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Grad school costs a lot of money. So does your bachelor’s degree, as you undoubtedly already know. Getting a master’s degree is an investment,  so understanding the return on that investment can help you decide when a secondary degree is worth it, and when it is not.

Some professions, like doctors or lawyers, require a secondary degree right off the bat. But what about professions that don’t necessarily require a master’s, but getting one may be to your benefit? This article will look at the financial input necessary for a master’s degree, and decipher how much career and, in turn, financial boost this degree will can you. We’ll also cover those more intangible benefits of an advanced degree.

Know what you’re getting yourself into

Start by evaluating whether you’re looking to get a professional master’s degree or an academic master’s degree. Academic master’s degrees are based on digging deeper into an academic field, while a professional master’s degree will build your marketable job skills. Typically, academic master’s degrees are used to advance a student’s education, while professional master’s degrees are used to advance a student’s career. Either way, you have to know what the degree will teach you, and how you are going to use it.

“You need a plan, you need a goal,” said Alaina Nickerson, Assistant Director for Graduate Students at Career Services at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She encourages prospective grad students to ask themselves, “why do you think this grad degree will get you further? Have you done your research?”

Learn more about graduate programs at the University of Colorado, Boulder, here

The idea that furthering your education will make you more marketable, give you better entry position and a higher salary is not always true. Many professions actually prefer experience, or at least field experience before going on to get a master’s. So, before you decide to get your master’s degree, you should know specifically what career you want afterwards to maximize the value of your degree. After all, a degree in a field you decide you do not want to work in won’t be very useful.

Bri Shultz, CPA, earned her Master’s in Accounting at the University of Denver before entering the field. She explained that in public accounting firms, a master’s is required to move up in the company after about three years. While she is currently working as a public accountant, the prospect of a job switch changes the usefulness of her degree.

“If I stick with accounting, then my degree is definitely a worthy investment for moving up or getting higher level positions, but if I switch from accounting I don’t think it offers much value,” said Shultz, who admitted, “I’m not really set on accounting for my whole life so if I were to switch I don’t really know how beneficial it will be for me in the future.”

Who gets a Master’s?

Academic master’s are usually used for academia, but professional master’s vary much more in terms of job prospects.

With business as the largest category of professional master’s programs, business programs want to have a diverse array of students. Julia Hazen, Senior MBA Consultant at Admissionado, earned her MBA at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. She explained in detail the ins and outs of business school, including both what the schools are looking for and what types of career paths these institutions serve.

“Business schools seek out students with a wide variety of professional backgrounds and then they go to an equally wide variety of industries. There isn’t “a thing” that MBA’s do. There’s a high concentration of people doing consulting and financial services,” said Hazen, but explained that over half of students go into”a myriad of different activities afterwards.”

So, who goes to these business schools? Hazen explained that there are two main groups of people who go to get their MBA. These are either people who are looking to make a big career switch, or people who are looking to amplify their career.

For example, “if you are working in technology and you want to become a management consultant, business school is a really great platform to do that. If you are working in marketing and you want to become an investment banker, business school would also be a really great platform to do that,” said Hazen, while the career amplifiers are “people who like what they do, who are good at what they do and they want to take it to the next level.”

In other professional avenues, degree paths are more specific. Aside from marketability, certain career tests may make a master’s necessary.

“I chose to go to grad school to get my CPA, you have to go to get the extra credits,” said Shultz, who was able to pass her CPA tests after earning her master’s.

When should I get my master’s?

When you get your master’s, if you get your master’s, depends on your field and personal situation.

In many academic master’s programs, it makes more sense to start on your degree pretty quickly after you finish your undergrad since you are on an educational and academic path. Certain professional paths make sense for this too, as Shultz explained that it was more cost-effective for her to roll over from undergrad to grad in accounting. Another situation Nickerson described is where a student will attend grad school to extend their time as a student in order to be eligible for opportunities to get experience through internships only open to current students.

“Sometimes tacking on a year or so and getting that additional degree can actually be a strategic move to [extend to students] more time to do the work that needs to be done, getting different skill sets, and building their network outside of the department or outside of the university and things like that,” said Nickerson.

