Q&A: Should You Pursue a Master’s Degree to Advance Your Career?

Reports from the media tell us that a large number of job seekers are pursuing advanced degrees in hopes of finding better (or any) employment opportunities. Career expert Rosemary Hook shares the ups, downs, ins, and outs of this trend in today’s expert Q&A.

Getting an Advanced Degree to Find a Job

How common is this practice in reality, and why are job seekers taking this route?

When I worked for a university, I conducted an annual survey to ask adult learners why they were pursuing their degrees. The first question was, “Are you unemployed?” The first year I did the survey (2008), 15% answered “Yes” to being unemployed. Five years later, the response to that answer jumped to 30% — and that was in the great state of Texas which was boasting the lowest unemployment rate in the nation [at] 7%.

Going back to school is a viable alternative to unemployment because society respects the pursuit of education. Society does not respect those who are unemployed because deep down inside, in some hidden area of the brain, people believe a person was laid off “for a reason.” However, you can wash away the stigma of unemployment or at least gain some respectability by going back to school. As part of your “going back to school,” you can:

  • Take on internships which are harder to explain when you’re not in school since intern = student regardless of age
  • Do volunteer work that supports your educational degree/new career path versus doing volunteer work because nobody will hire you
  • And, spend countless hours reading and writing in the library. The only people at the library during the day are students and the homeless.

The world loves the classroom. The only thing we love more than education and the classroom are those being educated in that classroom – the students. In an ideal society, we’d all be going to school, every day, for the rest of our lives.

What should job seekers consider before leaving the workforce to pursue a master’s or doctoral degree?

1) Know exactly how you intend to use that degree. Going into debt thousands and thousands of dollars is an expensive way to learn that you’re really not sure what you want to be when you grow up.

2) Know whether the jobs and/or the employers you want to work for are requiring the degree you are pursuing. Universities and corporate America are not necessarily speaking on a regular basis. Students assume that just because a university has a particular academic program that that must mean employers are requesting that program. That is a very expensive, very incorrect assumption to make.

3) Know exactly how much you can expect to make six months after graduation, know the employers that recruit at that university, and know what the placement rates are from that university’s Career Services group. Public universities typically provide this information on their websites. It’s not a secret. Private universities might not, but the good ones will provide it to you behind closed doors. I mention the six months after graduation because that’s when you have to begin paying back student loans.

4) Finally, you would only leave the workforce for graduate work if you were going to attend a university full-time and if that university supported full-time programs for adult learners with specific support services in place, e.g. program specific career services, professional development programs, option for external career coaching (in addition to internal career services options), and scholarship funding.

What about job seekers who are currently out of work — how do their considerations compare to their employed counterparts?

This is the one time the unemployed has an advantage over their employed peer.

  • They have better options available to them to take on internships that normally occur during the 8-5pm workday. The assumption is that they’re pursuing graduate work (or even undergraduate work) as an adult learner because they want to change careers or change industries. In order for them to be successful at it, they’ll have to be able to have experience to go with that degree.  
  • If they’re receiving unemployment benefits and they do not want to affect those benefits, they can take on unpaid internships.
  • They have the time to fully immerse themselves in a new industry or field via associations and consortiums by regularly attending all meetings and networking events, as well as taking on a leadership role with an association in their new industry / job field interest. When you’re employed, every last bit of energy you have after a long day at work is spent just trying to get to class.

Are there certain instances where a person should absolutely not go for an advanced degree?

YES – here are 4 examples of time when a person should halt the pursuit of a degree:

1) When a person is unable to articulate how they intend to use a degree, it is best for them to seek out career counseling or coaching before enrolling in an academic program. Otherwise, how would they know which program would be the best program that would help them achieve some undefined goal? Sometimes, it’s not an advanced degree that is required but a specialized certification. Choose the career first, then the degree that will help you launch into that new career. If you choose the academic program first then you’re stuck with only choosing careers supported by that degree.

2) When a person is not prepared to commit to 100% attendance in class (the goal, not the exception) or set aside significant personal time for homework, student time, writing research papers. Or, if their travel schedule is such that they would have to miss more than 50% of classes. In those cases, a person would want to halt entering graduate school and/or forego a traditional graduate program altogether and opt for an online program that can accommodate their travel schedule.

3) When a person can identify the new career they’d like to be in but they’ve never actually done it before.  Example: They want to pursue an MBA with an accounting concentration because they want to be an accountant for a Fortune 500. Except, they’ve never worked in any kind of an accounting capacity or environment – ever. They just think they’ll like it or they like the way it sounds or they believe they’re “analytical” and thus using this one lonely skill, they choose a career. That’s like saying that everyone who knows how to boil pasta should consider being a chef. When you’re 31 or 41 or 61, a good career fit is more than just some skills. Your happiness in a new career can be broken down like this:

Career Fit = Work Fit (what you’ll do, how you’ll grow) + Organizational Fit (values, mission, goals) + Team Fit  (co-workers, boss) + Personal Fit (salary, location, physical environment)

4) When they don’t know why they’re there or they’re trying to find themselves (running away from something perhaps like unemployment). That’s a very expensive way to get some life coaching. A master’s degree is tough enough without your vision being unfocused and emotionally undisciplined.   Do not invest tens of thousands of dollars into something you hope will make you feel better about your life.

How can a person predict the ROI of an advanced degree, or is this not possible?

The same variables that a person used to choose a degree can be used to measure the return on investment of receiving that degree.

  • If the main variable was salary/money, that’s an easy ROI to measure if the degree will land you in a higher paying job versus remaining in the old job + two years’ worth of merit increases. Even with economic downturns and shifts, as long as you’re willing to move to where the jobs are then the ROI will always be there salary-wise. 
  • If the variables are more value-centered, e.g. the desire to have greater work/life balance with a new career, this can be measured by comparing current work: home hours to estimated work:home hours in the new career. The person would know this because they would have researched this new career field before choosing it.
  • If the variables are more soul-driven, e.g. the person who wants to “affect change” or “make a difference” or “have an impact” in their new career, then the return is measured via how they feel (usually appreciated and respected), articulating who they’ve helped (individuals or community), and their overall joy in the new career (happy now versus not happy before)

About the Expert

Rosemary Hook runs Hook The Talent, Inc., out of Austin, Texas. Hook The Talent provides coaching for individuals, career programs for organizations, and executive recruiting for companies. Rosemary has over 10 years in career management and recruitment and she is certified as a Professional in Career Management (PCM) and a Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) Practitioner. Her specialty is coaching career changers considering a return to school as a component of their career change.

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