Question about life and grad school (or lack thereof)
May 3, 2010 2:41 PM   Subscribe

Is a Masters degree necessary for success in life?

I'm a college student, and I'm wondering if it's possible to make a living (i.e., not rolling in money, obviously, but earning enough to support yourself and cover the basics--food, clothing, etc.) without a Masters degree if you don't want to go into a field that requires it? My mother wants me to get a Masters and eventually a PhD--especially since I'm a liberal arts major. But I don't know what I want to do yet, and I don't know if I necessarily want any more schooling beyond undergrad. I get good grades, but I have to work really hard for them, and I feel like I wouldn't be able to handle the higher level of discourse required for grad school. I've scanned a lot of education questions on Ask Metafilter and it seems like so many users have Masters degrees...are there any who just have their Bachelors?
posted by AndGee to Education (53 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Obtaining all the PhD's in the world can't give you people skills. You can make a million bucks a year by going into sales (maybe even without a high school degree).
posted by yoyoceramic at 2:44 PM on May 3, 2010

Dear God yes. And if your mother tells you otherwise, she's mistaken. I (BA in philosophy) make more money than a lot of the PhDs I know.

Graduate, figure out what you want to do, work for several years, and then decide whether more school is right for you. And if it's not, tell your mother to stuff it.
posted by decathecting at 2:44 PM on May 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

Things are changing and most careers will benefit from a graduate degree. It is always important to be competitive and a good graduate degree will make you so. Also, in this economy it may be useful to delay your entry into the work force by continuing your education.
posted by JJ86 at 2:45 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

My mother wants me to get a Masters and eventually a PhD--especially since I'm a liberal arts major.
Ok, this is not good advice. You may eventually decide that you want further education, but you should do it with a specific goal in mind. There is no good reason to get a Master's degree (or, God help you, a PhD) just to have one.

Have you gone to talk to your university's career center? That would be a good place to start thinking about career planning.
posted by craichead at 2:45 PM on May 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

You definitely do NOT need a master's degree to make good of yourself in life. I would even go further to say that you should definitely not get a master's degree unless you're sure of how you're going to pay for it. Do not take on debt to get a master's in anything that is not marketable. A master's in economics? Sure, you can go work for a hedge fund. A master's in English--no way.

If you can swing it that you get funding for your studies, that's fine--go ahead and enroll. But do not take on more debt for a master's--unless you're going into academia, no one cares at all.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 2:47 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have a master's degree, but because it's in a separate field from my undergrad I consider it akin to a sort of technical course at the community college. Either way, I was out of school for five years before going back, and the life experience has been worth way more than the degree.

Don't get me wrong; I'm glad I got it. But I had a very specific reason for doing so, one that came out of exploring and making connections and being successful at doing so.

Does your mom have a PhD? Did she perhaps not make it all the way?
posted by Madamina at 2:47 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've had a pretty good career as an editor for going on 15 years now and don't have a master's.

It depends hugely on what kinds of things you want to do. Get the advanced degrees because you want to work in those fields. There's no point in getting an MA or (worse) PhD in a field you don't know if you'll like. Waste of time and money.
posted by rtha at 2:47 PM on May 3, 2010

As data point, I've been a working software developer for 16 years with a BA in Computer Science.
posted by Calloused_Foot at 2:51 PM on May 3, 2010

Plenty of people make a living (enough for food and clothing) without even a BA. And there are plenty of unemployed PhDs. There's no point putting the time and money into an advanced degree unless a) you're getting paid for it or b) you love your field enough that you can't imagine doing anything else. Prove your mom wrong by getting solid internships and making connections in your field-- in the current job market, provided you meet the base qualifications, connections and networking will help you more than any degree.
posted by oinopaponton at 2:58 PM on May 3, 2010

It really depends on the field you go into. I got my MA (in a liberal arts subject) right after my BA and found that when I applied for jobs, my MA gave me a little bit of an advantage. There tended to be a lot of people with my skill level and a BA going for the positions without a lot of luck, but I always got an interview - so the MA was helpful. However, while it may have gotten me into the position I wanted a little bit faster than others, it in no way measured the success that eventually came my way (or didn't come my way).

I get asked a lot about going onto graduate school in my field and my answer always is: If you don't have a burning desire for it, save your time and money because you'll be miserable. To me, getting a MA and being miserable in the process isn't a measure of success.
posted by meerkatty at 3:02 PM on May 3, 2010

data point - i live extremely comfortably as a web developer and *barely* graduated from highschool. no degree.
posted by nihlton at 3:03 PM on May 3, 2010

Best answer: Get a job. Just a basic, no-frills job. Retail, maybe. Meet and mingle and become friends with some of the millions of people who never got any schooling past high school. Some of them are dumb lazy buggers. Some of them are bright, wonderful people. Almost anyone with a full-time job can hold down a "living" (food, shelter, etc) if they don't take on too many things they can't pay for, if they live within their means (an important concept). And many of them are perfectly happy and consider themselves successful. Success isn't about getting the bestest job with the mostest prestige; it's about being happy with your life. And I've met guys living in vans who were happier than guys with six figure incomes. No, you don't need a Masters degree to be a success, any more than you need to be, say, blonde to be attractive. It's a niche. There are many. Find yours.
posted by The otter lady at 3:03 PM on May 3, 2010 [9 favorites]

You may eventually decide that you want further education, but you should do it with a specific goal in mind. There is no good reason to get a Master's degree (or, God help you, a PhD) just to have one.


