3 Ways a Master's Degree Can Boost Your Career

By Ben Edwards on 13 January 2011 (Updated 9 January 2012) 6 comments
Photo: billaday

Have you ever considered going back to school for a masters degree to get ahead in your job? Let me guess: You’ve never made it past the consideration stage because it’s a lot of work and can be pretty expensive? (See also: 6 Ways to Pay Less For A College Degree)

The prospect of spending all that time and money leaves most of us wondering if we'll get our money's worth out of a master's degree, asking questions like "is an MBA worth it?" While hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars does seem like an awful lot to invest in knowledge, what I’ve found is that the information you absorb is only a portion of the benefit.

The technical knowledge you learn about your trade can make you better at the work you do, but the people you meet and the perspective you gain can really help propel your career forward. Here are three things I noticed as I earned my degree that didn’t show up on the diploma, but can make a big difference in career advancement.

1. Industry Connections

There are some great networking opportunities available when you’re regularly in close contact with 10 to 20 professionals in your field. The relationships you form during the course of your classes can yield benefits for years down the road.

The most obvious benefit is a list of contacts if you ever need a job or are looking to hire good people. For example, two people I met in my classes were mid-level managers with a different company. They weren’t doing the hiring when I applied to that company years later, but I was able to use them as references and got the job.

For those in an online degree program, don’t think that you’re missing out on all the networking opportunities.  I was introduced to another software engineer virtually through one of my online courses who has helped me out several times throughout the years. It may take longer to build relationships online, but when you work closely together in a few classes, you get to know people — whether it’s in person or virtually.

2. Experienced Mentors

One of the things to consider when you choose an MBA program or other master's degree is the background and experience of the instructors. One of the things I really liked about my program is that they followed a practitioner-based approach. This meant all the teachers were still working in the field and only taught part-time.

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Some of them were entrepreneurs and owned their own companies. One was a CEO of a medium-sized business and several were executives at major companies. For example, many of my project management courses were taught by the head of the Project Management Office at a Fortune 500 corporation. I also had the Chief Security Officer of the same company teaching me courses on information security.

The real world experience they shared with us was extremely helpful, but even if your instructors are no longer actively involved in your industry, they’re still likely full of tricks of the trade. Your teachers probably enjoy helping develop upcoming professionals, otherwise they wouldn’t be there teaching in the first place. They’re perfectly suited to help mentor you and give you guidance in your industry. Having access to experienced professionals like that can give you a definite advantage over your peers at work.

3. Expanded Job Opportunities

When I told my boss that I might be enrolling in an online master's degree in information systems, he asked if there was anything he could do to help me get real-world application out of what I was learning.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but it turned out that his offer was good for me from a career perspective. Every class at the master's level had some type of big project associated with it ,and I always tried to work through the class project steps using a real-world project from my job.

Since the projects were “extracurricular,” I wasn’t tied down to the standard types of work I did in my day-to-day position. Not only did I learn about parts of the business that I wasn’t normally exposed to, I was also able to help my boss and his manager address issues they’d always had on a wish list but never had time to work on.

These projects put me in contact with higher-level managers in the company and also helped me stand out in my annual reviews — both of which were good for my career.

So when you see the price tag of a graduate degree, keep in mind the potential benefits in addition to the technical knowledge you’ll gain. Be sure to think about things like industry connections, potential mentors, and expanded job opportunities when you’re evaluating graduate programs.

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Guest's picture
Julie

I have to disagree with this article, at least it part. Yes, *some* master's degrees can help your career. Some, frankly, can't. I have an M.A. in Medieval Studies, and let me tell you, it's done nothing for my career. (I originally got it so I could teach at junior college -- cegep -- here in Montreal. It didn't pan out.) And most PhDs in the humanities can't find work, because there's a glut of other humanities PhDs out there, all vying for the same limited number of academic jobs.

So before you actually go get that graduate degree, do your homework and find out if it'll *really* lead where you want to go!

Guest's picture
Guest

Julie makes a good point that you need to research the particular graduate degree you're considering to see whether there will be an economic benefit. My impression from the article is that it's mainly focused on master's degrees that relate to business in general or a specific business (e.g., tech degrees). Those types of degrees tend to be worth more than others in the marketplace. It's sad but true that humanities degrees do not seem to offer much in the way of economic benefits.

My current employer has a great tuition reimbursement plan, so I am thinking about a tech-oriented master's degree program, but I'm still researching whether it will be worth it.

Guest's picture
Jaime

Not so sure about this ... my husband and I both have MAs in Business Leadership, and we've laughed many times about why we ever got them in the first place. Outside of a little extra credibility, they've been useless. Especially in finding a new job!

You'd have to have a very specific field such as engineering for any advanced degree to really be useful.

Just my opinion! :)

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MBASOWHAT?

I agree with the JAIMEs. I have an MBA in Business from University of Phoenix, and the tuition was paid by my employer at a 100% by the time I graduated in 2006! Oh, does that sound good? Yes, of course! But I almost got crazy to make sure I had good grades, otherwise the benefit would have been suspended, and manage all the working time with extensive, (I mean extensive!!) home work ! Since then, I used all the knowledge from that and applied to supervise a team located in Mexico, which I worked very hard to achieve a strong performance, to listen from my manager that certificate degree did not mean "anything", but rather my capabilities to perform the job. I totally disagree with him at first, because many things we learn in the academic environment were helpful at work for strategic planning. To make the story short, I have all the skilled background, but have never been promoted. So was he right about an MBA does not mean anything ? or 1) maybe he was afraid I was going to take his place, because he DIDN'T have an MBA?; or 2) he was a man (oh yes, there are still some barriers for women at work), and 3) Politics.. yes, I was NOT one of his "buddies" to discuss soccer games, and I did not play chess, and I did not went happy hour every Friday to "scape' from "unsuccessful marriage". Anyways, all that work at school for nothing.. ?? Surely I added more gray hair and wrinkles! oh and my beautiful certificate is in a frame, (not hanged) but standing in a shelf at home! The good thing I didn;t have to pay.. but it cost me some years of counseling therapy to rebounce the positives and throw away the negatives!! Good luck!

Guest's picture

This is a tough topic. My personal opinion is that you should NOT pay for a master's degree, or at least not pay the majority of the degree. When I did my MA, I had an assistantship that paid for three of the four semesters. I'm now working on an online degree program and my employer is paying for most of my classes.
I earned my MA in History in 2005 and have used my degree since then. I don't think my degree was the only reason I was hired, but I think it put me ahead of the other applicants. That degree has since paid off again, as I was hired as an adjunct instructor at my local community college.
If you don't need a master's degree for your job, don't get one. Get your BA, work for a couple of years, and then determine if you need additional education.

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Grant

I would not agree that a Masters will work for everyone but it would agree that it will work for most, i think the field you are in and your personal life situation solely determines that