Whether you've already graduated or are about to graduate from college, if you're asking yourself, "Should I get a master’s degree?" it’s time to dig deep and find the answer. A master's degree can be useful for particular careers—but it's also expensive and time-consuming. So is a master’s degree right for you?
In this guide, we go over what a master's degree is, four key questions to ask yourself before you decide to get one, the pros and cons of getting one, and three tips to help you decide on the best master’s degree program for you.
Feature Image: Illinois Springfield/Flickr
What Is a Master's Degree?
A master’s degree is a graduate degree that indicates you have high-level knowledge of a specific area of study or professional practice. These degrees are the first level of graduate degrees, followed only by doctoral degrees, such as the PhD.
Master's degree graduate programs are offered all over the world at public and private colleges and universities. Most people earn their master's degrees in one to three years of continuous full-time study. In the US, two years is a common length for many master's programs.
In terms of prerequisites, you’ll typically need to have at least a bachelor’s degree in order to enroll in a master’s degree program.
There are many kinds of master’s degrees you can earn. Here are some of the most common:
- Master of Arts (MA)
- Master of Science (MS)
- Master of Fine Arts (MFA)
- Master of Business Administration (MBA)
- Master of Engineering (ME, MEng)
- Master of Education (MEd)
- Master of Laws (LLM)
- Master of Architecture (MArch)
- Master of Public Administration (MPA)
- Master of Public Health (MPH)
- Master of Public Policy (MPP)
- Master of Social Work (MSW)
Should I Get a Master’s Degree? 4 Questions to Consider
If you’re wondering, "Should I get my master’s?" then it’s important to ask yourself the following four questions before you make any big decisions.
#1: Am I Passionate About the Topic I Want to Study?
First things first, are you passionate about the subject area you want to study at the master’s level? If your answer isn’t a resounding "yes," then it'll be better to reconsider getting a master’s degree—at least in that particular topic.
But why is passion so important?
The reality is that it can be difficult to find the willpower to finish grad school if you’re not all that invested in the topic you’re studying or are only in school because you don’t know what to do with your life.
I myself knew a couple of people who ended up dropping out of master’s programs once they realized it wasn’t actually the topic they wanted to study (for the record, they both switched to different master’s programs).
Leaving a master’s program isn’t a failure by any means, but trust me when I say that your life will be a lot easier if you have a clear idea of what you want to study (and why) before you apply to master’s programs. You don’t want to feel as though you wasted time, energy, and money on a grad program that ultimately didn’t help you reach your academic or professional goals.
Before you decide to go for a master’s degree, try to envision yourself as a grad student, taking classes in the subject, researching it, and writing papers about it. If these thoughts excite you, then this field is likely a good fit for you. If you feel hollow or apathetic, however, you should reconsider whether it's truly worth getting a master’s degree in this subject area.
If you’re really on the fence about earning a master's degree—maybe the topic you’re thinking of studying is completely different from what you majored in as an undergrad—you might want to consider taking some community college courses in that field to help you get a much clearer sense of how grad school will be.
#2: Will Getting a Master’s Degree Help My Career?
Another important question to ask yourself is how this particular master’s degree can help you in your professional goals.
There are two general categories of graduate degrees:
- Academic degrees
- Professional degrees
Academic master’s degrees are primarily focused on increasing your mastery of a specific field of study that connects to your academic and intellectual interests (which you might or might not want to use in your career).
Many students choose to get a master’s degree as a step toward getting a doctoral degree—often a PhD—in their field of study. Academic grad programs also generally require a master's thesis or capstone project and are more research-oriented.
Examples of academic master's degrees include the MA and MS.
By contrast, professional master’s degrees are much more strongly tied to your career interests, teaching you about the industry you want to enter and equipping you with key skills you will need to succeed professionally.
A professional degree is meant to prepare you for a specific career or field. Many careers, such as lawyers, doctors, and pharmacists, require you to earn a series of professional degrees (usually master's and doctoral degrees).
Examples of professional degrees include the MBA and LLM.
Ultimately, when it comes to getting a master’s degree, you must ask yourself: how much are you expecting your degree to help you in your career? There is no right answer here, though ideally your master’s degree will help you either progress in or jump-start your career.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in certain professional fields, having a master’s degree will earn you more money than if you had only a bachelor’s degree. These fields include the following:
- Healthcare and social service
So if you plan to get a master’s degree in any of these four fields, you can rest assured that doing so will most likely have a positive effect on your career trajectory.
If you want to get a master’s degree in a field not listed above, don't freak out just yet—this doesn’t mean your degree will be totally useless when it comes to your career. As long as you have an idea of how you’d like to use your master's degree and how it can provide you with the critical skills you need to succeed in a specific job, it'll most likely be a good choice to make.
#3: Will I Have to Pay for the Degree?
