As a career coach of 15 years, I'm constantly asked by people of all ages about whether it's worth getting a master's degree. Their hope is to graduate and land a prestigious, high-paying job.
But I quickly warn them that's not always how it works, especially during a pandemic. In fact, there are many cases in which having a master's on your resume could actually make your job search more difficult and more trouble than it's worth.
I'm not saying that no one should get an advanced degree, because it does make sense (and even be a requirement) in some industries, such as in health care, law, STEM fields and education.
But let's clear up three common misconceptions that could waste your time, lead you down the wrong career path and into a massive pile of debt:
1. Having a master's degree will make it easier to land a job
Nope. We're in one of the toughest job markets in history, and not even a master's degree will significantly boost your chances of landing a position at your dream company.
I had one client with an MBA who applied to dozens of waitressing jobs this year to pay off student loan debt, but didn't get hired anywhere until she took her master's degree off her resume.
Even back when I was a recruiter years ago, many of the companies I worked with rarely hired the new graduate with a shiny degree. In one case, an employer decided to go with someone who only had a high school diploma, but had several internships under her belt.
When I asked the leadership team why they didn't go with the MBA candidate, one person told me, "This position seems too entry-level for him. Plus, we don't want someone who might jump ship once something better comes along."
That might be an unfair assumption to make, but this is the perception that some employers have, especially during difficult economic times.
So unless your field absolutely requires a master's, first focus on getting relevant experience, such as an internship or part-time job that will offer transferable skills.
2. The pandemic is a perfect time to get a master's degree
I saw this happen during the 2008 financial crisis, when many Americans went back to school and ride out the recession.
They struggled to find work, blamed it on not having enough education credentials and said, "I can't get a job and have nothing better to do. I should just spend money on a master's, and when I finish, there will be a ton of jobs available — with higher salaries because of my new degree!"
But that didn't pay off for everyone. Even today, companies are increasingly hiring based on skills learned on the job, or offer in-house training programs for employees.
So when they see that you have a master's, but very little practical experience, it puts you in the same situation you were in when you didn't have a master's.
3. It's never too late to get a master's degree
Unless you're somewhat new to the workforce, it's important to consider how much longer you plan to stay in it.
Let's say you want to retire in five or seven years. Is it really wise to invest thousands of dollars for a degree that will take you two or three years to get? For most people, it's not worth it because they won't have time to recoup the money in their earnings.
Think about where you are in your professional and personal life:
- How much money have you saved up?
- Can you realistically pay for tuition?
- Is the field you're getting a master's degree in one that you plan to stick with? Or are you uncertain about the future of your career?
- Do the people who have done well in your field also have a master's degree? If not, then do you really need one, too?
A master's degree can certainly help in marketing yourself, but keep in mind that it's not always worth the money and time. Always do your research — and the math — before making the commitment.
J.T. O'Donnell is the founder and CEO of Work It Daily, an online platform dedicated to helping people solve their biggest career problems. She has more than 15 years of experience in hiring, recruiting and career coaching. For career tips, follow her on TikTok @jtodonnell.
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