Is any Master's Degree better than no Master's Degree?
January 7, 2007 5:15 PM   Subscribe

Is any Master's Degree better than no Master's Degree?

I am part-way through an MSW (Master's in Social Work) program. Long story short, I am concerned that it will be difficult for me to find a job in this field that will provide me what I consider an adequate salary, especially since I don't want to work in public policy or direct an agency (not realistic options for a new grad anyway).

I have considered dropping out, but the issues are such: 1. I don't have a backup career or plan and 2. Many people have told me that my salary at most jobs, even if they aren't directly related to my field, will be higher than with just a bachelor's degree and therefore it might be worthwhile to finish the program.

So, what I am asking is what is the value of a not-directly-related Master's Degree to most employers? Also, what jobs can I pursue after graduation that are not typical "social work" jobs? Do you know anyone who has this degree and is doing something other than casework or public policy? How did it work out for them?

Please don't bash the profession of social work. I am already stressed out about this and would prefer not to hear how poor social workers are. Believe me, people tell me this all the time. What I would like to do is make lemonade out of these lemons and find a way to use this degree to meet my career goal: finding a job or career path that is reasonably satisfying but will also provide me with enough of an income that I will have the means to pursue interests outside of work too.
posted by mintchip to Work & Money (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: P.S. Let me add that I'm attending a very competitive, widely respected university.
posted by mintchip at 5:17 PM on January 7, 2007

H.R., any corporation.
posted by availablelight at 5:24 PM on January 7, 2007

Yes, please give good answers people, as I am about to enter an MSW program-- hey mint, what school?
posted by greta simone at 5:36 PM on January 7, 2007

In Denver, for example, a licensed M.A. starts around 40K for a mental health center. B.A. level jobs are much less. An M.S.W. is a good degree with many career opportunities in clinical and administrative areas, with regular annual raises. Not a way to make a fortune, but a good career is available.
posted by madstop1 at 5:38 PM on January 7, 2007

There are lots of jobs in the non-profit world besides directing an agency. I started in an entry level position six years ago with an MSW, but was able to quickly move into a middle management position at the national headquarters of a large non-profit. My job was a mix of systems and finance in the development department. Because I had an MSW, they readily restructured my job so that I was managing a team of three. Oh, and I doubled my salary in three years.

I switched jobs 4 months ago and moved into prospect research and development systems management for an international non-profit, managing one staff.

Non-profits have numerous departments apart from traditional "social work"- programs, HR, communications, education, finance, and fundraising. Having the Masters, especially if you can take lots of non-profit management courses (that was my emphasis) is very helpful, I think. I am in NYC, and I know many, many people who are making between $50-80k in middle management type positions, and some making over $100k in specialty areas.
posted by kimdog at 5:43 PM on January 7, 2007

Depends on how far through it you are, I'd say. If you just finished the first semester, might be wiser to cut your losses. If you're further in, you might as well add the letters and the time to your resume.

Bear in mind that the time you spent in school, at this point, is a "hole" in your work career. Employers get very skittish about this - they prefer to hire someone who works and can demonstrate that they work. In this sense, if you got through 18 months of a 24 month program and then quit for no good reason, you're going to have to be justifying "Why I'm not a quitter" in future interviews for many years.
posted by ikkyu2 at 5:48 PM on January 7, 2007

Ex-politics student here who is now working in politics. I have an Honours degree. I'm in Australia though so your mileage may vary if you're anywhere else in the world.

In my undergraduate degree, I got some pretty great marks and many of my lecturers were telling me to go on and do Honours. Before I made any decision though, I sat down and discussed almost the very same question you are asking with the lecturer I respected more than any other. His advice to me was that I had to be utterly committed to do my Honours because if I ended up with 3rd class Honours (the worse you can get) it would actually be worse for my career prospects than if I had no Honours at all.

You are halfway through your masters however, so I would say that if you really have no more committment to what you are doing, I would quit now rather than graduate with a terrible GPA. However, I would qualify that by saying that if you feel you can finish with a decent GPA, then by all means do so because having an enhanced degree is certainly going to get you noticed when future potential employers peruse your resume. I know for a fact that was the case for me.

However in my practical (ie; post-university) experience, obtraining a job in my line of work (and yours too, which I can talk of because my girlfriend is a social worker), employers ultimately look not so much at GPAs and degrees but how committed you are to your industry and line of work. Many will overlook an average GPA if they can see you've done a lot of positive community work that would likely have sucked up a lot of your study time.
posted by Effigy2000 at 5:50 PM on January 7, 2007

Response by poster: Greta Simone, I prefer not to name my exact school, but it is ranked top 20 for social work and is a recognizable name. Good luck with your program!
posted by mintchip at 6:00 PM on January 7, 2007

I started an MSW at Columbia and left after a year for all the same reasons you're stating. I wound up, ironically, working on Wall Street for five years. Now I'm a social worker again. I will give a more detailed answer tomorrow, short on time at the moment.
posted by The Straightener at 7:25 PM on January 7, 2007

I am a sociology prof, working now to become a registered social worker. In my experience a master's degree (in anything) makes it easier to land non-dead-end jobs (as opposed to just a BA). Research and management jobs (for example) are easier to get with an MA.