It depends hugely on what kinds of things you want to do. Get the advanced degrees because you want to work in those fields. There's no point in getting an MA or (worse) PhD in a field you don't know if you'll like. Waste of time and money.

And this.

I began a PhD in comparative literature. What could I have done with it? Taught comparative literature. A close friend did a masters in Japanese literature. Guess what she could have done with it. Needless to say, neither of us are working in these fields.

A lot of (most?) liberal arts degrees are dead ends from a practical viewpoint and the higher up you go, the narrower the dead end becomes. I absolutely believe in the value of liberal arts degrees and hope my future children get the benefit of that kind of education. However, it's hard enough to make a living these days and 'because it might come in handy' isn't a good enough reason to spend the money and lose earning / family building years.

People should only do masters and PhDs a) because they want to work in a specific career that requires a masters / PhD; or b) purely for the love of it.
posted by kitcat at 3:08 PM on May 3, 2010 [5 favorites]

In some fields, having a Ph.D. can actually be a negative trait. (The assumption becomes that you're an academic who won't be able to function in the "real" business world; you'll be more interested in examining problems than in solving them, etc. And I must say that the couple of computer science Ph.Ds I've worked with very much reinforced this stereotype.)

Of course, the way you phrased this question pretty much demands the answer you wanted in the first place: of course it's "possible to make a living" without a masters degree. It's possible to make a living with no degree at all.) If you want to find out whether you should get a masters degree, you'll have to first decide what you want to be when you grow up, because it really depends on the field.
posted by ook at 3:09 PM on May 3, 2010

Some people manage to survive in life going to trade schools, getting only Associates degrees, and sometimes even having no degree at all!

There are routes to success outside of college, college and more college.
posted by schroedinger at 3:09 PM on May 3, 2010

It depends hugely on what kinds of things you want to do. Get the advanced degrees because you want to work in those fields. There's no point in getting an MA or (worse) PhD in a field you don't know if you'll like. Waste of time and money.

Agreed! If you need career or professional preparation beyond a bachelor's degree, then that is why you go to grad school. (Although you might get it from an associate's degree; depends.) If you want the fulfillment of various academic advanced degrees in addition to any career preparation it would afford you, that is why you get one. (Both points are apart from funding the thing.)

Success isn't about getting the bestest job with the mostest prestige; it's about being happy with your life. And I've met guys living in vans who were happier than guys with six figure incomes. No, you don't need a Masters degree to be a success, any more than you need to be, say, blonde to be attractive. It's a niche. There are many. Find yours.

Yes. I'm a 52-year-old blonde with a still relatively new master's in --- journalism! HaHaHa!!

Regardless of the industry and my age, I am still better off and more employable WITH it. The greatest single life enhancing thing -- financial, career, and personal -- I could've done was to have gotten a master's or professional degree a long, long time ago. But that's me.

In the end, it just depends on what you'd like to do as a career and your ability to fund it.
posted by jgirl at 3:19 PM on May 3, 2010

If you choose a field that requires a graduate degree, then you will need a graduate degree (obviously). However, simply having a Masters degree doesn't necessarily do you any good. I know several people who paid for (sometimes expensive) Masters degrees that they never ended up using or needing professionally.

I graduated a few years ago with a BA in Art History. Until recently I sort of shrugged and blushed when I mentioned my undergrad degree--as if potential employers expected me to apologize for my frivolous choice of major--but I've realized that that does me no good. Don't think of your liberal arts undergrad degree as something that will hinder you: a BA is sufficient for many things, whether it's in chemistry or religious studies. You may not be utterly thrilled with every job you take out of college, but you will be qualified for many different jobs. A liberal arts BA can be a good start if you don't have a clear sense of your career plans--you practice thinking and writing critically, engaging your mind with a wide range of topics rather than focusing exclusively on one type of professional training--and, particularly if you have some work experience (an on-campus job, an internship, something where you have to act somewhat professional), you emerge from your undergrad years ready to try on different professional personas until you find one that fits. The first job you take might not be the field you stay in, or it might take a year or more of working in one job before the opportunity you really want opens up. But you won't starve, and you'll very likely be better off for having explored different options rather than shunting yourself into one professional path by going from BA to Masters to PhD in something you're not even sure you want to make a professional life in.

