Are there any Masters programs worth getting?
January 17, 2010 7:45 AM   Subscribe

Are there any Masters programs worth getting?

This sounds rather odd, but with the economy and the glut of educated / experienced people out there, is there still a reason to take two-plus years to get a Masters degree?

Background: 27 years old, male, Bachelor's in Business, currently teaching English in Asia, considering next steps in either Journalism, Tourism Management, English Education, Computer Science, or Photography. While going back to school to get a Masters has been recommended more than once, I've yet to find a program / subject that attracts me for more than a minimal length of time. That it takes two years and costs a pile of money requiring loans makes me wonder about the cost-benefit.

Those MeFi's with Masters - did it help you find a job faster / easier / with a better salary? Was your job / career after degree the one you plan to be in for some years to come?

Those MeFi's without Masters (but considering them) - what are your goals for earning your Masters? Convince me of the same things that have convinced you.
posted by chrisinseoul to Education (37 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I just completed a master's in journalism, which was completely different from my undergrad in music. I'd never planned to do anything music-related with my undergrad degree, particularly because I'd planned to stay at the university and work in administration, but I decided to go to the j-school because (aside from the craptastic environment for print journalism, and the fact that everyone is engaging in handwaving freakoutery over everything else in the field) I wanted to have a solid background in writing and communicating. Pretty much any field, particularly in academia, needs people who can explain what they do to people who don't quite understand it.

I've always been pretty good at writing, but this gave me the confidence to say, "Okay, not only am I good at stringing words together, I'm up on current professional standards and have a great handle on the way the field is going." I'd worked in a communications office as an administrative assistant, but now I've got a full writing load of stuff that gets me fairly wide exposure. I love the variety, and I love being at the center of the action.

So I wouldn't tell you "Oh yeah, you'll totally get jobs now," but if you're shrewd about what you want out of your professional life, a master's degree is totally worth it. Especially if you get the university to pay for it :)
posted by Madamina at 7:54 AM on January 17, 2010

An M.Ed. is a very flexible degree which can be parlayed into all sorts of career opportunities. In a way it's like being a universal donor - - you can position yourself as a universal employee or consultant. There are may flavors of Master of Education specialties with an Adult Education focus being perhaps the most flexible...
posted by fairmettle at 8:02 AM on January 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Great question. If you can find a program that will pay for it, it seems like it'd be worth it. Going into debt for a MA? Seems crazy.
posted by Rocket26 at 8:06 AM on January 17, 2010

The strategy I recommend to those feeling cast adrift is to start by getting an entry level job somewhere you want to work first or at least build up a network of contacts in a specific field. If the bigger picture of what your organization/industry does appeals to you, then get a master's degree that would be relevant to moving up towards the responsibilities you'd like to take on after working a few years. In my experience, a lot of places hire from within and encourage their staff to take on new responsibilities, simply because junior staff are conveniently accessible when unexpected work needs to get done, and they are known entities. The journalism degree would be relevant to moving into communications for your organization. Tourism Management would be useful if you worked in the hospitality industry. If you can find a well-established photographer who would be willing to take you on as an assistant/apprentice (perhaps unpaid) then that might be your ticket into that profession, and to gain access to professional equipment (you will probably need to demonstrate more than a passing interest in photography).

The other possibility would be to go ahead and get the master's degree first, but accept the fact that you might have to take a low-paying entry level job when you graduate, and since you will already have a master's degree, you will be qualified when opportunity strikes.
posted by waterandrock at 8:18 AM on January 17, 2010

Given the economy, don't waste your time. You'll never be able to make the income required to get out from under the debt. Learn a trade. I would learn the skills required to o convert a standard home to an off the grid home--ie. how to install solar electricity, drill wells, and put in ham radio, satellite, and/or wireless mesh networks. You can start with your own home. Lacking this learn a craft like glassblowing or dressmaking. Be able to make an artifact or own a small "means of production."
posted by supremefiction at 8:23 AM on January 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

MS in statistics does pretty great things for job prospects if you can hack it.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 8:33 AM on January 17, 2010

Stay away from Journalism and Photography. Taking a masters in journalism right now would be like becoming a coal miner just as Thatcher closed all the pits, or a steelworker in Detroit. All the ways to make money from the industry are evaporating, and replacements aren't appearing. (There are also much better ways to learn to communicate).

