Career planning and education: Master’s degrees piling higher and deeper?

Last Sunday’s Education Life supplement to the New York Times featured a cluster of articles on graduate school options, including a piece by Laura Pappano asking whether the master’s degree has become the new bachelor’s degree in view of rising credential requirements for job applicants:

William Klein’s story may sound familiar to his fellow graduates. After earning his bachelor’s in history from the College at Brockport, he found himself living in his parents’ Buffalo home, working the same $7.25-an-hour waiter job he had in high school.

It wasn’t that there weren’t other jobs out there. It’s that they all seemed to want more education.

The article goes on to describe how master’s degree programs are proliferating as individuals opt to make themselves more marketable. It also quotes critics of this trend, noting that while colleges and employers benefit greatly from these degree programs, the costs are shouldered by individuals who go deeper into debt or raid their savings.

More and more credentialing

Every few generations, the credential bar to good jobs is raised a notch. Fifty years ago, a high school diploma was considered the threshold educational qualification for paving one’s way into the job market and even the nation’s burgeoning middle class. By the late 1970s, some college and ideally a bachelor’s degree became that ticket. Today, it’s apparent that many employers are looking for some postgraduate education.

This is not a hard and fast rule. Plenty of folks without degrees manage to secure good jobs and build successful careers. After all, let’s face it, the skills required in many good jobs do not overlap with the lion’s share of courses that comprise a typical undergraduate degree program.


As Pappano’s article acknowledges, the truth of the matter is that master’s degree programs are money makers for universities. The schools claim to be addressing market demands, but it’s not clear to me that employers actually need all the skills and knowledge covered in many of these vocationally-oriented master’s degrees. Instead, the degree becomes a convenient proxy for ability, a way of sorting wheat from chaff, however inaccurately.

Reputation, cost, convenience, fit, and licensure

If you are going to pursue an advanced degree, consider:

1. The reputation of the program and the school in terms of getting interviews and securing the jobs that interest you;

2. The overall cost of the program, with special emphasis on student debt;

3. The convenience of pursuing the degree, including the impact on your daily & weekly schedule and the possibility of distance learning options;

4. Whether the specific curriculum of the program fits your learning needs and interests; and,

5. Whether the program is required to meet licensing requirements of some sort (e.g., counseling and mental health positions), or simply enhances your overall profile.


I’ve made a career of higher education, and I’m a lifelong learning junkie. If I didn’t have to work and had the money to be a permanent student, there are a half dozen master’s degree programs I’d love to pursue, one after the other.

However, I am very wary of this proliferation of master’s degree options, both residential and online. Some are creative, useful, high quality programs. Others are just add-ons designed to create income streams at a time when schools are desperate for funds. Among the latter include a fair number that add only modest punch to your resume.


In a subsequent post, I’ll be writing about certificate programs, which can be a less expensive, more time efficient path to a new career.


This is the first of a series of posts over the next couple of weeks on career planning and further education.

One response

  1. I need to get back into school and finish my degree program. I had to get out because of issues with stress and anxiety. I’m tired of working with people who are lacking in social skills. It’s unbelievable.

    Loved the article

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