And, moreover, if later on you do decide that you would like to pursue a field that requires graduate degrees for advancement, many employers offer tuition reimbursement (ex. a former employer's research department reimbursed tuition for MLIS programs so that employees could complete a library degree and become corporate librarians).

Feel free to MeMail me if you'd like.
posted by Meg_Murry at 3:19 PM on May 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

I have a PhD, I have PhD students and I know lots of people with PhDs and who supervise PhD students. The common advice is only do a PhD if *you* want to do one and are deeply interested in a particular topic. PhDs are a huge undertaking, they require a long term commitment, are underpaid and offer only long term benefit rather than immediate payment, and if its something you're not interested in it can be difficult to maintain your motivation.

Your best bet is to figure out what you want to do, which can be easier said than done! This is pretty much the same problem most younger people have, many of the graduates I know are in the same position, still more those thinking of college (It took me until my mid-20s). Once you have done that then you can figure out whether a Masters will be a worthwhile investment of your time and money.
posted by biffa at 3:22 PM on May 3, 2010

Best answer: There are routes to success outside of college, college and more college.

There are even different kinds of success. Define success for your own self, according to your own desires and urges, and then act accordingly. Also, love your mother even if you do not heed her.
posted by carsonb at 3:23 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

What others have said. (Also, don't bother getting a Masters AND a PhD, just get the PhD if that's what you want.)

I do have a MA (Philosophy - completely outside my field and totally worthless career-wise) but I've made my way in my career on my undergraduate degree (anthropology/archaeology) just fine. Better, in some ways, than colleagues who do have their grad degree. I get to do the fun stuff and thankfully leave the 'business' of my profession to those with more letters after their name.

A PhD program is a pretty serious academic endeavor. Masters degrees are really more like paying your dues to your profession - you learn to research, you learn to write, you learn to kiss your advisors' asses, and you may or may not ever use what your thesis was about ever again in your life. But you have the degree.
posted by elendil71 at 3:24 PM on May 3, 2010

I (BA in philosophy) make more money than a lot of the PhDs I know.

Me too.

Graduate degrees can be a ticket to a higher paycheque later in life, but there's some pitfalls to going straight up the Bachelors/Masters/PhD ladder, especially in the humanities.

First, graduate degrees in the humanities are largely useless unless you're going into a academia with them. I have a friend who went all the way to a tenured position as a philosophy professor this way, and it worked, but it worked for him because he was always cut out to be an academic, and recognized early on the sort of academic zealotry it takes to get there, especially in as crowded a field as humanities. If you weren't born to be a college professor, it's not likely you'll get there. It's a freakishly competitive area.

Second, you likely don't really know now what you want to be doing when you're forty, so the investment of several years at least, and tens of thousands of dollars, is premature. Get your BA, get a job, try some things out, and then plan to get a Master's and possibly a PhD in a field in which you have a good idea that you want it, and it will be paid back. My wife got her Master's in education after teaching for several years, and got a bump of about $8k a year for doing so. That's the safer way to pursue graduate education.

Third, a PhD is a huge commitment, and there's a lot of askmes here from PhD candidates who are regretting it--they're burnt out, they hate their field, they don't want to teach afterwards. A PhD is no guarantee of employment, but it's a hell of a commitment. Don't do it without being pretty sure you want to.

Fourth, you might want to get a different graduate degree than your field if you choose a general profession. A humanities degree is a fine pre-law degree, or as a lead-in to an MBA. You can even jump to other areas that have direct-entry Masters programs, like Computer Science.

I have a BFA in printmaking and a BA in philosophy. Now I make a lot of money as a web developer. I'd never have imagined myself here, and if I'd stayed in school with a rigid plan, likely wouldn't have gotten here.
posted by fatbird at 3:30 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

A liberal arts BA can be a good start if you don't have a clear sense of your career plans--you practice thinking and writing critically, engaging your mind with a wide range of topics rather than focusing exclusively on one type of professional training

This. I double majored (Anthropology and Math) and I swear, in every interview I've ever been in people have been far more interested in the Anthropology than the Math. And this is in interviews for analytical roles (eg consultant, analyst). The key is being able to frame it as Meg_Murry suggests above - a way that you learned to think critically about the work.

And, on that note as anecdata, I don't have a masters, just a BA from a liberal arts school, and I make a very, very decent living. Probably I make way more than I am qualified to make (I make more two years out of college than my partner makes two years out of business school). I may eventually go back to school, but I suspect it will be to learn and not to "increase earning potential."
posted by CharlieSue at 3:31 PM on May 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

Probably not that relevant to a humanities degree, but since others brought it up... I've found the extra training I got during my MS in computer science to be phenomenally useful, so much that I really couldn't be doing most of what I am now without it. The extra work required for a PhD has not been all that useful from an employability standpoint, but it's interesting so I've stuck with it. I hope I don't end up shoehorned into the "academic" stereotype because of it!
posted by miyabo at 3:36 PM on May 3, 2010

I have a Masters (MSc, but if I got in North America it would be an MA) in Politics, and I've found it the credential to be a slight advantage in getting my public service (analyst-type) job. However, the biggest impact to getting a good job after graduating was participating in my university's co-op program when I was getting my undergraduate degree. If your uni doesn't have co-op, try finding internship (preferably paid, but I know more and more organizations are cheaping out on this, which I find reprehensible, but that's OT).

