Information about the "best" Masters degree to get?
February 3, 2014 8:41 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking to make a career change and I'm carefully considering which Master's degree is least likely to leave me unemployed and with (more) debt. I know there are websites out there suggesting the best degrees to get, and I know it depends on personal interest, but I'm interested in finding s reputable information source on what degrees are (and aren't) likely to work out well for me. Thanks!
posted by Fister Roboto to Education (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Do you mean best in terms of future job prospects?

Or best in terms of matching up with your strengths/interests?

Or something else?
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:54 PM on February 3, 2014

I'm not sure we can answer this question without more information from you. I took a quick look at your profile and previous questions, and there isn't much to go on. So:

1. How old are you?

2. What do you do now? (Disregard if you plan to do something completely, 100% unrelated, and you're sure that any training and experience you have already will be moot)

1. What was your undergraduate degree? Do you already have a master's degree or other postgrad education? Most degrees which will offer a reasonable cost/return ratio will be competitive, and we need to know where you will be a realistic candidate.

2. Are you only interested in professional master's programs (most generally, a degree which is required for licensure before you can practice a profession), or are you looking at academic programs as well? By specifying "master's degrees" are you intentionally excluding non-master's granting postgraduate professional programs (i.e. MD, JD, DNP, OD, DVM, DDS, PA, various certificate programs, etc.)?
posted by pullayup at 9:12 PM on February 3, 2014

There's a lot involved with such calculations. Let's assume you are American.

I would approach it by getting median/mean salaries by occupation from They also have numbers on the unemployment by occupation. Then, I would use to see how many degrees where granted for that major/occupation by year. I think that would give a good idea of the aggregate size/growth of each occupation category and how many jobs existed and how much those jobs paid and how much competition there was for those jobs.

The debt load could be approximated by picking representative schools and looking up their "cost of attendance" per year for a graduate student. That's the maximum a graduate student can receive in Stafford and Grad Plus loans. The mean/median time to earn a graduate degree is reported by the various schools to the National Science Foundation. That data is included in a larger report that ranks graduate programs by discipline on a variety of factors. Multiply annual cost of attendance by the time to earn that degree to estimate total debt.

So I would say BLS, ED, and NSF are the best sources of information. Then you would need to estimate subsequent earning potential based on your age/location and weigh it against the loss of income plus debt incurred while pursuing the degree.

Good luck!
posted by 99percentfake at 9:41 PM on February 3, 2014

You are asking the wrong question. First figure out the career you want, then research the best route to gain entry to it. If you start with the question of which master's degree to get you are unnecessarily narrowing your choices. Most jobs do not require them, and even those that do are not necessarily welcoming to people with no related experience.
posted by Wordwoman at 10:21 PM on February 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

At the master's level, I am not sure it works like this. I know that there are nursing shortages and that's a good path to take, or that lawyers are being outsourced and that's a crappy path to take, but at the masters level I am not sure it comes down to simple supply and demand as much. The jobs are different at that level and you're also talking about taking on a lot of additional debt. I hate to say it, but if this is how you are going to select a masters, you might not want to go to graduate school at all. It's a very expensive endeavor. You might want to look at your own natural abilities and what you enjoy, and work your way from there eliminating paths. You could just look at salary data, I guess. Like, I guess you could go be an engineer, but what if you suck at math? Who you are needs to come into play.

You also don't need a master's degree to change careers. I have changed careers three times now and I have a bachelor's degree and am paid well. Based on whatever experience you already have, you may be able to pivot elsewhere. I also considered going back to school, specifically for law, but in the three-or-so years I'd be in school spending money, I could just work my way up making money along the way, and end up at the same salary. Three years experience getting paid vs. three years in school not getting paid is something to think about. And since you sound like you have no passions guiding you or dreams laying on the other side of graduate school, it may be more practical too.
posted by AppleTurnover at 10:37 PM on February 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

at the masters level I am not sure it comes down to simple supply and demand as much.

This is excellent advice and you should think about it until it sinks in. There isn't such a thing as a risk-free advanced degree and the "right" and "wrong" ways to enter a profession often depend very much on minutiae. You can't look at the kind of aggregate data provided by the BLS and extrapolate it out into an individual career path, or calculate how quickly you'll earn back the cash you lay out for your education--it's just not granular enough, and too likely to lead you astray. You don't need to decide on a profession before you start digging for information about how to do it right, but you do need to dig in and look at the specifics of any given career.

