Is a Master's Degree Worth It?

Written by Coursera • Updated on Nov 24, 2021

Learn more about evaluating whether a master's degree is the right decision for your future.

A young woman with long blonde hair contemplates her desktop computer screen.

Earning your master’s degree has many advantages. It can lead to higher salaries, advanced career opportunities, higher-level subject knowledge, and a feeling of accomplishment. But embarking on a master’s degree takes time and money. 

Whether a master’s degree is worth it ultimately depends on your personal, professional, and educational goals, as well as your resources. As you evaluate your options, you should take time to weigh your larger objectives and needs. In this article, we’ll review the reasons why a master’s degree may be a worthwhile investment for your future, and how to evaluate whether it’s the right decision for you. 

Master’s degree: Return on investment 

There are several benefits that usually come with earning a master’s degree, though  your return on investment (ROI) will depend on your situation—and your potential industry. 

Increased salary and job stability

Graduates with a master’s degree make $80,340 a year on average, and experience less unemployment than those with a bachelor’s degree or an associate degree [1]. Bachelor’s degree holders make $67,860 a year and experience unemployment at a slightly higher rate (5.5 percent versus 4.1 percent for master’s).

Depending on your industry, you could earn significantly more with a master’s degree. For example, the median salary for a Master of Business Administration (MBA) was $115,000 in 2021 [2]. Higher-paying jobs also tend to prefer or require an advanced degree. Half of the jobs that pay over $94,000 typically require a master’s or doctorate, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) [3].

Lifetime earnings

While your yearly salary is important, it can help to think about your earning potential over the course of your lifetime. If you plan on working for several more decades, you may be able to add substantially to your net earnings thanks to the higher salaries typically associated with master’s degrees. A study investigating the correlation between education and lifetime earnings found that graduate degree holders saw rising median incomes into their mid-50s—well past the early 40s where bachelor’s degree holders saw their earnings plateau [4].

Advanced roles 

While a bachelor’s degree serves as the entry point for many careers, a master’s is a more common requirement for industries such as education, information science, computer science, medicine, and health care administration, all of which tend to pay more.   

Jobs that typically require a master’s degree: 

Job TitleMedian US SalaryProjected job growth
Guidance/career counselor$58,12011% (faster than average)
Librarian$60,2809% (average)
Speech language pathologist$80,48029% (much faster than average)
Economist$108,35013% (faster than average)
Physician’s assistant$115,39031% (much faster than average)
Nurse practitioner$117,67045% (much faster than average)

*All salaries from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics 

Overall, a master’s degree isn’t a requirement for every job, but a growing number of professions prefer candidates with advanced education. In fact, the BLS estimates that jobs requiring a master’s degree should grow by 16.7 percent through 2026 [3]. 

Job candidacy 

Between 1991 and 2019, the number of master’s degrees awarded rose by 143 percent—70-percent faster than bachelor’s degrees [5]. Given the growing popularity of a master’s degree as a distinguishing credential, you may be able to stand out from other job candidates after earning one, though experience is still a key component. 

Expanded network

Earning your master’s degree isn’t just about your education (though that’s certainly a critical part); it’s also about the connections you make in your program. Your professors and even your classmates can add to your network, and may lead to new opportunities.  

If you’ve been working and you’re thinking about enrolling in a graduate degree program, learn more about ways you can evaluate whether you should go back to school.

Placeholder

Master’s degrees: Time and costs

A master’s degree can take anywhere from one to three years to complete, depending on whether you attend full time or part time. The cost of earning a master’s ranges between $30,000 and $120,000 [6], and for MBAs that figure can rise to $200,000 [7]. Tuition can shift dramatically between public and private institutions: it costs, on average, $54,500 to earn a master’s degree at a public school, whereas the average total cost is $81,100 at a private school. 

As you contemplate whether a master’s degree is worth it for you, make sure you spend time researching the cost of each potential program you’d like to attend. Think about how cost factors into your needs: is it the top priority in your decision making, or is program length, faculty expertise, or another feature more important?  

Learn more about the length of time it takes to complete your master’s degree

Is a master’s degree right for me?

To answer that question, it’s good to think about what you hope to accomplish with a master’s degree and the resources you have to get one. 

Questions to ask before starting a master’s program:

  • What are my goals? 

  • Can a master’s degree help me achieve them? 

  • Do I have the time to dedicate to earning a master’s degree? 

  • Am I prepared to take on the additional work of graduate school? 

  • Can I afford the cost of attending a master’s program? 

  • Am I comfortable taking out loans if I can’t cover the cost out of pocket? 

  • Do I have a plan in place to repay those loans? 

These questions will help you assess your specific situation and whether a master's degree is the best decision for your future needs, plans, and goals.

Resources

Your time and money are valuable, and should be part of your decision making. You should have some understanding of your finances before deciding whether to apply to graduate school. If you’re working, can you take time off to attend a full-time master’s program or will you need to continue working? Can your schedule fit the demand of a graduate course load, which is nine credits (or three courses) for full-time attendance? 