Professional photography is likewise entering a period of crisis. Since the majority of paying work was ultimately for print publication (editorial or advertising), and those publications are going away ... well, you can see why a fair number of award-winning photographers I know personally are turning to wedding work. Secondly, an advanced degree wasn't really ever the way to get going in the field.

Overall, work out what you want to do first. The chances that you'll need a Master's to do it are slimmish, I'd expect.
posted by bonaldi at 8:37 AM on January 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

I have a master's in engineering. It meant an automatic salary bump (+15% or so), and eligibility for positions requiring a master's. It's not very feasible without a math/physics/engineering undergrad degree though, unless you can take it at a public university nearby on a part-time basis (but that could take four years!).
posted by mnemonic at 8:42 AM on January 17, 2010

If you go into education a master's will put you on a higher pay scale immediately. Many great school districts almost require master's these days, and it will be a lot easier to get the degree first (if you can find money for it) than to juggle that workload with your first years of teaching.
posted by lilac girl at 8:59 AM on January 17, 2010

Well, as to your particular fields of interest, I'd say that the only ones that would be likely to pay off in the long term would be the Computer Science and Education degrees. However, a Masters in Computer Science would probably require you to do a lot of undergraduate-level work -- possibly even up to two years worth of courses -- to get caught up, unless you did a bunch of computer science/programming over the course of your Bachelors in Business.

I don't really know what "Tourism Management" is, but as for Journalism and Photography, I think others' points are quite valid. Note also that Fine Arts programs are very selective and will almost certainly require a strong portfolio before they'll even consider you for an MFA, and that MFA will almost certainly cost an arm and a leg. Plus, advanced art degrees are only really worth it if you'd like to teach art long term.

Frankly, I think that based on what you've laid out here, Education would be your best bet. A Bachelors in Business and an M.Ed. would probably qualify you to be some sort of school administrator, if you wanted to do that.

Of course, it all depends on what you want to do and I think it's most important to figure that out before you try to pursue an advanced degree.
posted by malthas at 9:01 AM on January 17, 2010

Oh, FWIW, I'm nearing the end of my Masters in Mechanical Engineering. Part of the reason I've been able to do it is because the school paid for it completely -- I don't think I'd want to go tens of thousands of dollars into debt right now.
posted by malthas at 9:02 AM on January 17, 2010

I have one Master's in Administration (MSA, technically, as if it actually matters) that I refer to as my 'pretend' degree because the program wasn't exactly rigorous and I kinda fell into it by accident after getting denied for what I really wanted to study (library science) straight out of college, where my extremely low grades are still continuing to fuck me.

I'm currently in a library science program, but I wouldn't go into debt to do this--or any other upper-level degree.

As far as jobs are concerned, the current gig I'm at only required a HS diploma, so I'm vastly overqualified. I like where I work and it's flexible, so I'm staying here for a while, even though the pay is absolute crap. It's in my field, so there is that.
posted by sperose at 9:04 AM on January 17, 2010

The only person I have ever met who got an MFA who did not end up in dire financial straits was a former computer engineer who cashed out her Microsoft options in order to pay for the degree and her living expenses while getting it.

She now has a successful (second) career as an abstract modern artist.

One shouldn't infer from her experience that she is typical in any way.

I agree with most of the rest of the posters: most MA degrees are not worth the time and money one puts into them.

I would perhaps go further and say pretty much all graduate education is near worthless; others will disagree vehemently.
posted by dfriedman at 9:07 AM on January 17, 2010

There are few MS/MA programs worth paying for out of your own pocket, outside of a top ranked MBA program. And it may be hard to get an RA/TA fellowship if your professional/academic background was not already in the same field.