Get a masters degree if: a) you're fully funded (it's a great way to ride out the recession if you're funded) or b) you're madly passionate about your subject. In fact, I'd guess that if you're not even somewhat passionate about your subject, you're going to have a helluva time completing the application, particularly for research-based programs (as opposed to taught masters, but even with a taught (or course-based) masters, I had to submit a research proposal about my dissertation, which would have been impossible for me to do if I wasn't madly and naively passionate about democratic legitimacy and electoral reform).

Everyone I know who's a PhD is a Professor or on a career track leading towards becoming one. I know there's other reasons to get a PhD, but this seems to be the main group who universally *need* one.

But to really get value (existential and career-wise) you need to give a crap about what you're planning to study, which you won't if you're just phoning it in, in order to get a credential. If you're going to work on something you only sort of care about, you should at least get paid for it, y'know?
posted by Kurichina at 3:41 PM on May 3, 2010

You don't need a Master's to get a job, but you may eventually seek one to stay competitive within the upper levels of your field. But in that case, you (hopefully) are taking advantage of an education credit from your employer for a professional/exec master's program.

I just have a BA, I'm doing pretty well in the non-profit/association arena.
posted by desuetude at 3:56 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

As another data point, I've been a working software developer for 11 (12? I forget) years with a BA in music.

My mother wants me to get a Masters and eventually a PhD--especially since I'm a liberal arts major.

Seriously, this is totally backwards. You don't get a Master's degree "just cause" you're a liberal arts major. I would go so far as to argue that we probably shouldn't even be getting Bachelor's degrees "just cause," but that's because I have strong opinions on education. However, to be fair, there are a lot of jobs that treat a liberal arts BA as the baseline, which is not true for a Master's degree.

But--there are also plenty of fields where possessing a Master's or higher is expected to work at a certain level. If you've gotten one of those degrees, then presumably you didn't just go get some random master's degree, but knew what you wanted to do and went after it. Other than, perhaps, MBAs, I rarely hear of people getting into grad school just 'cause it'll pump up their paycheck or make their resume look nicer.

Success is defined by figuring out what your goals are and then achieving them. Degrees may or may not be a part of what success means to you, but by themselves, they are pointless. Don't confuse these symbols with the thing itself.


I've scanned a lot of education questions on Ask Metafilter and it seems like so many users have Masters degrees...are there any who just have their Bachelors?

I don't know where you got that idea. I've seen all types of folks on MetaFilter, and if there is anything I see in common it is a certain level of interest in the world and intelligence (qualities that I believe have direct relationships to each other and are also better predictors for success than any paper on the wall).

Methinks this may be confirmation bias. But I dunno, maybe I'm the one who is biased.
posted by dubitable at 4:05 PM on May 3, 2010

My mother wants me to get a Masters and eventually a PhD

My mother wanted me (pleaded with me) to get a PhD for really superficial reasons. She also wanted me, at one point, to marry a doctor and drive around in an Escalade and shop, based on what she saw rich trophy wives on American reality TV shows do. At another point, she wanted me to be an anchorwoman because she thought it would be fun to be young, have a cute hairstyle, and look pretty on television. She's not dumb, she's just fun-loving and loved imagining my life out for me and she'd get very excited by the whole idea because she loved me.

Moms who say "Get a PhD!" are not thinking critically about the advice they are giving; it's their way of saying they want you to be successful at something and well-respected. Unless she said, "Get a PhD in Finance or Accounting or Nuclear Physics so you can do x,y,z" or something like that, she hasn't really thought this advice through and I don't think you should listen to her.

In her day, being a PhD meant you were a success and had stability. In our day, being a PhD in a field that does not make money means that you get started on getting a salary later in life with no guarantee that you'll get a teaching job. Most universities are hiring adjuncts. Depending on what you do, you could work at a think tank or research firm, but it really depends on what you get a PhD in and what kind of quantitative skills you get from your PhD course.
posted by anniecat at 4:06 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

a) The only good reason to get an advanced degree is if it's required to get the kind of job that you want. The vast majority of jobs do not require any sort of graduate school. (and shouldn't!)

b) What does your mother have to do with anything? This is your education, your career, and your life. Plan according to what you want, not what others want for you.
posted by chrisamiller at 4:18 PM on May 3, 2010

Response by poster: Does your mom have a PhD? Did she perhaps not make it all the way?

