As someone who teaches and advises students in graduate school I get asked by a lot of students about whether they should get a master’s (or a Ph.D.). I take this question very seriously because going to graduate school is one of the most important decisions a young professional will make in his or her career. In this post I’m going to focus on the master’s degree side of things.

As with most big decisions, there is no single right or wrong answer here. When I meet with prospective graduate students I ask them about their current school/work situation, what their academic path has been so far, how much they like school, and their career goals. My goal is not to suss out “the answer,” but to figure out what framework might be most useful to the student for thinking through the decision.

I’ve discovered that not every piece of advice is useful to every person. Instead, identifying and talking through the one or two most important considerations for each person usually helps put things in better perspective.

To that end, this post outlines a few of the questions my students have found most helpful.

Question #1: Why are you thinking about getting a master’s?

The first step in your decision-making process is to make sure you know why you want to get a master’s degree. The most common reasons I hear from people thinking about getting a master’s are:

  • To be more competitive on the job market
  • To make more money at their current job
  • To get promoted
  • To make a career change
  • To prove something to oneself, to family, or for status reasons
  • For personal growth/fun

It doesn’t matter which of these it is, the important thing is knowing which one (or more) it is. Many students wind up applying to graduate school because they don’t know what else to do. I think this is a big mistake. If you don’t know what you want from school, you’re unlikely to get anything from it.

Knowing what you want, on the other hand, will keep you motivated through the tough times (which there will be plenty of!) and will help you make the most of your experience. If you already have a job you love, for example, you can look for opportunities to build knowledge and hone specific skills you know you’ll need on the job. If you are trying to find your first job or are planning a shift to a new career track, you can angle towards professors and classes that will best prepare you for your next job search.

Question #2: Do you know what your dream career looks like and is a (or this) master’s degree the most direct path toward it?

This question is a follow up to the first one and it applies a bit differently depending on whether you’re a student just starting out or a professional looking to accelerate and advance your career. Since this is a two-part question we’ll take it in two steps.

The first consideration here is whether you’re ready to make a good decision about graduate school. The average master’s degree costs tens of thousands of dollars. It makes no sense to go to grad school if you don’t have a clear vision of what you want your career to look like. Given how competitive the job market can be, many young people look at graduate school as an inevitability. As a result, a lot of folks end up applying to a master’s program well before they have any real idea what they want to do with their lives. The result is almost always a suboptimal experience and often just a huge waste of time and money.

The bottom line is to ask yourself if you really know what you want to do. If you do, then you’re ready to take the next step.

Once you know what sort of career you want to pursue, the second consideration is whether or not a master’s degree is the most direct path to building that career and, if so, which master’s degree makes the most sense.

There is too much variation in the job market to make any assumptions about whether you need a master’s degree to get started in your field. In some you do, in some you don’t; and clearly you should do the necessary research to figure that out. I usually recommend getting a job right out of school first if you can – not only do you start making money (hooray!), but you will learn a ton about what your field really looks like, where the opportunities are, and then when you’re ready to go back to school you will be able to make the most of it.

It is true that a master’s degree of some kind has increasingly become a requirement for many jobs within the national security and risk intelligence fields. But that does not mean that all master’s programs are equally useful to all people. An MPP, and MPA, and an MBA, for example, sound similar but they are all very different degrees! True, you’ll end up with a valuable master’s regardless of which you choose, but which one will actually help you the most depends on where you’re headed. If you like two or more programs, ask yourself which one is pointed most directly at the job or career you want most. That’s the one you want.

For those of you already immersed in a career, on the other hand, your experience will likely help you answer the question about whether a particular master’s degree is a good strategy. Look at the folks around you who are getting promoted, look at the education paths your bosses and organization’s leaders have taken. Do all the senior analysts have a master’s degree (or even a Ph.D.?) Do all the senior managers and department heads have an MBA? The particulars vary a lot from field to field and place to place, but over time it will become clear how things work. And that’s why I recommend that people get work experience if they can before getting their master’s: it’s a lot easier to make a good decision when you have more information.

Question #3: Do you already have a graduate degree?

Grad school is really expensive. And even if your organization is paying, it’s a huge investment of time that you could be spending on other things. It only makes sense if the payoff is also going to be big. And in my experience, there are few situations in which the investment in a second graduate degree makes sense. Here are some things to think about:

First, if you already have a master’s degree, under most circumstances there is little reason to get a second one. Your first degree already signals to employers that you are a smart, motivated, and competent person. The value of the second degree, therefore, is limited to showing that you have a good handle on a second field of study. Master’s degrees, however, do not make you an expert in anything, especially in fields like international affairs, political science, public policy and administration, history, area studies, etc. Thus, the career and financial value of a second master’s degree is also limited on this count.

Under what circumstances might it make sense to get a second master’s degree? I see three possible reasons:

1) Getting a second degree can make sense if you need it to make a significant career change. For many who are separating from the military, for example, their second career is a chance to do something new and different. In that case, especially if the military is paying for it, it could well be worth the time to get a head start on things.

Another common situation is for people to discover they are in the wrong career field in the first place. In this case it might be worth getting a second graduate degree once you know what you’d rather be doing instead. Even here, though, it’s worth taking a hard look at whether or not a degree is necessary and sufficient. If you have significant experience, for example, you might be able to make a move without all the expense and headache of going back to school. Sometimes, however, it’s necessary to head back to school in order to “reframe” yourself to be competitive in a different field. But before you take the leap, you should also be certain that getting the degree you’re thinking about will actually land you a job in the field you want.

2) Another scenario where a second master’s degree can work is for those who have been out of the workforce for a long time. If you’ve been home raising kids, for example, it might be useful to have a fresh degree to increase your competitiveness when going back on the job market.

3) Finally, if your boss tells you that your dream job or a great promotion hinges on getting a second master’s degree, then it makes sense to consider it, especially if he or she is footing the bill!

Question #4: What will you do if you don’t go to grad school?

I want to end by reassuring you that getting a master’s is not something you have to do! Graduate school is not for everyone – not even for most people – just nine percent of Americans have a master’s degree. You aren’t alone if thinking about spending all those hours in class really turns you off. And in fact, if you hate school, or are just really tired of it right now, I recommend thinking very, very hard about whether getting a master’s degree is the right plan for you. And even if you eventually do want to get a master’s, you certainly don’t have to do it today, and you positively shouldn’t do it if you aren’t feeling enthusiastic about it.

But deciding not to go to graduate school can be scary, too, especially if you don’t have another plan. When I sense that a student is struggling with the decision, I often encourage them to imagine how they would approach the next phase assuming they did not go to graduate school. A key piece of this process is to start with that first question, “ why are you thinking about graduate school?“ But then ask yourself how you can pursue that goal in other ways. For example, if you want a promotion, what other ways could you make yourself more valuable to your organization? Professional development? Volunteering for a new task force? Finding a mentor to help you navigate your organization and your field? With just a little effort most people realize that there are many approaches to most of their goals. More broadly, it’s good to remember that no matter what stage of life and career you’re at, getting a graduate degree is just one of many strategies available to you.

If you conduct this exercise and find yourself getting more excited about that path than the idea of spending a couple of years in graduate school, that’s a good sign that you should put school on hold while you explore other options. And don’t worry: school will always be there later if you decide later it’s finally time for that master’s degree.

Good luck with your decision! I would love to read your comments about why you’re thinking about graduate school, challenges you’re facing, or how you finally made the decision either way.

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