Do you think that a Master's is really necessary to facilitate a career change?

In any case, I would say that the most important thing would be to avoid taking on debt.
posted by deanc at 9:09 AM on January 17, 2010

I have a Master's in Theater Education, which I am not using in any meaningful way. At the time, I had a different plan, and if I had stayed in my field, it would have been essential to my professional development and being employed. If I ever were to return to arts and education, it would be very helpful and probably secure me a higher salary.

Even though I am not using my MA, it was a very valuable experience, and I learned a lot, personally and professionally. Was it expensive? Yes. I paid for it with student loans and job-shared my usually full-time position during semesters. Unfortunately, most grad programs only fund students pursuing the terminal degree in their area, and that's often a PhD.

The value of an MA depends on your field, and of the ones you mentioned, I only see it be worth it for education, and possibly computer science. You don't need it for journalism and photography. In those instances, it would help you network, but there are a lot of other ways to do that.
posted by katemcd at 9:13 AM on January 17, 2010

The one MS degree that I know of that makes it extremely easy to find a job is Speech Language Pathology. A Masters is required to become an SLP and there is a desperate need for them in both education and medically.
posted by drezdn at 9:15 AM on January 17, 2010

Keep in mind that there are still a number of companies out there that will hire you without the masters and then provide tuition reimbursment for higher education. The company I work for (publishing) does this for communication-related masters degrees; I know someone who got her degree for 70% off through the program. I also have friends from college who scored a discounted accounting degree and a free MBA by working at a bank and a consulting company respectively. Not only is the discount significant, you gain contacts in the field, and you usually get an automatic salary bump once you graduate (since the company that sponsored you now has a larger vested interest in keeping you around).
posted by GraceCathedral at 9:17 AM on January 17, 2010

Jobs in my field (generally) require a master's degree, so I'd would be basically unemployable without one. I'm a software trainer, and I work in higher education. My undergrad was in English, and I intended to do a Ph.D. and be a professor. When things started to look really bleak, I switched horses and did an M.Ed. in educational technology and got a job. A year later, I finished up my MA in English, pretty much out of guilt, but that has turned out to be a good thing, as it allows me to be an adjunct literature instructor on the side. (Almost everyone in higher education has a gig on the side, it seems to me.)

If your're going into education, degrees matter (because the people hiring you have them and value them. It would be a little odd if they didn't). Outside of education, it really depends upon the field. In some fields, an undergraduate degree along with work experience is more valuable than having extra letters after your name. Getting hired for anything, though, is more than a matter of what educational credentials you have. Degrees open certain doors and close others.
posted by wheat at 9:22 AM on January 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

In general, the debt that you take on to get an MA doesn't result in a justified salary increase. Exceptions to this include an MBA (but these are becoming more and more common now) and engineering.

Many work places will reimburse for an MA and that is your best bet.

Especially because you're not sure what you want to do and are interested in a number of different MA programs, getting one doesn't bode well for you.
posted by k8t at 9:46 AM on January 17, 2010

The only person I have ever met who got an MFA who did not end up in dire financial straits was a former computer engineer who cashed out her Microsoft options in order to pay for the degree and her living expenses while getting it.

She now has a successful (second) career as an abstract modern artist.

I have an MFA in a "useless" field and I've done all right for myself financially in the six months since graduating. But I am working a typical office job (that I probably could have gotten without the Master's), and avoided accruing debt during my MFA. If you can get accepted into an MFA program, only go with full funding and a stipend that gives yourself enough to live off of. For me, my MFA was an opportunity to move out of state, spend time working on my writing, and defer my undergraduate student loans without interest. Your goals, and outcomes, may vary.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:04 AM on January 17, 2010

I'm guessing that anybody's best bet for making sure that a masters degree leads to actual jobs would be some sort of professional terminal degree, like a Masters of Science in Nursing (MSN) or a Masters in Health Administration (MHA). I currently work in the administration of an MHA program, and my department has a placement rate of over 85% with a large body of alumni who are crazy about networking and students who are really interested in making a difference in the healthcare industry.
posted by scarykarrey at 10:09 AM on January 17, 2010