She's a doctor, actually. I guess I should mention that my mother is an immigrant who grew up in a poor family...hence her well-intentioned, but ill-informed ideas about what my path should be after graduation.

Thanks for all the responses, everyone. I'm surprised at the number of replies thus far.
posted by AndGee at 4:28 PM on May 3, 2010

Is a Masters degree necessary for success in life?


Is a Masters degree necessary for success in my career (FTFY)

Are you going to be a teacher, doctor, engineer or lawyer?

If yes: Yes
If no: No

I have a BS and an MFA in the same field. While I'd like to think that those student loans were worth something, after working in the industry for more than a decade, survey says, "No." In fact, the time I spent in school when I wasn't interning, working, apprenticing, doing, building a reputation, creating a portfolio or networking has set me back a bit. Also, I tend to overstrategize and overthink in ways that people who haven't had too much school don't do.

On a related, albeit humorous, take on it: McSweeney's
posted by Gucky at 4:37 PM on May 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

No one should get a Master's unless they want to learn more about the subject matter. It's expensive (unless you're one of the lucky folks who manage to get it funded) and often times not immediately applicable to any kind of salary advantage (although I know there are exceptions w/ MBAs, education degrees, and probably others).

The more people who do Master's degrees out of some sense of educational obligation or concern that their education isn't sufficient to get them a good job, the more Master's programs will become watered down by people who don't really want to be there. This is not good for anyone.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 4:39 PM on May 3, 2010

I didn't finish my bachelor's degree and I don't think I know anyone who is happier than I am. I'm 30.
posted by 256 at 4:51 PM on May 3, 2010

Getting a master's degree in liberal arts is not only unnecessary, it's a bad idea unless you need it for the job you're interested in or you just like school that much. The last analysis I looked it -- sorry I can't seem to find the link now -- showed that those with graduate degrees in liberal arts make, on average, less than those with only BAs once you factor in the cost of education.

You can make a living without a college degree whatsoever, or even without a high school degree, just less comfortably, so don't go running after degrees thinking you're going to be homeless or something if you don't.
posted by Nattie at 4:55 PM on May 3, 2010

The fact that your mother is an immigrant might be coloring her opinion of PhDs. I remember my mentor in college -- a musicologist -- telling me that (in the '70s & '80s) he would make it a point when traveling in Europe to make reservations as "Dr. X" rather than "Mr. X", because he often got the royal treatment.

Apparently there are still countries that value education.

As others have said, I wouldn't recommend a liberal arts PhD unless you're gunning for a university professorship (which you probably won't get).
posted by coolguymichael at 5:27 PM on May 3, 2010

A masters degree can open some doors, and can increase your pay in some professions. If you have a scholarship for a masters, it's a good time investment.

A PhD will NOT increase your earning potential or improve your job prospects over a masters. It could REDUCE your earning potential.

/yes, I am a PhD student, but I definitely didn't go into it for the job prospects.
posted by jb at 5:29 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Is your mom offering to pay? Because that makes a masters look a lot more attractive!

I got a masters as a sidenote while working on my JD. I don't do anything with it. It just sits there and looks pretty. (Actually, it sits in a box under a bunch of other stuff, so I don't even know if it's looking pretty or just feeling squished.)

If I were going to get an advanced degree just for the sake of getting an advanced degree, I'd be a lot more inclined to look at JDs or MBAs, which make you more "employable." But I don't think you should get an advanced degree just to get one; you should get one either because you need it for your preferred employment (my JD) or because you really love the topic (my masters) AND YOU CAN AFFORD IT (scholarship, in my case, but I knew a dude who at 50 said, "I love history, my kids are in college, I am going back to school and doing an MA in history, dammit, instead of buying a midlife crisis car!" and did it).
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:50 PM on May 3, 2010

I'm a college student, and I'm wondering if it's possible to make a living (i.e., not rolling in money, obviously, but earning enough to support yourself and cover the basics--food, clothing, etc.) without a Masters degree

Um, yes. Less than 10% of Americans have a graduate degree-- obviously a good share of the other 90% of us are doing fine for ourselves as well. Only a little more than a quarter of Americans even have a bachelor's degree.

Bachelor's degree holders earned $51,000 on average in 2004. Even on the low end of this list of salaries by major, starting salaries are over $30,000 and almost all mid-career salaries are over $50,000. The National Association of Colleges and Employers says new graduates with liberal arts degrees were offered starting salaries of $36,807 on average in 2009. That is plenty to live comfortably on unless you're supporting a large family on your income alone (or are in a really high-cost area, but those numbers are national averages and in higher cost areas I'm sure the starting salaries start higher.)

