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Can a master’s degree guarantee career progress?

SOURCE: Martin BUREAU / AFP
While only few engineers choose to acquire a master's in education, about 25% worked as primary or secondary school teachers prior to pursuing this qualification.


By U2B Staff 

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Graduate education is showing rapid growth not just in the United States but also in other countries. Statistics produced by the US Census Bureau indicate that in the US, 9.3% of adults over 25 have a master’s degree while almost 2 % have a doctoral degree. Additionally, 1.5% have earned a professional degree that requires study beyond a four-year bachelor’s course.

According to a report titled The Condition of Education published by the National Center of Education Statistics that was recently updated in April 2020, postsecondary institutions awarded a total of 820,000 master’s degrees in the 2017-2018 academic year alone.

The same report also states that over half of the master’s degrees conferred were concentrated in three fields of study: The largest field of study, at 23% was in postgraduate business studies with over 192,000 master’s degrees awarded. This was followed by education at 18%, or 146,000 master’s degrees awarded, and health professions and related programs 15%, or 125,000 master’s degrees.

The fields in which the next largest percentages of master’s degrees awarded were engineering at 6%, or 51,700 master’s degrees and computer and information sciences also at 6% or 46,500 master’s degrees, reflecting the popularity of these qualifications.

Overall, a total of 140,000 master’s degrees or 17% were awarded in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

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According to a study titled The Labour Market Returns to Advanced Degrees conducted by National Bureau of Economic Research on average earnings of full-time workers for 19 graduate degree types; on average, those with a master’s in education earn $66,174, while MBA graduates earn $113,177 and medical degree holders earn $164,317.

The study provides estimates of the returns to these broad set of graduate degrees. However, it also asserts that graduate education and ability shift what an individual could potentially earn in each occupation.

The study reports that the estimated return for a master’s in law is 51.6%, while the estimated returns for a master’s in medicine is 73.2%. This is in stark contrast with an MBA, with returns of only up to 11.6%.

A master’s in engineering shows returns of up to 18% while a master’s in computer and mathematical sciences shows returns of up to 23%.

Master’s in health-related fields show the following for nursing, 41%, psychology, and social work at 29% returns and 20% returns can be expected for a master’s in education.

This indicates a great return of value for several postgraduate specialisations. However, the study also found evidence that differences in earning across graduate fields are due to the pre-existing difference in earnings across the undergraduate majors that led to them.

It is also found that actual earnings are also determined by job type chosen based on both preferences and potential earnings of each sector and industry by the individual.

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Are master’s degrees a pathway to top-level management?

The same study finds that while the type of master’s degree earned determines progression into top-level management, it largely depends on both undergraduate and postgraduate fields of study as well. It can be said that not all master’s are tailor-made for individuals who want to climb to top-management levels.

In fact, it has to be stressed that both undergraduate field of study, and occupation before entering graduate school have strong connections to the field a professional chooses to master in. This is particularly true for master’s qualifications in several areas: for example, undergraduate engineering majors make up a large portion of those with a master’s in engineering.

Therefore, there is a strong influence of both undergraduate fields and pre-graduate occupation in the graduate field. To eliminate this factor, the study compared the most common occupations for engineering graduates who have not obtained an advanced degree by age 35 versus those who went on to pursue a master’s education.

In this cohort, four candidates were employed in engineering occupations, accounting for 48.8% of all engineering graduates.  The fifth candidate is a software developer, which is also engineering related-profession.

When the playing field is set, the cohort then compares pre-graduate school occupations of engineering majors who go on to get an MBA, a master’s in education, or a master’s in engineering.

It was found that engineers also dominate among pre MBA occupations and account for 6.2% of top-level managers while managerial roles are most common for post-MBA engineers.

While few engineers get a master’s in education, about one-third of this cohort worked in engineering related occupations and about 25% worked as primary or secondary school teachers prior to obtaining a master’s in education.

Upon graduating, 50% of this cohort worked as secondary school teachers and another 11% work as postsecondary schoolteachers.

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However, engineers who pursue a master’s in engineering follow a different path. Of this cohort, 72% were working in the engineering field prior to graduate school. Upon completing their master’s in engineering qualifications, most stayed in the engineering and computer science field while the managerial field remained unaccounted for.

This shows a stark contrast with the cohort who had chosen an MBA for their post-graduate qualifications as they mainly landed managerial roles upon completing graduate school.

A similar trend can be identified for education majors who pursue an MBA or a master’s in education. The study reveals that teaching is the most common occupation for education majors who have not obtained an advanced degree by age 35. Out of this, less than 3% of this cohort found themselves in top-level management positions.

However, post-MBA, the top four occupations for this cohort are all business-related while secondary schoolteacher takes up the fifth choice of profession.

However, education majors who pursue a master’s in education are overwhelmingly concentrated in teaching occupations both before and after getting a master’s degree.

Results also show that only 8% of education majors choose top-level management positions upon obtaining their master’s degrees while very few of these individuals hold high-level management positions within the education system.

It can be concluded that the study shows that pre-graduate school career paths of individuals depend on the specific advanced degree and may be quite different from the early career paths of those who do not go to graduate school.

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What are other options to consider when deciding if you should pursue graduate education?

The decision to go or not to go to grad school is as complex as uncertain and relies on many other factors besides the ones previously highlighted. It can be said that there is no clear-cut guide to give yes and no answers to this question as it is not easy to predict what the return of investment of a master’s degree will be, in the field that you have chosen.

Given the uncertainty, professionals may consider other options such as switching industries or careers before embarking on a master’s journey.

It also must be said that experience plays a large factor in career advancement or higher pay and employers may value it more than they do a graduate education.

So, while a master’s degree is beneficial to your career progress, there are some alternatives that can be considered such as acquiring qualifications through certifications of professional certifications.

These credentials can help you obtain professional skills in many fields, such as computer science and healthcare and this upskilling even takes less time than. Some certificate programme credits can be applied toward a master’s degree, keeping the option open for you to pursue that degree in the future.