While your master’s degree can yield higher salaries, it may take some time to move into a role that pays more. Having a plan to pay for your master’s degree beyond student loans can be advantageous because it means you’ll be better informed and better prepared after graduation. Learn more about ways to pay for grad school.

Know before you go: If you anticipate taking out student loans to finance all or a portion of your program, you can use a student loan calculator, such as one from Federal Student Aid, SmartAsset, or Student Loan Hero, to estimate what your repayments could look like after graduation. 

Placeholder

Which master’s degree is right for me?

You should think about your interests, career goals, and resources as you decide which master’s program to pursue. The three most popular fields of study for master’s degrees are business, education, and health. Over half of the master’s degrees awarded between 2018 and 2019 were in those areas, and each shows faster-than-average job growth rates, according to BLS [8]. 

There are a number of master’s degrees to choose from, but the most common tend to be: 

  • Master of Arts (MA): A graduate-level degree typically for students interested in the arts, humanities, and social sciences

  • Master of Science (MS): A graduate-level degree typically for students interested in tech, natural sciences, and mathematics

  • Master of Business Administration (MBA): A graduate-level degree for students interested in business and management 

  • Master of Public Health (MPH): A graduate-level degree for students interested in protecting and improving health in communities 

  • Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS): A graduate-level degree for students interested in becoming a librarian, archivist, or curator  

  • Master of Education (MEd): A graduate-level degree for students interested in becoming educational administrators

Unlike choosing a major for a bachelor’s degree, a master’s ideally builds on something you know or want to learn more about. If you’re already in the workforce and enjoy what you’re doing, you can get a master’s in a subject related to your industry. Or if you’ve come to learn about a new area that interests you and want to switch career paths, you can pursue a master’s in a new subject to gain more in-depth knowledge. 

Online master’s degrees

Online master’s have grown increasingly popular in recent years, largely because many students choose to work while earning their advanced degree [9]. An online master’s degree may be a more affordable and flexible option than earning your degree at an in-person institution. For example, the University of Illinois' Master of Computer Science degree costs a total of $21,440, and you can finish it in one to three years, depending on your schedule.  

You can earn an Ivy League Master of Computer and Information Technology from the University of Pennsylvania's Penn Engineering program, or a Master of Public Health from the University of Michigan's School of Public Health, a top-five ranked program. Explore more online master's degrees from top schools on Coursera.

Placeholder

Other options

If you’d like to bolster your subject knowledge and advance your training, there are other options besides a master’s degree that can add to your ongoing education. 

Certificates: Rather than enroll in a two-year program, consider a certificate as a faster way to learn about a specific subject or skill. A certificate is evidence of education, and can be added to your resume to validate your qualifications in a subject area. It’s also a great option if you’re looking to change career paths and need to gain a foundational knowledge of your new field. On Coursera, you can earn a Professional Certificate in a number of in-demand careers, taught by industry leaders: Google Project Management, IBM Data Science, and Facebook Marketing Analytics

Certifications: If you work in tech or project management, a certification may help boost your career without the time commitment and cost of a master’s program. A certification shows employers that you have met an industry standard in a specific area, typically by passing an exam. Professional organizations, such as the IT-focused ISACA or CompTIA, offer a range of certifications. If you’re interested in learning more, search for certifications in your industry or field.  

Additional courses: If you’d like to brush up on a topic or learn something new, taking an additional course or a series of courses may be a better option than completing a two-year master’s degree. You can find many free courses in a range of topics from Stanford, Yale, University of Michigan, and more.

Related articles

Article sources

1. US Bureau of Labor. "Education Pays, https://www.bls.gov/emp/chart-unemployment-earnings-education.htm." Accessed November 18, 2021.

2. Graduate Management Admission Council. "Demand of Graduate Management Talent, https://www.gmac.com/-/media/files/gmac/research/employment-outlook/2021_crs-demand-of-gm-talent.pdf." Accessed November 18, 2021.

3. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Occupational Employment Projections Through the Perspective of Education and Training, https://www.bls.gov/spotlight/2019/education-projections/pdf/education-projections.pdf." Accessed November 18, 2021.

4. Demography. "Education and Lifetime Earnings in the United States, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4534330/." Accessed November 19, 2021.

5. New York Magazine. "What's a Master's Degree Really Worth?, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2021/08/whats-a-masters-degree-really-worth.html." Accessed November 18, 2021.

6. Education Data Initiative. "Average Cost of a Master's Degree, https://educationdata.org/average-cost-of-a-masters-degree." Accessed November 18, 2021.

7. Poets & Quants. "How Much Does a Top MBA Now Cost?, https://poetsandquants.com/2018/12/24/cost-of-an-mba-program/2/." Accessed November 23, 2021.

8. National Center for Education Statistics. "Graduate Degree Fields, https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator/ctb." Accessed November 19, 2021.

9. Inside Higher Ed. "Master's Degrees More Popular, Increasingly Online, https://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2018/12/12/masters-degrees-more-popular-increasingly-online." Accessed November 19, 2021.

Written by Coursera • Updated on Nov 24, 2021

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

Learn without limits