Look, I don't think it's very helpful for you (or your mom) to think about "a Master's degree" or "a PhD" in the abstract, in isolation from what you actually end up wanting to do, what qualifications you'll need to do what you want to do, the kind of salaries you'll have available to you, etc. It doesn't really make sense to say "I should get a Master's degree" and then try to figure out "hmm, what should I get a Master's in?" It seems to me like it only really makes sense once you're to the point where you're thinking "I need a Master's/PhD in X because that's important to the career I want."
posted by EmilyClimbs at 6:20 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have had a PhD for a couple of years now. None of my friends from highschool got any sort of graduate qualifications, and in our mid 30s, I'm pretty sure all of them earn significantly more than me. This doesn't worry me in the least.

I did a PhD because I was passionate about the topic, and loved (nearly) every minute of it. I'm also a professional researcher these days, which is a job that requires high level research skills. Most jobs outside academia don't require the sort of skills you only tend to get in a PhD, and if you're not interested in going into one of those jobs, there is little point in expending the effort to get one.

Personally I have no idea what advantage a masters will give you in the way of job hunting, but I concur with others up-thread who suggest working for a bit before doing one. Spend some time working out what you enjoy or want to do, then work out whether some sort of graduate qualification will assist that.

FWIW, it took me a four-year degree to work out I didn't actually enjoy the discipline I was studying in. And, to be perfectly honest, I'm still not sure what I want to do when I "grow up" :-)
posted by damonism at 6:46 PM on May 3, 2010

Get a job. Just a basic, no-frills job. Retail, maybe

Erm, no, try to get a good job (i.e. not retail) with some stimulation besides the ringing of a register and the touch of a fleece pullover. Retail should be the fallback plan. The rest of The Otter Lady's point is valid, though. I'd add, also, that I've met more than a few PhD with very limited job prospects. I also agree with many of the answers, i.e. that a few years of life experience will really make you understand if you want/need an advanced degree.

Datapoint: I didn't get even my first (bachelor's) degree until my late 30s, and I'm just making a little more than I did before I got that degree. Lastly, I've loved both of my careers, and this 2nd one appears to have more earnings potential in the long run -- but ask me at the beginning of FY2011 how that's worked out :)
posted by Lukenlogs at 7:09 PM on May 3, 2010

Advanced degrees in humanities subjects are mostly only for people who intend to have jobs in academia (ie, to be professors). There are some exceptions, like museum work, etc.

When you graduate with a humanities degree, you should go out into the big wide world, find a job, work for a while, maybe change jobs a few times, until you have a sense of what you would like to do. Then you'll be in a position to see whether a master's would help you get the job you want. At that time, you can go back to school. You may find it uncomfortable when you first get out because you won't be immediately qualified for anything but lower-end jobs (eg if you were going to be an editor, you would start out at the bottom of the totem pole). That is okay, and you'll probably need to put in some time learning the ropes, building your skills, finding out what you like and don't like in the job, and -- importantly -- building your network of connections to other people in the industry. Those are the things that will eventually get you into a job you really like. Notice that all those things are non-school things. You may find that school later has a role to play, but in most cases it's the non-school things (skills, connections to people) that will get you that job.

In general it's not a good economic bet to get a humanities master's without knowing what you're going to do with it, in the way it might be a good economic bet to get a degree that directly qualifies you for some profession or trade (like being a dental hygienist etc). Humanities master's degrees are good if you really love your work in the humanities and can afford it (sounds like you don't love it like this), or if you want to be a professor and need to improve your applications to PhD programs, or if you have a definite job in mind where you need a master's to get that job.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:28 PM on May 3, 2010

Anecdotally, I've heard from various managerial / executive types that:

* They don't have a great deal of respect for Masters done straight on the back of undergrad. That is, it doesn't hurt to have one, but it doesn't benefit you much either.

* Masters degrees are best suited for people who've been in the workforce for some time, and are wanting to hone their knowledge in a certain area, or want to get a background in a new area.

* Overall, Masters degrees are less about detailed expertise than they are about general background knowledge about the subject matter.

In my own experience, I got a Masters, but that was because I ended up working in a completely different field to my undergrad, felt like a formal qualification would improve my standing in that field, had been working in that field for a few years before even starting the course, and my work was paying for it anyway.

I felt that when the course touched on things within my working experience (eg Project Mgt), the teaching was *very* generalistic & high level, lacking in any kind of serious detail or subtlety. I assume that when topics outside of my experience were covered, they would've been similarly glossing along at a high level.

Observing my coursemates, it seemed blindingly obvious that the students who had gone straight into the course from undergrad were completely lacking in the real-life experience that would give them the context to make sense of a lot of the material. They could talk the talk OK, but you could tell deep down that they really didn't know or properly understand what they were talking about.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:31 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

* They don't have a great deal of respect for Masters done straight on the back of undergrad. That is, it doesn't hurt to have one, but it doesn't benefit you much either.