Nevertheless, many master’s programs encourage a few years of experience prior to continuing education. For example, the average in-the-field experience for MBA students prior to starting their program is three to five years.

The initial investment and potential payoff

Here come the dollar signs. The average cost of a master’s degree is between $30,000 and $120,000. Of course, this varies by university and program type. The importance of which program you choose also varies by career wants.

Hazen stressed that if you choose to attend business school your ROI will be much higher if you go to a top 10 to 15 school, meaning your input will also have to be high. The top 10 MBA programs tuition vary from $59,811 to $78,772, but average starting salaries range from $146,259 to $159,815. In addition to the numbers, top schools have competitive alumni relationships, networks, and recruiting by top companies. Basically, a higher initial investment is more likely to pay itself off, and then some, when it comes to business.

Importance is placed on these top business schools because they give students the best networking opportunities, which Nickerson believes to be the most important element of leveraging your degree into the working world.

Nickerson emphasized that whether you are pursuing “academia or industry or government or anything, a network is important to have by the time you’re going on the job market.

The business world may favor a well-respected program, but other fields may prefer experience or research. This comes back to knowing what you’re trying to do with your degree. Knowing what you’re looking to gain will guide your research so you can decide where to go, when to go and what to focus on.

While you’re at it…

If you do decide to get a master’s degree, you decide on a program, and get into one, there are several things to stay on top of that may be a bit different from your undergrad to-do list.

Nickerson describes what the most successful students do when they are going through their master’s program:

“They build their network. They know people working in the field. They’ve done informational interviews along the way so they’re really clear about what they’re excited about in that field. They don’t just thoeretically know what they’re interested in. They’ve done internships,” said Nickerson, and in terms of their career moving forward, these students have made a “well educated decision about where they’re going and they feel like its a good fit for who they are.”

Another crucial element Nickerson describes is developing job skills that are necessary for a student’s career. Many of these skills should be acquired in the realm of a student’s graduate education, but a student who knows what they are going to do after earning their degree will build skill sets they are lacking in their program. Grad students can learn what these skill sets are by looking at job descriptions in their chosen career, and acquiring those skills through internships, projects, and other types of experiences that they intentionally select to build these skills.

Finally, “people who have successfully navigated collaborations and teamwork, have a certain sense of emotional intelligence,” said Nickerson, are qualities that are “absolutely important to employers.”

Tangible and intangible bang for your buck

Getting your master’s has both tangible benefits as seen in the numbers, and intangible benefits. Hazen describes how her degree changed not only her career options and salary, but opened the door to new relationships, new ideas, and a whole new way of seeing herself.

“Business school is a tremendous experience to take two years off and learn about all sorts of cool business issues and global topics. To meet people from all over the world. To try a new career for the summer in the form of an internship. To make new friends. And to really invest in yourself,” said Hazen, who explained that the pay raise is nice, other benefits go beyond this. “I also consider myself a totally different kind of person. I didn’t think I was a leader, I didn’t think I had the ability to lead a big team, and then Wharton helped me unlock some of those [capabilities] that I didn’t see in myself, that gave me a platform to really accelerate my professional and personal growth in those two years,” said Hazen.

With this in mind, skills you acquire during many degree programs, especially professional degree programs, can be applicable to other fields even if those direct benefits will no longer be as applicable.

Scott Mann, CPA, also earned his Master’s in Accounting at the University of Denver. He originally worked in public accounting after grad school, but has since switched his career path to tech sales.

“Although I’m not a practicing accountant today, I still value what I learned and took away tangible skills that I’m able to apply to my career in sales. It’s easy to get lost in the textbooks while getting your masters, but it’s important to take a step back and think about–how could I apply what I’m learning to my life, to other industries, etc.,” said Mann.

Grad school isn’t for everyone or every career, and you need to do the research to find out if a secondary degree will benefit you. However, if it is the right choice and will truly help you advance your career, the steep price will prove a worthy investment.

Need help finding the perfect graduate school for you? Head to www.Petersons.com to start your search today.