Unlike doctoral programs, many of which are fully funded for up to five years, master’s degrees in the US are rarely funded. Therefore, it’s important to find out whether you’ll have to pay for your master’s degree—and whether you think the program is worth the price tag.
Again, there’s no right or wrong choice here. Some people are perfectly content to pay for part or even all of their master’s degrees, especially if the degree is essentially guaranteed to help with their careers. Others, however, are adamantly against taking out loans and forking out thousands of dollars for a degree that might not actually help their careers or raise their earning potential.
My personal advice? Try to pay as little as you can for a master’s degree.
Often the cost simply isn’t worth it, especially if you’re planning to get an academic degree and not a professional degree (which is typically more likely to ensure you a steady career).
Remember that master’s programs in the US range significantly in how much they cost. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average annual cost (tuition + fees) for grad school in 2012-13 was $16,435.
In my experience, though, this number seems to be on the lower end of the spectrum. As The Best Master’s Degree notes, master’s degree programs in the US can cost in the range of $30,000 to $120,000, with some even exceeding this "maximum"!
This is why I strongly advise looking for master’s programs that award scholarships or fellowships. Grad programs often list scholarships on their program and/or financial aid pages.
#4: Am I OK With Not Working?
A master’s degree is generally a commitment of at least one year—usually two or three—which means you (most likely) won’t be working a full-time job during this time.
Before you decide to do a master’s program, make sure you’re 100% OK with taking a break from working (or, if you’re going straight from undergrad to grad school, delaying entering the workforce).
If you’re young (in your 20s or so), taking a couple years off for school shouldn’t have much of a negative effect on your career trajectory or professional options.
But if you’re older and more established—maybe you have a successful career or a family to care for—taking time off from work to get a master’s degree could have more of a negative impact on your life than you might think.
For one, you likely won't be making much, if any, money while you’re a grad student (unless you’re receiving a stipend or working part-time), so this kind of lifestyle definitely requires sacrifice.
Secondly, it can be difficult to get back into the workforce once you get your master’s degree since you might not have the connections you once had and might lack some practical, on-the-job skills.
6 Pros and Cons of Getting a Master’s Degree
Now that you have a better idea of whether or not a master’s degree is right for you, let’s take a look at the biggest pros and cons of getting one.
Pros of Getting a Master's Degree
It’ll expand your knowledge of a particular subject area: This is perhaps the #1 reason most people opt for a master’s degree, whether it’s mainly to quench your own intellectual curiosity, bolster your career opportunities, or both. Getting a master’s degree also means spending your time reading, researching, and writing—all of which are incredibly valuable, transferable skills.
It can open up new career paths: Whether or not you need a master’s degree to nab a job you want, there’s no doubt getting one will make you more marketable in general and allow you to stand out in a positive light. This advantage is especially applicable to those getting a master’s degree in order to make a career switch.
It can increase your earning potential: According to the BLS, master’s degree holders in 2017 made a median $1,401 a week; these median wages are higher than what bachelor’s degree holders ($1,173) and high school graduates ($712) made. In other words, earning a master’s degree means higher wages on average. (This is a general trend; weekly earnings can vary a lot depending on factors such as the field, amount of work experience, etc.)
Cons of Getting a Master's Degree
It’s expensive, especially if you don’t get any scholarships: As mentioned, scholarships and fellowships for master’s degree programs are unfortunately pretty rare, which means you’ll most likely have to pay a huge sum of money for your degree out of pocket, through student loans, or both.
It takes a while to get one: Master’s degrees in the US usually take around two years. Even though this isn’t as long as it takes to get a bachelor’s degree, it's still a decent chunk of time you’ll need to be willing to dedicate entirely to school, meaning you’ll be taking valuable time away from accumulating work experience.
It’s not guaranteed to get you a better job or higher salary: Despite the general benefits a master’s degree can have regarding jobs and salary potential, getting a master’s degree does not automatically mean you’ll be nabbing only the best jobs available and getting instant pay raises. A lot of your professional success will depend on not just what type of master’s degree you get but also how you use it, what kind of career you build with it, your location, how good you are at your job, and so on.
What Should You Get a Master’s Degree In? 3 Essential Tips
Even if you know you want to get a master’s degree, sometimes deciding what subject area to get a degree in can be tricky. Here are some tips to help you answer a key question: what should you get a master’s degree in?
Tip 1: Determine Your Biggest Passions and Interests
Regardless of whether your intellectual or professional passions have changed since you got your bachelor’s degree, take time to consider what kinds of topics you’re deeply interested in.
It should be a subject area you can readily envision yourself researching, reading about, and writing about as your day-to-day "job." If the idea of studying this topic excites and inspires you, then it'll likely be a great field for you to pursue a master’s degree in.
But what if you’re equally interested in two topics? In this case, you have a few options:
- Pick the field that’s more relevant to your professional goals: For example, if you’re interested in both English lit and computer science but plan to go into web design in the future, a computer science degree will be far more useful.
