What a Masters Degree Does in Today’s Job Market

Sophia Foster knows a thing or two about graduate students — not only does she write about getting a master’s degree online, she also spends a great deal of time analyzing everything from career prospects to social structures at schools across the country. She joins Popten today to add to on-going discussions about the fate of the creative types in today’s economy. Her advice is grounded in the educational side of things, but the conclusions are clear — science and math are largely where the future lies.

Five years after the recession began, improved economic conditions finally seem within reach. This has led many employers and companies to begin recruiting and hiring more job candidates. The most promising industries in terms of growth include science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields and finance/business management – and academic experts are urging today’s students to pursue a degree in one of these areas if they wish to increase their chances of landing a desirable position.

In September 2012, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) released the Job Outlook 2013 Survey. The NACE found that, while hiring is expected to increase across all sectors, the companies expected to hire the most college graduates were found in sectors like chemical/pharmaceutical manufacturing, computer/electronics manufacturing, retail trade, finance, and management consulting. “While employers are seeking graduates from a broad range of disciplines, this fall they expressed particular interest in hiring new graduates with business, computer science, and engineering-related degrees and are looking to college campuses to supply their hiring needs,” says NACE Executive Director Marilyn Mackes.

In an article titled The Best and Worst Master’s Degrees for Jobs, Forbes contributor Jacquelyn Smith noted the advantages and disadvantages of various graduate-level programs. The best master’s degree program – physician assistant studies – awards a mid-career median salary of $97,000, while jobs in this field are projected to grow 30 percent in the coming years. Computer science degrees also ranked high, thanks to a median mid-level salary of $109,000 and 22.5-percent expected growth. The other ‘best’ degrees include electrical engineering (mid-level salary of $121,000); mathematics (projected growth of 24.7 percent); and information systems (mid-level salary of $95,500).

Smith also notes that a master’s degree in library and information science, with a median mid-level salary of $57,600 and projected growth rate of 8.5 percent, is the “worst” degree one can earn today, at least where projected salary and job growth are concerned. Other graduate-level degrees that earn low pay and indicate weak projected growth included English, music and education. In addition, Smith included two STEM-related degrees – biology and chemistry – among the “worst” programs for jobs. However, she notes that these degrees are not useless – but merely that a master’s degree is not required to advance in either field. She urges students to research their desired career path prior to enrollment in a master’s program to ensure that an advanced degree is required to succeed in that particular field.

In addition to financial benefits, master’s degree holders boast a better chance of finding a job. FOXBusiness contributor Emily Driscoll recently noted that the unemployment rate for individuals with graduate-level education is 3.6 percent, more than 1 percent higher than those with an undergraduate degree. An advanced degree can also open up a wider range of opportunities for the recipient. “Young professionals need to remember that they’ll probably be working for the next 40 years,” said Scott Shrum, director of admissions research for Veritas Prep, “and a two-year investment in one’s 20s may help make the next 40 years much more successful.”

But Driscoll adds that students should make several considerations to determine whether or not a master’s degree represents a sound investment. First, financial cost of the degree should be weighed against the potential earnings increase. Typical master’s programs cost anywhere between $80,000 and $120,000, and many students should think hard about the amount of student loan debt they stand to incur. Personal preferences should also be considered. “Costs are not just monetary–they are time, personal sacrifices and a heavy commitment to education, writing and learning,” said education consultant Danielle Rabb. “The last thing you want to do is have regrets when you are done and potentially have debt, too.”

If a student decides to pursue a master’s degree, Dr. Michael Woodward of FOXBusiness urges recipients to be proactive in their job search if they are not already employed. One way to accomplish this is through social media; sites like Facebook and LinkedIn have proven invaluable to prospective job seekers who wish to build their network. However, applicants should supplement their online networking by scheduling time to meet with company leaders and consulting individuals who are already employed within the applicant’s desired field. “It’s no longer about the job application and the resume,” Woodward writes. “It’s about making human contact, whether it’s online or in person.”

As the U.S. job market regains the strength it lost during the recession, students who graduate from master’s programs will stand the best chance of securing long-term employment – provided they earn their degree in a field with high projected growth. But earning the master’s degree is merely the first step; graduates must proactively network and reach out to company leaders if they hope to launch a successful career.

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