Do local schools offer the degree you're interested in, and, if not, are you prepared to relocate temporarily? Are you eligible as-is, or do you need to complete prerequisites before applying? If they do offer the degree, is it a well-regarded program with a good job placement rate (don't believe the numbers they feed you)? Are you a competitive candidate for the programs which will get you a job, or will you have to settle for a less well-regarded school? Will the employers still be hiring when you're out? What's the job market look like where you live? Would you need to move, or conduct a nationwide job search? Will you need internships to be a competitive candidate, and are they available where you live? Can you afford to defer gainful employment long enough to complete them? If this is a career that requires a license, what's the local regulatory climate like, and is it likely to change soon?

For instance: I know recently graduated librarians who are doing just fine, but we would never tell you that library school is a safe bet: it very much isn't. Look through some past threads on this topic if you're curious. On the other hand, if you have a few years of experience working in a library, you're comfortable with coding (but maybe not enough to strike out into software development) and you're interested in an MLIS that's heavy on the I and data curation (limiting you to only a few programs nationwide), and your employer can help pay for your degree? Library school could be a slam dunk.
posted by pullayup at 11:02 PM on February 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

The market's so all over the place and moves so quickly that, past blindingly obvious potential missteps, it actually doesn't make sense to rely solely on projections to make a decision like this.

Because the people who can ride out shifts are those who are highly motivated by and engaged with what they do (as well as lucky). I'm not suggesting you follow the dream you had when you were five, but if you're going to invest in a master's and take the associated risks, a surer bet is to go in a direction that's got something to do with you.
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:25 PM on February 3, 2014

First, if you don't possess the skills for a job than who cares. I mean, I don't like and am not good at advanced math. So I've avoided more lucrative fields because lit is not my skillset.

Secondly, all those statistics give a skewed picture. For example the BLS only talks about careers in general for the most part. After talking to people with the advanced schooling I am pursuing (speech pathology) I've found the hospital jobs (who tend to be the highest earners) are very competitive and it's hard to get a full-time position while schools are easier but you make a lot less and it's harder to get purchases approved.

Or think about location. Are you okay with living out in a rural area? A lot of jobs are out there only if you're willing to serve in communities out of the way. It can also just vary from state to state or region to region.

A major disadvantage to getting a professional degree is the cost and debt you are seeking to avoid. You have to hope and work to network so you don't end up crushed by loans. There are no garuntees.

I would avoid getting an advanced degree if you can. Focus on your interests and see if additional schooling is warranted. After working for 2 years I'm not that excited to be a student again because I really like working and I wouldn't do it if I could avoid it.
posted by Aranquis at 4:37 AM on February 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

There have been a lot of stories in the media about this, but at least in the U.S. it seems like STEM degrees are the way to go for the overall best future employment prospects for the near future. Particularly in computer science fields.
posted by forkisbetter at 8:51 AM on February 4, 2014

How about NO master's degree at all?

Getting more education and more debt never assured anyone of a new, better job.

I'd ask a more specialized question: What skills are the most employable.

1. Excel wizardry

2. Specialized software administration.

So for me, CRM and Excel were key to my changing careers.

So provide more info and we can provide more insight, but it's a fallacy that more and different education will automatically provide you with a new career. You might get a new career by taking a step back, into a different skill-set and then advancing from there, no debt, a smaller income for a while, but then a different career trajectory from there.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:58 AM on February 4, 2014

Okay, background time. I am 33, single, and my current job skills don't translate well into other fields at all. I've tried to land other jobs in my field but good ones are very scarce and while I do have a good one, I'm ready to move on.

I've always been interested in cities and how they work and are administered, so I was thinking a Masters in Public Administration sounds good, but I'm unsure how good of an idea that particular degree is right now.

The university I work at has very reasonable tuition (the whole degree would cost around $10,000) and I'm reluctant to spend a year living somewhere and working odd jobs while I get residency in another state. (The university I work at is the only one in the state I live in).

So, for those of you still tuning in, I hope this helps and I thank you for your time and attention.
posted by Fister Roboto at 2:27 PM on February 4, 2014

There have been a lot of stories in the media about this, but at least in the U.S. it seems like STEM degrees are the way to go for the overall best future employment prospects for the near future. Particularly in computer science fields.

CS and maybe engineering are exceptions to this--at the very least, it seems like employed and well compensated CS grads are well represented on MetaFilter--but STEM grads don't have access to a thriving monolithic STEM job market. Many STEM fields are not growing, many STEM jobs are not experiencing a shortage of candidates and many new non-CS STEM grads probably face frankly crummy job prospects in the long run. I got a STEM BS (biology and chemistry) and it seems like currently there just isn't much I can do with it beyond getting a PhD, which I am not at all interested in doing. In 2005 when I first enrolled in college it seemed (to the uninformed, at least, which I was) like we were on the cusp of a bioscience job explosion and that there would be lots of jobs for even BS-level candidates in Big Pharma. This is not what happened.
posted by pullayup at 3:05 PM on February 4, 2014

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