Earning Potential of a Graduate Degree
In 2018, three million students attended graduate school — a 36% increase since 2000.
People considering graduate school often ask questions like, “Should I pursue a graduate degree?” or, “How much can I make with a graduate degree?” Many professionals pursue an advanced degree to increase their earning potential. Prospective students should carefully consider how a graduate degree might affect their earnings.
When evaluating a graduate degree vs. a bachelor’s degree, prospective graduate students need to consider their career advancement opportunities, the cost of an advanced degree, and the earning potential with a graduate degree. Continue reading to determine whether graduate school makes sense for you.
What are the Types of Graduate Degrees?
A graduate degree offers advanced training in a field.
Graduate degrees come in several different types. A master’s degree introduces students to graduate-level study in a field, whereas professional master’s programs prepare graduates for the workforce. At the doctoral level, a Ph.D. emphasizes research, while professional doctorates like a Doctor of Business Administration or Doctor of Education emphasize practice.
During a graduate program, students take coursework in their field. Most master’s programs require either an exam or a thesis in the final year of the program. A doctorate typically requires an original dissertation after completing coursework requirements and passing comprehensive exams.
Earning a master’s degree generally takes two years for a full-time student. Some programs offer part-time or accelerated options to complete the degree. A Ph.D. requires a more substantial time commitment, typically 3-5 years after earning a master’s degree.
Master’s programs typically require a bachelor’s degree to gain admission. Most master’s programs also require standardized test scores, letters of recommendation, and a statement of purpose. Some programs set prerequisite coursework or degree requirements. The requirements for a doctoral program typically include a bachelor’s or master’s degree.
Who Should Consider a Graduate Degree?
Most graduate degrees take at least two years and cost around $30,000. However, many people benefit from investing time and money in a graduate degree.
Many professionals seeking career advancement or considering a career change benefit from a graduate degree. In many fields, earning an advanced degree opens the door for managerial or supervisory roles. For example, educators with a master’s degree often move into administration, and candidates for manager positions often stand out with a graduate degree.
A graduate degree also helps professionals break into new industries. In some fields, employers consider a graduate degree as the equivalent of several years of professional experience.
Before applying to grad school, prospective students should ask: “How much can I make with a graduate degree?” The earning potential with a master’s degree or doctorate varies widely depending on the field.
Some careers require a terminal degree in the field. Most college professors, for instance, hold a doctorate. Fields that do not offer doctorates often consider a master’s a terminal degree, like a master of fine arts, for example.
Questions to Ask Before Pursuing a Graduate Degree
If you are asking, “Should I pursue a graduate degree?” start by answering these questions: does your field require a graduate degree? Will a graduate degree increase your earning potential? What does the degree cost? The answers depend on your field and career goals, but addressing these questions helps prospective students make an informed decision.
Does My Field Require a Graduate Degree?
Some fields require a graduate degree. For example, economists and urban planners generally need a master’s degree. Many academic roles, including tenure-track professor, require a doctoral degree. In these fields, you need a graduate degree to qualify for entry-level opportunities.
In other fields, a graduate degree helps your career prospects. Many businesses prefer to hire candidates with a master’s degree for supervisory roles, for instance. Earning an MBA or a master’s in management helps many business professionals advance their careers.
Similarly, many teaching positions do not require a master’s in education, but a graduate degree helps teachers stand out in the job market or increase their earning potential. Administrative roles like principal or superintendent typically require a master’s degree.
If your field does not require a graduate degree, consider whether the potential salary benefits of a graduate degree outweigh the costs. Research job postings to help you determine if your field requires or prefers a graduate degree.
How Much will a Graduate Degree Cost?
Earning a graduate degree typically costs at least $30,000. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average cost of graduate tuition ranges from $12,000 per year at public institutions to neary $26,000 per year at private schools. Many programs charge even higher tuition rates than average, and a doctorate typically takes five or more years.
However, many graduate students receive financial aid to cover part or all of their degree. Universities often support graduate students with fellowships, assistantships, and grants. Students also benefit from private scholarships to pay for a graduate degree. Reach out to your prospective program or financial aid office for more information about funding opportunities.
In some fields where a graduate degree offers a low payoff, only consider attending a graduate program with at least partial funding. In high-paying fields, taking out student loans to pay for a graduate degree often makes long-term financial sense.
What Skills will I Gain in Graduate School?
A graduate degree provides focused, advanced-level training in a subject. Regardless of the specific program, graduate school strengthens key skills that benefit professionals in a variety of industries. For example, graduate programs in the liberal arts build strong research and writing skills, particularly for doctoral students who complete a dissertation. Humanities, social science, and natural science graduate students also gain analytical and critical thinking skills.
In business, graduate training builds leadership and management skills, which benefit professionals in the workforce. Many other graduate programs strengthen organizational abilities, communication and interpersonal skills, and public speaking skills. Earning a master’s or doctoral degree demonstrates commitment, the ability to succeed in a high-pressure environment, and practical skills in the field.
Further, when employers evaluate candidates with a graduate degree vs. a bachelor’s degree, professionals with a graduate degree typically stand out for their advanced knowledge and skills.
Top-Paying Graduate Degrees
||Median Annual Wages of College Educated Workers (Ages 25-59) ($)
||Graduate Degree Wage Premium for College-Educated Workers (Ages 25-59) (%)
|Agriculture and Natural Resources
|Architecture and Engineering
|Biology and Life Science
|Computers, Statistics, and Mathematics
|Humanities and Liberal Arts
|Industrial Arts, Consumer Services, and Recreation
|Law and Public Policy
|Psychology and Social Work
Genevieve Carlton holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University and earned tenure as a history professor at the University of Louisville. An award-winning historian and writer, Genevieve has published multiple scholarly articles and a book with the University of Chicago Press. She currently works as a freelance writer and consultant.
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