- Consider doing a degree or dual degree that combines both fields: For example, if you’re interested in Chinese and law, you might want to look into dual degree programs that let you study both Chinese and law, such as the dual JD/MA program at the University of Michigan.
- Apply to programs in both fields and choose a program to attend based on factors such as location, funding, etc.: If you really can’t decide between the two, then it might be best to just apply to the programs that interest you in both fields. Once you find out which programs you’ve been accepted to, you can make your decision on where to go (and what field to study) based on other important factors to you, such as how much financial aid you received, where the school is located, and how highly ranked the program is.
Tip 2: Consider Your Professional Goals
Before choosing a field in which to get a master’s degree, try to visualize your future career path:
- What kind of industry or field do you want to work in?
- What kinds of jobs do you see yourself working?
- Do these jobs often require or strongly prefer a master’s degree?
It's helpful to first figure out the general field you’re interested in studying at the graduate level. For example, say you majored in English and are now thinking of breaking into writing and editing. Options for possible master’s programs could include the following:
- Creative writing
- Professional writing
- Technical writing
Once you have a general idea of the industry or field you want to have a career in, begin thinking about specific skills and topics you want to learn, and look for master's degree programs that can help you become an expert at these.
Say you're the English major interested in establishing a career in writing and editing. Maybe you’re not as interested in reading as you are in writing. So as a result, you start to think it might be better to look primarily at master’s degree programs that focus on how to write professionally.
In this case, a program that centers on writing as a career versus as an art, such as NYU’s MS in Professional Writing and Emerson’s MA in Publishing and Writing, would be a better fit for your goals.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you can’t apply to other programs, such as creative writing MFAs. But thinking about the skills you want to learn should help you narrow down what kind of program you think will benefit you the most in your future endeavors (whatever those may be).
If you’re struggling to determine what kind of career you want, there's no harm in meeting with a job coach or getting in touch with your undergrad institution’s career services center.
Tip 3: Get to Know the Program
Once you have an idea of what topic you want to study in a master's program and what kind of career you envision yourself having, it’s time to figure out what programs will work best for you.
Here are some actions you can take once you’ve found a program you want to apply to:
- Read the program's official website: Get online and read everything there is to know about the master's program you’re considering. Start with the college or university's official website, and pay special attention to pages that detail specific courses students must take, professors, and graduation requirements.
- Learn about the experiences of real students: Get in touch with current/former students in the master's degree program you want to apply to. These are the people who can tell you what to expect in terms of classes, faculty members, the campus environment, professional networking opportunities, etc.
- Visit the campus, if possible: This isn’t a necessity, but oftentimes seeing the campus and program in-person can give you a clearer picture of how you’ll fit in on a day-to-day basis.
- Get to know the current faculty: This is generally more important for those seeking PhDs, but even for prospective master’s students, it’s definitely helpful to learn more about faculty members by reading their profiles on the school’s website, emailing them, or meeting them in person.
- Find out about funding: This primarily depends on your financial situation and what you’re willing to pay for grad school. But as I mentioned, it’s best to pay as little as you can for your master's degree. Find out whether the program offers scholarships and how many students get one each year. In general, better-funded master's degree programs should be higher on your list of schools—but this doesn’t mean funding is by far the most important factor.
Conclusion: Should I Get My Master’s?
To wrap up, there’s no clear answer to the question, "Should I get a master’s degree?" Indeed, your answer to this will depend on the future you envision for yourself. In other words, what kind of career do you want? And how will a master’s degree help you succeed in your endeavors?
Before you start applying for master’s degree programs, ask yourself these four critical questions:
- Am I passionate about the topic I want to study?
- Will getting a master’s degree help my career?
- Will I have to pay for the degree?
- Am I OK with not working?
There are many pros and cons to getting a master’s degree. The biggest pros are that it’ll teach you more about a specific subject area, open up potential career paths, and possibly increase your earnings. The cons are that master’s degrees can be expensive, take a while to earn, and are by no means 100% guaranteed to nab you a better job or higher salary.
If you’ve decided to get a master’s degree, great! Now, it’s time to answer the next big question: what should you get a master’s degree in? Here are three tips to help you decide on the best program for you:
- Determine your biggest passions and interests
- Consider your professional goals
- Get to know the program
After reading this, you should now have a far clearer vision for your future, regardless of whether there's a master's degree in it or not!
What exactly is grad school? Learn about why it might be a good idea for you to continue your education beyond undergrad to get a master's or doctoral degree. Also, our expert tips can help you decide whether grad school is worth it for you.
Paying for a master's degree can be tough. That's why it's important you know how to get the most out of FAFSA.
Lots of master's programs require applicants to take the GRE. Get an overview of what a good GRE score is with our expert guide.Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!
Hannah received her MA in Japanese Studies from the University of Michigan and holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Southern California. From 2013 to 2015, she taught English in Japan via the JET Program. She is passionate about education, writing, and travel.