Is a Master’s Degree Worth the Cost?

Career Advice

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo by Chris Gardner

 

According to a late 2015 study by FinAid.org, the cost for a master’s degree averaged between $30,000 and $120,000. The costs varied depending on the university as well as the master’s program, and those numbers really only applied to the cost for the actual classes. There are always a myriad of fees that can be tacked onto almost any tuition bill, as well as living costs.

In other words, that advanced degree can be very expensive. But it often has the promise of paying back with a better job with a better salary.

According to a 2015 Georgetown University study, those with a bachelor’s degree could earn an average annual salary of $61,000 a year over the course of their career, while those with an advanced degree could earn $78,000 annually. That could mean a significant pay out.

But no salary is guaranteed, and the question must still be asked whether a master’s degree will literally “pay off” given the high cost of education.

“The benefits story always begins with ‘it depends…’ because it really does,” said Jim Purtilo, associate professor in the computer science department at the University of Maryland. “On the surface, all tech bachelor degrees give preparation in the fundamentals of a given field plus ‘Gen Eds’ – the general education learning objectives – for the skill sets of professionals: communication, reasoning, economics and so forth. After that a masters degree rounds out the breadth of your new field – there were always some gaps – and hopefully you will get depth in at least one important piece of the field.”

Want Money? Get Experience 

One important factor to remember is that those with experience may have an advantage over those with less experience; even when the newbie has more schooling.

“Jobs that advertise that a master’s degree is preferred are not actually going to pay you more than another applicant who only holds a bachelor’s degree based solely on the degree,” explained Roderick Fraser, president of Professional Leadership and Management LLC.

“The job has a pay range and the company will be looking at the total candidate picture,” added Fraser, who was also the former Boston Fire Commissioner. “Most companies are looking for a candidate that has the exact experience levels they are looking for in their particular industry. Companies want to know that you can do the job. Experience with measurable and provable results demonstrates that. Advanced degrees do not.”

If you want an employer to ‘show you the money,’ most employers advise you’d best be able to ‘show them the skills.’

“Pay is usually a direct product of demonstrated capability,” said Adriel Desautels, manager and CEO of Netragard, a firm that specializes in the delivery of realistic threat penetration testing services.

He explained that a researcher in cybersecurity with significant published work may be seen to have a value higher than someone with a degree but no published work.

“In this industry experience is key,” Desutels told ClearanceJobs. “Moreover, taking a course on security cannot and does not make someone a good hacker or expert.  Being a hacker comes from self-driven work and curiosity. There’s a saying, curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought him back.”

STEM Jobs Stand Out

This is not to say that an advanced degree isn’t worth the paper it is printed on. There are some positions where those advanced degrees may be required just to get in the door.

Medical is one area where this remains very true. Given the world of health care today no one should venture in a medical field to get rich – but Nurse-Anesthesia is one area where, according to Forbes, the degree does have the potential to be worth the investment.

STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers do typically pay more to those with an advanced degree.

“The ‘depends’ part is that there are many more career launching points at master’s level than at bachelor level,” University of Maryland’s Purtilo told ClearanceJobs. “Bachelor degrees in computer science will vary from one another in modest ways, but they all cover similar core material; you distinguish one from the other by the quality of students brought together, by the engagement of mentors and so on.”

At the master’s level, core material varies a lot, added Purtilo, and the school – as much as the degree – may be what employers look closely at when choosing candidates.

“Everyone views cyber through different glasses,” explained Purtilo. “One school will see cyber as forensics, while another will see it as chiefly dealing with networks. A third might see cyber as being about data and analytics; others will remain convinced it is about supply chain management, criminology or even psychology.

“It is all of these things,” Purtilo added. “However the slope of your salary curve will depend on which of those many launching points you choose. Unsurprisingly, the most challenging technical pieces command highest salaries.”

Security Clearance Market Conditions = Salary Expectations

As with anything where money is involved it may also come down to whether it is a buyer’s or seller’s market. In job terms low employment can mean that those with advanced degrees can command higher salaries. In bad economic times there is the possibility that an advanced degree catches the eye of a recruiter.

Right now job numbers are good, so many students venturing out into the workforce without an advanced degree can still expect to find gainful employment with a good paying job.

“It’s a brisk market for top bachelor degree recipients from top schools,” said Purtilo. “I’m pleased that my students command a premium, especially those coming out of my software engineering lab where they gain outstanding research and project experiences.”

Those who stay in school to get the degree may find themselves able to demand a premium, but at what costs compared to those who entered the work force earlier?

“A year or two of raises later (for those opting not to get the advanced degree) and they’ll be even higher on the curve – just about where a fresh master’s degree recipient might start,” said Purtilo. “The take-away is: if salary alone is how you measure success, then you might look to the market sooner rather than later. The reason to pursue advanced degrees is for the subset of jobs which demand deeper technical preparation and more serious project experience.”

 

Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who covers business technology and cyber security. He currently lives in Michigan and can be reached at petersuciu@gmail.com.

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