For what it's worth (although it may not make any sense in your area), the reason I am trying to become a RSW (even though I have a PhD, but no degree in social work) is that in my neck of the woods it qualifies me as a worker under what's known as the 'Health Professions Act'. As a prof/phD I am not, but as a RSW I can be. This allows others to access funding for the services of a 'social worker', making it more likely that I can get paid for whatever 'social work' services I might provide, including research. This may just be a local dynamic.

Personally, I intend to blend direct service, public policy AND research as services available for casework. But casework can be to individuals, families, agencies, or professionals. The field of social work is very broad. Being a registered social worker gives you a profession, and an MA puts you in a category of jobs in the eyes of an employer that won't be as likely with just a BA, even if you're looking for a job in another field.
posted by kch at 7:51 PM on January 7, 2007

For what it's worth:

My mom has an MSW and has worked child protection her entire life. The state of Minnesota created a position for her and allowed her to define it some years ago. I'll not discuss exact figures, and my parents aren't fabulously wealthy, but they're comfortable (mom makes the lion's share of the income).

That said, she's always worked very, very hard, and had to leave the trenches of child protection work after a couple decades. She gets the same thing you'll see with combat vets, where she is talking about some old work-related memories, and then her expression changes into a sort of blank mask and she says "well, but we won't talk about that."


I don't know how much help that is to you! But I hope it's some.
posted by kavasa at 10:31 PM on January 7, 2007

I don't think social workers are poor. In my area, a MSW makes $50,000/year.
posted by IndigoRain at 11:08 PM on January 7, 2007

Instead of comparing entry-level salaries, it's a good idea to compare mid-level salaries. That's where you really see the payoff of the MSW. Entry-level salaries can be really deceptive. With the mid-levels you can also compare out over time and compare the cost of your education with the financial benefits thereof.

I don't know much about social work but my dad had an MSW, and he eventually went into private counselling practice and made a decent salary. There are a lot of options with that degree.
posted by miss tea at 4:37 AM on January 8, 2007

So, what I am asking is what is the value of a not-directly-related Master's Degree to most employers?

It's not going to be much unless you can sell your prospective employer on some underlying principal or skill set you obtained while getting the degree that does directly apply to the work you want to do. For example, I was able to succesfully bullshit (and I mean, bullshit) my way into a job trading stocks on Wall Street based on the fact that I had a psychology degree, was able to sell the Social Work coursework as more closely related to further psychological study and that all of this knowledge of human behavior could be directly applicable to the aggregate human behvior found in markets. Not only did they buy it, but to my surprise once I was on the job I found it to be true (imagine!).

How did it work out...

Very well for a while. It was a lot of fun at first, I thought it was very exciting to be doing something I never thought I would be doing. But it was soul destroying (for me, at least) and ultimately I decided to return to social work. The final irony is that I had an even harder time selling my Wall Street experience to non-profits, though I was always told that going from private to human service was the easier direction to move.
posted by The Straightener at 5:18 AM on January 8, 2007

Have you considered clinical social work? Depending on the state you live in, it may help to also get a "licensed counselor" certificate or something like that. They make comparable money to other therapists. A plus is that you would still be helping people.
posted by hydropsyche at 7:00 AM on January 8, 2007

Getting your MA or not probably doesn't have as much importance in your potential non-SW career as feels like it does right now. That is, I suspect that this is a poor criteria for choosing whether or not to finish.

So sit down and take stock of what you like to do. What is it that you like about SW and what is it that you don't? Also, what is it that you like about school and what is it that you don't? Be sure to separate these things. If you love helping people but hate doing research, then getting your degree, changing your career, and selling your degree a evidence of your research skills is likely to land you unhappy, no matter how much money you make.

Once you've taken stock of what it is that excites you and what you want to leave behind, ask yourself what kind of career would satisfy these things. Grad school can be soul crushing, but it's not the same work as you'll be doing in your job. If you find that you still love something about the idea of SW, and you can stand the thought of finishing, then you should because it keeps those doors open for you. You can try something else and come back, or you can go into related work in SW agencies (HR, management).

If you find that it's not school but SW that is the source of your current unhappiness, then quit and don't look back. You'll be far better off figuring out what it is that you want to do, and either getting a job right away or transferring into something that gives you some direct skills to sell you in that industry. If you realize that what you really love is web design, then a MSW will be worth far less than an ability to code in Flash. Furthermore, finishing a degree in MSW will make you more attractive to the kinds of agencies/institutions that have some relationship to SW, and you may find that the management jobs your master's opens up for you are in places that are somehow similar, and they may contain some of the elements that you've decided you dislike.

Whether or not finishing or quitting your MSW results in better career opportunities or worse is something no one can predict. It depends on your skills, your drive, the economy in general, the market for your chosen career in particular. What this really means, I think, is that you can make either work as long as you sit down and are brutally honest with yourself about what your goals are, and about what you are willing to commit to to achieve those goals and what you aren't.
posted by carmen at 7:04 AM on January 8, 2007

I waited five years in my chosen field to start a MA, and already I'm seeing that I won't move up as quickly as I'd like without the advanced degree. In some cases, promotion depends on having reached that credential--there are people working above me, for example, with less depth of experience in this field, but they have the Master's (and in several cases, in fields far removed from ours). If you have the time and ability to complete the degree now, I think it's worth it to have it out of the way. I also think, for what it's worth, that having some field experience before starting graduate school makes the advanced study more relevant and valuable than jumping into school right after finishing your BA/S.
posted by hamster at 7:28 AM on January 8, 2007

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