Seconded. That person, applying for what is (in my company) a challenging but essentially entry-level job, invariably feels under-appreciated and underpaid from the get-go. Meanwhile, they do make a bit more than their non-masters-degree-holding peers, even though they have similar amounts of work experience.

So, among my favorite colleagues are these bright, motivated, fundamentally unfulfilled people working at a level that they consider beneath them. They're so not going to stay put for more than a year. We have a goodbye happy hour, I keep them as friends, but it never works out professionally.
posted by desuetude at 8:27 PM on May 3, 2010

I'd look at it this way. Based on your college performance, do you think you'd have a shot at getting into a PhD program where you would be given teaching duties, health insurance, and paid a reasonable amount to live on? (In the humanities I wouldn't expect more that 15K/year but hey, if you're young and un-attached this is doable. And there are always part-time jobs, especially through your department re: grading, editing, academic advising.)

How do you think you'd do on the GRE? Did you have much success on the SAT?

Are you willing to seriously put together a set of graduate school applications, which includes getting recommendation letters from former professors (at least two, maybe three, per school?).

Did you have a high GPA?

My larger point is, don't take on a single penny of debt to get an MA or PhD these days. It's simply not worth it. Better to get your foot in the door with a company or organization that you could see yourself working with for ten years. However, it might be worth your while to jump through all the hoops and see what graduate school programs would actually pay to have you. Pay to have you. There are a number of MA humanities programs that are basically cash-cows. You pay full freight with a promise of getting into a PhD program down the road. And it's total horse-shit. Don't do it.

In my case I was accepted into a PhD program and dropped out with only my MA. But, I got teaching experience at a highly regarded university (and not just as an assistant, but actually put together a portfolio of my own courses taught), worked part-time editing the most widely recognized literary anthology of its kind in America/England including having my name printed in the acknowledgments, worked part-time writing for various magazines and journals that I never would have encountered otherwise (i.e., being a penniless graduate student who was desperate to have someone pay me to write things), and a few other ancillary perks.

Your mom sounds like she wants what's best for you. But I'd suggest to her that the era of "prestige" degrees is dead and gone. Sure, any advanced degree looks nice on a resume but you have to ask yourself -- is it worth it in the long run, when I could actually be working for the company or in the field that I want to be involved in?

And on top of all that, an MA has been very helpful in putting me where I want to be as of late but, QED, I'm a teacher. I'm in a professional world where "name brand" degrees by themselves will help you out. The number of fields like this are dwindling.
posted by bardic at 8:42 PM on May 3, 2010

No. But don't just expect your degree to land you a good job. Intern, network, and build your skills and resume while you are a student. You're entering a competitive job market. And this competitive job market has seen a lot of overeducated, underexperienced candidates. (I am one.)

I like what bardic has said about the cost of higher education today. That's a very important factor. Right now pursuing another degree blindly is actually a terrible investment to make in a vacuum. If there is something that pushes you in that direction in terms of professional development, great. But if you're just trying to find something to do to give you an edge? Holy hell no! Learn C++, take a French class, learn how to work magic in Excel, or memorize the acronyms for every government agency in your state. Knowing how to be useful to an employer is going to be your ticket to financial success today. And you probably aren't going to find that in a graduate program.
posted by greekphilosophy at 9:39 PM on May 3, 2010

Absolutely not.

That said, you're likely underestimating yourself in your ability to do well in grad school - both at a masters and PhD level.

That said, since you don't know exactly what you want to do your graduate degree in, you're likely not going to be happy/successful. In general, people who are happy and successful in grad school are those who know (pretty much) what they want to accomplish in grad school and know (pretty much) exactly what they will do with that graduate degree.

Anecdata - >75% of my highschool friends* never even made it through college/undergrad or even tried. >95% if of my highschool friends currently make more money than I do. >75% of my highschool friends will have a higher lifetime earning potential than I do.

I have no idea what percent are happier than I am (having gotten a BA, an MSc, and on the tail end of earning a PhD... albeit, not in the humanities), but I'm guessing >95%.

Anecdote - good friend in college wanted to go the medical school (similar, but different than grad school - different in that there's pretty much a guarantee of work, reasonably paying work for the amount of time tendered, afterward; what do you call the person at the bottom of the graduating medical class? Dr.) but ... didn't. Ended up being a paralegal. Leading a great life, reasonably interesting job, making good money with very little stress. Loves, absolutely loves, the path they chose.

*these are friends - not my highschool class - these were my peers, and people I still keep in touch with today, more or less, a degree of separation mavbe
posted by porpoise at 10:11 PM on May 3, 2010

Erm, no, try to get a good job (i.e. not retail)
Which would defeat the purpose of having him learn that even people in GASP EW HORROR FALLBACK -retail- jobs are still people who have value and success, even if they don't have a Master's degree. And that an 'average' life isn't really that bad. Compared with some alternatives.
posted by The otter lady at 12:06 AM on May 4, 2010

I was earning over $100K in the civil service before I got any tertiary qualifications. I am a high school and college drop-out. I did a couple of Masters because I thought the subject matter was interesting, not because I had to, and because my employer paid all my course fees and gave me paid time off to study.

