Is a nearly free masters degree worth it?
August 15, 2012 1:33 PM   Subscribe

Can get a bioinformatics masters degree for nearly free - should I do it?

I have a job that I enjoy and that pays well. I have no plans to leave anytime soon. As part of my benefit package, I can take classes at the college where I work, basically for free. Complicating factors: I am at a remote campus, so I really only have the choice of online classes (limited) and while the classes are free, I do have to pay taxes on the amount, which will end up being around $2000 a year that is automatically taken out of my paycheck over 2 months. I applied to a Master of Engineering program with a specialization in Bioinformatics and have taken 2 classes so far. My question is, is this worth my time and money? It looks like to get any sort of job in the field, I would need a PhD, which I would have to quit my job to get and don't particularly want. I started the program "for fun" and because it was basically free, but now I'm wondering if it's worth it. It's interesting material, but I'm not sure if the time and money are worth it. Basically, all I will have after 3 years is a piece of paper. I am open to looking for a job in this field after I get my degree but everything I've seen requires a PhD. There are no other online programs that interest me. Basically, is having a masters degree worth it?
posted by sunshine37 to Education (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Well, if you're not planning to ever get the PhD, why would you spend two grand a degree you can't use? Is there any benefit for you, outside of personal enrichment?
posted by griphus at 1:36 PM on August 15, 2012

My husband works for a research organization that is desperate to hire people with master's degrees in bioinformatics. It will definitely enhance your employability.

Or if you want to stay working in academia, having a master's in anything puts you higher on a salary scale. I would totally do it.

The tax estimate seems high to me. You know the first $5,250 of employer-paid tuition is tax-free if your employer has an educational assistance program, yes? As a college, they should.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:44 PM on August 15, 2012 [5 favorites]

while the classes are free, I do have to pay taxes on the amount, which will end up being around $2000 a year that is automatically taken out of my paycheck over 2 months

I have never heard of such a thing as it relates to employer-paid tuition. However:

is having a masters degree worth it?

This is impossible to say without knowing your career plans and what you do for a living, but in a lot of the sciences and engineering, if you're going to stay in universities, government, or other "giant lab" jobs, it is expected that you should have a Master's degree eventually. And preferably sooner rather than later. I have seen people mid-career get screwed because of this. Though IMHO, these "Master's degrees for working professionals" programs aren't at the same level of academic quality as a full-time, research-based program is.
posted by deanc at 1:49 PM on August 15, 2012

What? No you don't need a PhD to get a job in bioinformatics, even in academia. Bioinformatics is a very saleable skill, worth more than "a piece of paper". Go for it.
posted by tel3path at 1:58 PM on August 15, 2012 [5 favorites]

I did this very same thing while working at Penn and I landed a programming job not long after. It was tough working and studying at the same time, and the tax hit on the second semester was a bit heavy on a non-profit salary, but it was worth it. The key, I think, is to work on getting some lab experience while you progress through the program, so make friends with researchers and work on projects. PhDs are overrated and worth it only to get a professorship or run a research lab, which is impossible even with a doctorate, but scientific programmers are always in demand. Feel free to memail me any questions about my experience.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:14 PM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, and you should know that part of the tax hit is recoverable when you file your taxes in April. You won't get back everything, but you'll get back some, depending on your income.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:17 PM on August 15, 2012

There are LOTS of jobs for those with bioinformatics masters degrees. Since it is so cheap...go for it.
posted by rockindata at 2:24 PM on August 15, 2012

I am a working bioinformaticist with just a masters degree (in a related field, but not bioinformatics, since I started doing it before bioinformatics since before it was even a thing). Right now, a masters degree will get you in the door and get you interviews in a ton of places. Whether or not it gets you beyond those interviews and gets you a job is another story. Getting the degree and being able to do the work are two different things, and there seems to be a number of people who have the degree who don't really know what they're doing.

Look for a degree that's going to complement the training you already have. If you're coming at this from a CS background, you'll want a program that's heavy on biology (or vice-versa). A program that heavily emphasizes statistics would be a plus -- that's something that a lot of biologists are weak on and are looking for help with. Also note that there are two major focuses in bioinformatics now: proteomics and genomics. Both look equally good as far as current opportunities, but they're somewhat mutually exclusive. In my opinion, a masters program really only gives you enough time to get good at one.
posted by penguinicity at 2:37 PM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

Sort-of-previously. Talks about engineering masters programs. It really seems like in any industry, there are positions for whatever sort of degree you have. (Availability is another question entirely.)

How related is it to your current job? You may even be able to get the entire amount of the benefit tax back, as this other question suggests. If not, per BP, you'll still get a bit.
posted by supercres at 2:39 PM on August 15, 2012

I'd do it. As someone who has hired people for bioinformatics jobs, no, a PhD is not required, and yes, a master's degree will help you or even be required in some cases, assuming that the school is reasonably reputable.
posted by grouse at 2:51 PM on August 15, 2012

Thanks so much everyone! Looks like it might be worth it. It is not related at all to my current job (budget/finance administrator). My undergrad degree is in Statistics.
posted by sunshine37 at 2:57 PM on August 15, 2012

Definitely do it. Go to the Bay Area and become a freelance bioinformaticist. Of all biology skills, this is among the most viable.
posted by garuda at 3:14 PM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

My undergrad degree is in Statistics.

Statistics are central to bioinformatics. I suspect you'll be far ahead of many other students in your program. Have fun!
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:17 PM on August 15, 2012

Bioinformatics is a huge field, continuing to grow, and everything I've heard about the sciences right now indicates unless you are planning on running your own lab or going into academia a master's is perfect. In fact, in many places there is more demand for master's degrees over PhDs, as PhDs are considered over-qualified for most of the positions that are open.
posted by schroedinger at 8:06 PM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

sunshine37, a statistics/bioinformatics combo sounds really strong. I would sooooooo go for it. State and federal health agencies, think tanks and research organizations, and university administrations are all looking for people in this category.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:18 PM on August 15, 2012

Yeah, you'll have an undergrad in statistics and a master's in bioinformatics? Send me your CV when you're getting close to graduation.
posted by grouse at 9:31 PM on August 15, 2012

How is your background in computing? Most bioinformatics programs either take a person with a bio background and teach them computing or take a computer programmer and teach them the basics of molecular biology, including lab work. If you have neither this may be a struggle. However, for $2K, some of which is recoverable, if it is a reputable program, I'd say go for it. If it's a "for profit" school, I'd dig into the specifics more carefully or you could find yourself spending a lot of effort for little value.
posted by BillW at 7:21 AM on August 19, 2012

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