If you’re considering an advanced degree so you can earn more money in the future, give your decision some more thought.
Graduate school costs a lot. To finish an advanced degree, you’ll need to put parts of your life on hold — including your ability to make money right now.
An advanced degree can help many students create a more secure future. But for others, the value of a degree isn’t as clear.
What an Advanced Degree Can Do For You
There’s no doubt: An advanced degree can add exceptional value to your life. It can help you:
- Make Connections: Depending on your degree program you could be learning from experts in your field while making lifelong connections as a graduate student.
- Join the Conversation: Research-based degrees add your voice to the ongoing conversation in your field. This conversation spans generations and can impact the world in significant ways.
- Continue Learning: When learning becomes a way of life, you’re continuously evolving and growing, making yourself more capable of keeping up, and even leading, in our ever-changing world.
- Unlock a Higher Income: Many high earning career paths, whether in business, academia, the law, or health care, require advanced degrees.
What an Advanced Degree Can’t Do
Since an undergraduate degree can distinguish you as a candidate for a job or a promotion, a graduate degree should set you apart even more, right?
That’s the conventional wisdom. But life doesn’t always follow these plans, even when you have an advanced degree. Some people with master’s and even doctoral degrees still face:
- Unemployment: Sometimes a highly specialized degree makes you overqualified for some jobs or limits you to a specific field.
- Dissatisfaction: Even when you’re a respected expert in your field, relying on your career for self-worth can backfire.
- Financial Strains: With universities and even some law firms cutting budgets, especially in times of economic downturn, many people with advanced degrees face stagnant labor markets and dwindling benefits.
An advanced degree can become a stepping stone to a happy and fulfilled life, but it can’t guarantee you’ll get there. This distinction matters because earning an advanced degree will usually require some sacrifices.
Challenges to Getting an Advanced Degree
Unless you have unlimited time and resources, pursuing an advanced degree will require giving up something else.
The costs aren’t only financial:
- Actual Costs: Grad students spend a lot on books, housing, tuition, fees, specialized equipment — it adds up quickly. At many graduate schools, you can find a job on campus as a teaching or research assistant to cover some or all costs.
- Opportunity Costs: Many graduate students put their current lives on hold to attend classes, activities, and on-campus jobs. This can leave little or no time for life outside of school. Economists call the cost of everything you have to give up in order to pursue an advanced degree your opportunity costs.
- Family Costs: If you already have a family, you’ll have to balance home and school demands. This can be a bigger challenge if you get accepted into a high-residency degree program in another city or state.
- Lifestyle Costs: For many grad students, life happens on a shoestring budget. This can be a challenge if you’re accustomed to spending more on comforts.
These hurdles come along with the academic challenges of your graduate school coursework which can include research, extensive reading, presentations, and teaching.
Often, someone who is younger and has fewer commitments can more easily build a well-balanced life as a grad student. Someone with a family and bigger financial commitments may find it more difficult.
Regardless of your age and situation, you’ll have to decide whether your advanced degree is worth the sacrifice and hard work.
The Best Advanced Degrees for Future Earning
From an earnings point of view, not all advanced degrees are created equally. A sculptor with a master’s degree in art probably makes less money than a physician’s assistant who has a master’s degree in science.
An advanced degree can add value to your life beyond your paycheck, but if you’re considering higher education as an avenue to higher earnings, the following paths provide the straightest path, statistically speaking:
A Master’s in Business Administration (MBA) can open a lot of doors. An MBA can qualify you for a wide variety of management roles in business, finance, and even healthcare management.
Sometimes, employers will pay for employees to pursue an Executive MBA, especially when the employee has committed to the company long-term. More students pay their own tuition, though.
If you’re interested in an MBA, you’ll find opportunities at a growing number of universities. MBAs and other master’s degrees in business have also grown more specialized. Specialties include:
- MBA or MS in Finance: Especially for bankers and wealth managers.
- MBA or MS in Entrepreneurship: Especially for business owners.
- MBA or MS in Ecommerce: A newer field with growing importance as retail shifts to the Internet.
- MS in Human Resources: With employee insurance and other benefits growing more complex, HR staff leaders need graduate degrees.
- MS or MBA in Economics: This is a more academic pursuit dealing with economic theory and public policy.
- MS or MBA in Healthcare Administration: Hospitals, extended care facilities, and health clinics need a special kind of administrator adept at balancing diverse revenue streams and changing demands.
- MS or MBA in International Business: This degree also has grown in prominence as markets continue to emerge in Asia, South America, and Africa.
These kinds of degrees can help you get middle and upper management jobs with higher earning potential.
If you have the gift of a scientific mind and a compassionate heart, a degree in medicine may be for you. Physicians, especially specialists, can spend a decade or more pursuing advanced degrees.
Specialists earn higher incomes than general practitioners. But not everyone in the medical field wants to be a doctor:
- Physician’s Assistant Degrees: A PA does a lot of work associated with physicians including seeing patients and making health plan recommendations. Along with a few years of experience in healthcare, PAs typically need a two-year master’s degree.
- Advanced Nursing Degrees: Nurses who want to work in more specialized fields can seek advanced degrees to become Nurse Practitioners or Nurse Anesthetists, both of which extend the compassion of nursing into more specialized settings.
- Pharmacy Degrees: Pharmacists keep hospitals — and commercial pharmacies — running smoothly. They often have a background in chemistry and earn a Doctor of Pharmacy degree after earning an undergraduate degree.