Definitely agree with Malthas. For CS, Education, Engineering, Hard Science or Math a Masters is worth getting for the fact that it will open up new jobs and increase your base pay. I wouldn't invest any money towards an education in Journalism or Photography in this environment if you are not already financially comfortable, and "Tourism Management" sounds questionable even in the best of times.
posted by sophist at 10:38 AM on January 17, 2010

The best degree for someone with no passion is Law. I know several lawyers who hated being lawyers, and the law degree opened tons of doors in very different fields. Or, be a lawyer; they make pretty good money.

Or, be passionate about something, and do that.
posted by theora55 at 10:41 AM on January 17, 2010

As one who has two Masters (one in Education, another in Biology) and also who has taught English in Asia, I agree with just about everything above.

An M.Ed. helped me get a higher salary during the time I taught, and the M.A. certainly helped open the doors for particular jobs I've held over the years. After a certain time though, its the work experience, and in my line of work I'm paid as a peer with many Ph.D.'s. I can honestly say that many of my peers assume I have the Ph.D.

sophist has it right on - Journalism, Philosophy and "Tourism Management" would be a waste of time and effort, and the others listed are very worthwhile, if you can live on nothing for a few years (and work your way through with minimal debt as I did). Looking back now, your training living abroad gives you the ability to live differently than others (I lived like a monk with extreme focus on the M.A. while others were focused on other things, such as finding employment in a particular industry over getting the Master's). In this economy though I'm sure that many people are thinking similarly (going back to school) and you need to make sure that everything is in place (i.e. the motivation and finances to last when the going gets tough, and it very likely does should you got the Hard Science route).

One off-topic suggestion, reading your original question again, is that you could perhaps use an exercise like What Color is your Parachute? if you haven't done so already, to accurately assess your inclinations and combining the skills that you have and enjoy using. (Another 'take' would be Strengths Finder 2.0 although it is much more skills-oriented.
posted by scooterdog at 11:39 AM on January 17, 2010

Going into debt for a MA? Seems crazy.

I went into (and some few years later still am in) debt for a terminal master's in international relations. It did not--per the OP's question--"help [me] find a job faster / easier / with a better salary," but it introduced me to (a) academic realms I knew next to nothing about and (b) a great number of people whose lives fascinate me and who form the backbone of my professional network.

The following may not be true of all fields, but it certainly holds some value for me and my colleagues: The conventional wisdom is that whether or not it helps with the first job you get after you graduate (...and chances are it may not, since part of that transition is jumping back into the job market and simply proving you're employable still) but it will definitely help give you a boost with the next job you obtain, which is much likelier to be what you're looking for.

So was it worth it? In the short run, didn't feel like it; in the longer run, oh yes yes.
posted by kittyprecious at 3:01 PM on January 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

I think the mere fact that I was admitted to a top CS master's program helped get me my current job. I'm earning the degree part-time at night, so I won't actually have it for a long time, but the place I work now is a much bigger deal than the place I used to work, and I think the new and much fancier school on my resume helped a lot. It established that I am someone who is committing time and money to moving up in my field, and that I had impressive enough credentials and skills to get into the program in the first place. It also bumped up my salary and effectively promoted me to the next level up from where I was. I guess you would typically expect a salary increase and titular promotion when moving jobs, but these days, you never know.

There is little point in paying for a master's unless you can get it from one of the top schools in your field. I think the main reason to get one from a monetary standpoint is to put a more recognizable name on your resume and hope that it will open doors. So if you already went to Harvard for undergrad, you have about 5 grad schools even worth considering for an MA/MS...whereas if you went to Podunk U, there are plenty of grad schools to consider to plus up your resume a little. However, I don't think it makes sense to apply to grad school until you have a specific end goal in mind that your graduate work will help you accomplish.

