced positions typically offer higher pay and the opportunity for advancement. A master's degree is typically required to teach at the community college level, opening up yet another employment opportunity.
There are several types of engineering degrees and even more areas of specialization at the master's level. Bachelor's degree jobs exist in Robotics Engineering, Systems Engineering, Electronics Engineering, Engineering Managementâ¦the list goes on and on. These individuals learn the science, physics, and chemistry behind engineering principles and learn how to apply them in manufacturing, testing, and analysis.
A bachelor's degree in history teaches students about a variety of historical events and issues from around the globe. Graduates have found success working in education, politics, law, journalism, and tourism, among other fields. In terms of education, an individual who wants to teach history at the elementary education level would benefit from a bachelor's in history degree. Individuals who want to deepen their knowledge and understanding of specific types of history or points in time will benefit from a master's in history.
A master's degree in history is a specialized degree usually related to a specific point in time or type of history. An individual who wants to work in an art museum as a curator may seek out a program with a concentration in art history while another individual who wants to work in a museum showcasing fossils would seek out an archeology concentration. Graduates typically seek positions as an archivist, curator, or historian. The median annual salary for these professionals can range from $53,880 to $61,120.
There are two types of master's in law degrees.
The Master of Laws (LLM) is for those who have completed their JD and want additional education in a specialized area of law. This can look especially good on a resume and shows a potential employer that the applicant has undergone extensive training and education in their specialized area.
The Master of Studies in Law (MSL) is for individuals whose business touches an area of law such as accountants and government employees. This type of program helps individuals understand the law as it relates to their area of business and coursework can be tailored to the individual's professional needs.
Psychology is a broad undergraduate field of study that typically provides a foundation for advanced study in either a master's degree program or even a doctoral program. Graduates with a bachelor's degree in psychology can enter into a wide array of fields including corrections, business, social service, research, child care, or youth service agencies. Salaries for these positions typically range from $27,000 to $37,000 with minimal opportunity for advancement. Master's degree programs in psychology allows an individual to focus on a specific area of study such as industrial/organizational psychology, clinical psychology, forensic psychology, school psychology, or even counseling psychology.
Areas such as music therapy and applied behavior analysis are also included in master's degree psychology programs. These areas of psychology simply don't exist at the bachelor's degree level in a professional sense. The salary for these positions is considerably higher, with the average salary for an industrial/organizational psychologist coming in at around $92,320.
A master's degree in social work (MSW) is typically a two-year program that includes coursework and a field practicum experience. The degree is considered a terminal degree in the field and allows students to choose a clinical or direct practice track. These tracks allow enable a social workers with their MSW to work in a therapeutic setting with individuals or small groups. A program must be approved by the Council on Social Work Education in order for graduates to be eligible to receive their license. An individual with an MSW can expect to make between $33,236 and $61,605 per year, while an individual with an individual with a BSW has an average salary of $34,867 per year.
Master's degree programs in sociology often include concentrations in social inequality, social movements, globalization, politics, and urban sociology. Programs typically include a thesis track (for those who plan to continue on to a doctoral program) and a non-thesis track (for those who plan to enter or continue in the workforce). Graduates of master's programs in sociology can be found working as customs agents, probation officers, and research associates. The median annual salary for an individual with a bachelor's in sociology is $35,000 per year, while the median for an individual with a master's in sociology can yield an additional $43,731 per year.
While a master's degree can be a significant investment of both time and money, the payoff can be well worth it for individuals in industries requiring specialized education and advanced knowledge. Depending on your major area of study, you have the potential to make significantly more money over the course of your lifetime by earning a master's degree. It is important to thoroughly research your field and understand the educational expectations –and career possibilities — before making the decision to return to school.
Having realistic expectations and a clear purpose can keep you on track and focused on achieving your professional and educational goals.
About the Author
Kelley Jacobs is passionate about education and helping others
navigate the higher education system. Kelley is an avid researcher
with experience in qualitative and quantitative research as
well as program evaluation.