My Masters lectures are full of people like me - a secret club of really successful people hiding AN AWFUL TRUTH - we didn't do stuff like PO303 Gender Politics Among Lesbian Czech Basket Weavers During The Renaissance or ENG205 Dual NOR-AND Flip Flop Gates. We got jobs, we worked hard, we were good, we got promoted, and promoted, and promoted, and now our employers pay us to go get Masters degrees if we feel like it.

When we're at work, we manage people who, on paper, are vastly more qualified than we are. (I have a hypothesis that tertiary education giving some people a sense of entitlement, while people like me are afraid of being labelled as frauds. As a result, the uni guys coast, while us drop outs work our arses off to prove our worth. It's probably some sort of bias. Anyways.)

But there are even more people who are just insanely successful and never bother to get any sort of postgrad qualifications. I know a civil servant on well over $200K who did undergrad law for shits and giggles, not because he needed to. He was getting $150K+ before he did.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 1:39 AM on May 4, 2010

Dropped out of art school with a half complete BA and have enjoyed professional success as a multimedia/motion graphics/interactive artist for 16 years. My unlettered status has never come up in a job interview, and while a BA wouldn't hurt, at this point my reel/portfolio and experience carry more weight than a degree would.
posted by Scoo at 7:03 AM on May 4, 2010

After going to grad school (MA) for no good reason, I belatedly came up with this simple rule for deciding whether to go to grad school. You should go if either of the following is true:
1. You have a very specific career goal in mind and are very clear that this grad program will help you get a job or advance in that career. In my experience grad school is not a good place to figure out what you want to do.

2. You just really enjoy school and want to go back, and can afford it.

If neither of these is true (I discovered half way through that neither really was for me), then don't go. I make good money now and it is completely unrelated to my graduate degree. If anything, 2 extra years of work experience, rather than having spent 2 years in grad school, would be more helpful in terms of salary.

Good luck.
posted by stewieandthedude at 9:55 AM on May 4, 2010

Another data point - i live extremely comfortably as a print production designer and dropped out of art college.
posted by Windigo at 10:51 AM on May 4, 2010

I have a Master's in psychology. I went to grad school since the economy wasn't so great and I likely would not be offered a job after graduation. Psychology interested me and I vaguely thought I might work in the field.

I never ended up working in the field for a variety of reasons. The degree has not helped me at all in my career - corporate marketing/web development. I didn't get this job because of the degree and in some ways, I feel limited by a degree. In interviews, I invariably get a surprised questions about why I don't work in psychology when I have a Master's degree in it. I also feel like I am sometimes brushed aside because employers assume I am not serious about working outside the field.

I enjoyed grad school, but don't recommend it if your reason is to make more money. If I had to do it over, I would have probably just starting looking for a job after undergrad. I think I would be in a better position financially if I had not gone to grad school.

Anecdotally, among my friends, I've found some of the most successful were high school drop-outs.
posted by parakeetdog at 12:52 PM on May 4, 2010

I live comfortably with a BS (love that abbreviation) and BSN (a BS in nursing). I work with people who have associates degrees who earn just slightly less than me, although their opportunities for advancement are more limited than mine. My SO lives comfortably having finished a short program at a technical school, but actually made more money at his previous job when he was just a college dropout. Few of my high school friends went to college right after graduation, and they have all done just fine. The two people I know who have/are getting masters: one just totally loves the field of study and the other wanted a specific career that required a masters.
posted by missanissa at 2:37 PM on May 4, 2010

Is a Masters degree necessary for success in life?


I work in scientific field. In my industry, master degree is useless. The extra two years spend in school will be much better served working to gain experience. People with Ph.D. could potentially earn more money, but there are fewer jobs available.

The academic field it is even more depressing.

According to Philip Greenspun

The average trajectory for a successful scientist is the following:

1. age 18-22: paying high tuition fees at an undergraduate college
2. age 22-30: graduate school, possibly with a bit of work, living on a stipend of $1800 per month
3. age 30-35: working as a post-doc for $30,000 to $35,000 per year
4. age 36-43: professor at a good, but not great, university for $65,000 per year
5. age 44: with (if lucky) young children at home, fired by the university ("denied tenure" is the more polite term for the folks that universities discard), begins searching for a job in a market where employers primarily wish to hire folks in their early 30s

I also spoken with some engineers, most of them also agreed master degree in engineering is useless.

That DOES NOT mean all master degrees are useless! It really depend on the field you are trying to get into. Only get graduate degree if it's something you absolutely love or your industry requires it.
posted by Carius at 6:18 PM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

« Older How to make my electric guitar sound more...   |   How do I support my friend who is scheduled for an... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.