Graduate school was once widely thought of as the gateway to career advancement and increased earnings potential. Many who struggled to find work during the economic downturn went to grad school to change careers or to increase their chances of getting ahead in their current fields. Though there still remain advantages to earning a master's degree, many have noted several disadvantages to the degree and questioned whether it was worth the time and investment.
Many students choose to pursue a graduate degree because they love the subject and want to learn more about it. They go to school for personal gratification, and career opportunities are secondary to this pursuit. Many master's degree programs offer an advantage here since they are intellectually challenging, and the right program can provide a rewarding experience for students. However, a master's degree program is academically demanding, and students who are in it for intellectual curiosity may soon find themselves overwhelmed. Not only is the course work much more challenging than at the undergraduate level, but most master's degree programs also require that students complete a thesis, which is a lengthy piece of original research that can take one to year to write -- sometimes even longer.
Whether students decide to go to grad school for career advancement or personal gratification, they can expect to spend the next two to three years committed to their studies. While the plus side is that this is shorter than an undergraduate or doctoral program, the down side is that students may be out of the professional work force for a significant period of time. Not only can this hurt a student's ability to support himself during school, but it also can set back career opportunities where experience is valued. Some grad students may choose to work part-time while earning their master's degree, which has its own advantages and disadvantages. Students who work may be able to take out fewer student loans, but they also may be under far more stress, which could impair their academic performance.
Return on Investment
The cost of getting a master's degree varies widely, depending on whether students attend a public or private school and what degree they earn. Business and law degrees are among the most expensive. Forbes says that the average cost of business school, including lost wages, is about $200,000. Getting a master's degree can leave some students mired in debt when they begin their careers. However, in some cases, a master's degree can lead to greater earnings potential, such as graduates who go on to corporate law careers or high-level business positions. Another advantage of grad school is that many programs, especially those in the humanities, offer more financial support in the form of teaching and research assistant positions.
A common argument made for earning a master's degree is that it opens up more job opportunities. In some cases, this is true. In fact, some fields require applicants to have at least a master's degree. Counseling, becoming an attorney or teaching at a college or university are examples. However, in some cases a master's degree may not be required or may even hurt advancement opportunities by making a person overqualified for the position. For example, those interested in careers in public relations, journalism, human resources or video game design may not need a master's degree unless they are interested in management or research in those fields. Applying for an entry-level job in such fields with a master's degree could hurt their chances.