- Medical Researchers: Some physicians and nurses spend their careers researching patient outcomes, devising new treatments, and changing health care policies. Advanced degrees in medical research prepare them for these roles.
- Dentists: Cosmetic dentists and dental surgeons usually spend at least six years in graduate school.
- Chiropractors: A Doctor of Chiropractic degree usually requires three or four years of grad school.
Salaries for medical professionals with advanced degrees frequently surpass $100,000 a year. Professionals with a specialty will usually earn significantly more.
An advanced degree in the law by itself won’t allow you to practice law. To practice law, you’ll have to pass your state’s Bar Exam.
However, the vast majority of lawyers have completed one or more of the following advanced degrees:
- Juris Doctor: This most common law degree usually requires three years of graduate study.
- Master of Laws: Attorneys with specialties such as taxes, human rights, the environment, or technology often add this additional degree which requires at least one year of extra study.
- Doctor of Juridical Science: This most advanced legal degree qualifies attorneys to teach in law schools.
Before enrolling in any law school, students usually complete a bachelor’s degree in history, political science, economics, or business.
The median annual income for an attorney is about $120,000. More specialized lawyers can earn significantly more.
College professors often have a doctor of philosophy degree (Ph.D.) in their field, whether it’s literature, history, economics, religion, psychology, natural sciences, chemistry, education, counseling, anthropology, or a multitude of other subjects.
Earning a Ph.D. usually takes three or more years of extensive research which the candidate begins after completing a two-year master’s degree in a related field.
Salaries for college professors vary widely. Elite, private universities usually pay more than state universities which tend to pay more than regional or community colleges.
Traditionally, professors with Ph.D.s have job stability and somewhat flexible schedules, but they also face demands to continue publishing new research throughout their careers.
Steps to Pursuing an Advanced Degree
To begin work on an advanced degree, you’ll need to get some prep work out of the way first:
Earning an Undergraduate Degree
Almost all advanced degrees require some sort of undergraduate degree, usually in a related field. Most degree programs also have requirements for students’ undergraduate grade-point averages.
Not all advanced degrees have specific undergraduate requirements. A law school, for example, will often admit students from a variety of academic backgrounds.
Taking Standardized Tests
Along with an undergraduate degree, grad schools usually require applicants to take at least one kind of standardized test:
- GRE: A lot of graduate schools require students to take the Graduate Record Examination which measures math, vocabulary, and analytical writing skills.
- LSAT: Law schools have a more specific test, the Law School Admissions Test or LSAT, for applicants.
- GMAT: Business schools often require the Graduate Management Admissions Test.
- MCAT: Medical schools use the Medical College Admissions Test to gauge applicants.
Other more specific graduate programs may require other tests. Some schools require minimum test grades for admission while other programs put more emphasis on other parts of your application.
Applying to Programs
If you’re thinking about grad school, applying for admission will seem like an easy-enough step. However, applying may take a while, depending on your program of study. You may need to provide:
- A portfolio of your related work.
- Letters of recommendation from professors.
- Essays explaining why you want to pursue an advanced degree.
- Application fees.
Setting Up Student Life
After you’re admitted, you’ll have to start setting up your new life which may require:
- Finding Housing: Current students in your new graduate program can usually help you find off-campus housing. Some colleges have on-campus housing for graduate students.
- Finding Work: To support yourself and cover tuition, ask about an on-campus job. Many programs let you work as a graduate assistant, research assistant, or teaching assistant which can enrich your experience.
- Making Connections: The friends and colleagues you meet can help shape the rest of your career. Try to enjoy your extended time as a student.
What About Online / For-Profit Schools?
As more students seek advanced degrees, more colleges have worked to make graduate school more accessible to students.
Low-Residency or Online Degrees
Many colleges offer advanced degrees completely online. Others have low-residency classes which mix online classes with occasional on-campus meetings.
While you can earn the same degree, you’ll likely have a much different experience with an online or low-residency program. These programs can be particularly valuable to someone with a family or a job.
For-profit institutions tend to excel at meeting students where they are through online or low-residency programs.
However, some for-profit institutions have struggled to remain financially stable. Some have even closed mid-semester, leaving students and professors unsure about their next steps.
Check your college’s accreditation before applying if you’re not sure about the institution’s stability. A degree from an unaccredited college won’t have the value of a degree from an accredited school.
Certifications Can Also Increase Earnings
In some fields, a shorter path to higher earnings lies in getting the proper certifications:
- Information Systems and Technology: Someone who excels at writing computer code or managing networks can earn a variety of certificates from community colleges or for-profit colleges. These certificates qualify you for a variety of jobs.
- Skilled Trades: HVAC technicians and auto mechanics can earn certifications which qualify them for higher paying jobs.
- Manufacturing Apprenticeships: Specialized manufacturers who need employees with specific skills will often take on apprentices. Understandably, most companies prefer younger trainees who are willing to commit to the company long-term.
Bottom Line: Advanced Degrees — One of Many Tools
An advanced degree in a subject you love can make your life better. You can learn the nuances of your field in ways you didn’t know were possible. You can make friends who may become colleagues in your career.
These outcomes don’t always align with the potential for higher earnings. Before jumping into the graduate school application process, take a few minutes to identify your goals, your assumptions, and your motivations.
You may find better ways to optimize your earnings in some fields.