In my case, I discovered what I was passionate about in computer science too late in my undergraduate career to be able to focus on that topic and maybe do research in it. It's a pretty technical topic and as a result it's hard to get jobs doing it without either serious undergrad research experience, or graduate credentials. So my aim in applying for the master's was to be able to spend more time studying this topic, in hopes of graduating into a job using that specialized knowledge.

I agree with malthas that if you were to try to do a CS master's, you should take a good hard look at the program first and see just how many requirements for a broad based background in CS they have. My school does NOT accept life experience as a substitute for coursework. As part of my job, I work with databases all the time and could probably have tested out of undergrad databases with knowledge I've picked up on the job, but I still have to take databases because I never took it in undergrad. Coming into the program with no CS coursework under your belt, you would need more than two years to get to completion.
posted by crinklebat at 3:18 PM on January 17, 2010

I've got a Master's in Public Administration, which is a good all-purpose degree if you're going to work in the public sector. Theoretically, it can be a useful degree in the private sector as well, but I have no personal experience with that.

The MPA hasn't helped me get a better job yet, but I think it will eventually. It's a tough job market right now, and I've only had the thing for two years. I did enjoy grad school immensely, despite the fact that I was working full time. It definitely expanded my horizons, and has actually help me do my job better (I work in municipal parks and recreation).

I went with the MPA because it was available in the city where I lived at the time. If I'd had my druthers, I probably would have pursued a Master's in Parks and Rec or Leisure Studies or something like that.

All in all, I'm glad I got it, in spite of the debt I acquired.
posted by Shohn at 3:33 PM on January 17, 2010

Only go to graduate school if you have a very clear idea of what you want to do afterward. I knew exactly what I wanted to do 7 years before i started grad school and even where I wanted to work after I got the degree. I got a job there a few months after graduation and I am doing exactly what I envisioned 15 years ago. I use my Masters degree every day.

If you're doing it just to have a graduate degree or because you find a topic kind of interesting then you run the risk of a) never finishing and b) never using it. I have lots of hobbies and academic interests but only one thing I want to do for a living day in and day out.
posted by fshgrl at 4:10 PM on January 17, 2010

If you are willing to teach in a school district that some might consider to be "less desirable" (i.e., inner city or rural) and you are able to teach in one of the areas with a teacher shortage (mostly math and science) you may be able to get an MA in Teaching or M.Ed. paid for by the state you work for, while already working as a teacher. A friend of mine did NC Teach and I think a number of other states have similar programs.

I got an MS in Ecology completely paid for by assistantships. For me it was preparation for a PhD program and for many of my cohort it was professional development for work in federal or academic labs. Importantly in the current economic climate, 2 years of grad school counts as 2 years of work experience for many jobs.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:38 PM on January 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

The only person I have ever met who got an MFA who did not end up in dire financial straits was a former computer engineer who cashed out her Microsoft options in order to pay for the degree and her living expenses while getting it.

I know someone who got that degree in a relatively poor foreign country (with low tuition) while spending summers working in the USA. The combination of the higher salaries in the USA and low tuition in the university's country allowed her to stay out of crippling debt. Then again, she was fluent in the language of a relatively poor eastern european country. Not an option for most people!

I've got a Master's in Public Administration, which is a good all-purpose degree if you're going to work in the public sector. Theoretically, it can be a useful degree in the private sector as well, but I have no personal experience with that.

Would it have been possible to get a public sector job and get your employer to pay the tuition for you to study part time while getting an MPA? That's the other option: get an entry level position in a field you're interested in and take advantage of any educational benefits to pick up the cost of the Master's degree, which will allow you to rise higher in the hierarchy.
posted by deanc at 6:52 PM on January 17, 2010

Cheapest way to get an MA is to get into a PhD program with funding then drop out once you've passed your orals and/or had your MA thesis accepted.

I was poor but I didn't take on debt to get my MA in English. Lo and behold, an MA in English will open a lot of doors for foreign English teaching although things might be changing as more MA people look to Korea and Japan and China for jobs.

I've taught kindergarten for a little over a year but this March I'll be teaching at a university with pretty much the same pay but much better vacation time and scheduling.

So don't go into debt, but do consider other sources of funding. Look into grant and scholarship programs.

Another interesting thing about graduate school is that I ended up getting involved in and working part time on a number of things that look good on my resume, e.g., wrote footnotes for the most well-known collection of modern and postmodern American poetry and got my name in the actual book, wrote music reviews for a small magazine, etc. There are side benefits to having the free time that graduate school affords you but I agree, don't take on debt to do it.
posted by bardic at 8:34 PM on January 17, 2010

"The only person I have ever met who got an MFA who did not end up in dire financial straits was a former computer engineer who cashed out her Microsoft options in order to pay for the degree and her living expenses while getting it."

About half of the creative writing MFA's I met in graduate school were actually funded and got teaching jobs as freshman creative writing instructors. And I know for a fact that there are programs (highly competitive of course) that will fund you to write, take photos, paint, etc.

I agree that going into debt for an MFA is a bad idea but I wouldn't shoot the idea down out of hand. There is funding out there and the connections you make are important. And given the current suckitude of the American economy I can imagine worse fates than trying to figure out how to live on 15 thousand bucks a year for two years while you're doing what you love.
posted by bardic at 9:43 PM on January 17, 2010

Thanks from the OP - keep the suggestions coming.

Once upon a time (guessing 30 or so years ago?) having the Bachelor's was the 'welcome to the job' piece of paper - these days it's sounding even a Master's isn't a guarantee of anything.

The idea of 'do what you love and the money will follow' would seem to suggest against the Master's degree (although it may help with building connections). By the time I'm 30 (a mere two-plus years away), the goal is to be able to travel the world and be reasonably self-sufficient. Learning a trade is certainly an option, especially something in the 'green' sector.

Forgive me if I sound unpassionate - I'm actually quite passionate about traveling and passing on information to other foreigners living in Korea. I've served as a tour guide and blogged at length about places in Korea worth visiting - not precisely things that can be turned into a career (?). I may sound ambivalent about getting a Masters in something, but that's normal for me when I question the purpose and necessity in such an endeavor.

Like I said, keep the suggestions coming!
posted by chrisinseoul at 11:25 PM on January 17, 2010

Now that the Bachelors degree has become the new high school diploma, it seems that Masters degree is the new Bachelors.

Part of whether it is worth it is the opportunity cost. If you're laid off, or underemployed in a low-paying job, your opportunity cost to go back to college for 2 years while you wait out the recession is lower than if you already have a high-paying job that you love.
posted by Jacqueline at 11:41 PM on January 17, 2010

The idea of 'do what you love and the money will follow'

This works for some people, not for all people. I would be careful to follow the advice based on the existence of survivorship bias.
posted by anniecat at 6:49 AM on January 18, 2010

I'm actually quite passionate about traveling and passing on information to other foreigners living in Korea. I've served as a tour guide and blogged at length about places in Korea worth visiting - not precisely things that can be turned into a career (?).

Well what about travel writing? Like for Let's Go, Fodor's or some other travel guide type company. (I totally don't know how hard it is to get this type of ob, but it sounds like something you'd like and have experience in.)
posted by grapesaresour at 1:08 PM on January 18, 2010

"Now that the Bachelors degree has become the new high school diploma, it seems that Masters degree is the new Bachelors."

Kinda sorta. Right now there's a dearth of jobs, so you've got people with MA's and BA's from really good colleges applying for retail jobs.

IMO, the really disturbing trend is the number of industries that are expecting people to work an unpaid internship for a year or three in order to get their foot in the door. That's always been the case in publishing, but it's spilling over to other areas. (E.g., journalism at all levels from "serious" news to lifestyle publishing.)

On the one hand, I'm all for the democritization that comes with people getting work because they have real hands-on experience rather than an academic pedigree. But the darkside has become the expectation that you can only break into certain fields if you have a trust fund or a spouse who will support you for months on end.
posted by bardic at 4:10 PM on January 18, 2010

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