Silent no longer: valuing the master’s degree

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    Master’s degrees represent the fastest-growing graduate education sector in the U.S.

    These degrees are easily adapted to the needs of the 21st century workforce.

    In addition to career objectives, graduate degrees help foster more engaged and informed citizens.

    In their 1993 study A Silent Success: Master’s Education in the United States, Clifton Conrad, Jennifer Grant Haworth, and Susan Bolyard Millar found that master’s degrees, though rarely heralded in the same way as doctorates, were vital credentials that combined big-picture critical thinking with needed skills to prepare workers for the emergent information economy.

    The flexibility and adaptability of the master’s degree make it particularly well-suited to the ever-evolving demands of the 21st century workforce. Beyond the personal benefits of higher salaries and lower unemployment, many master’s degree holders use their skills to make valuable contributions to their local communities.

    Though A Silent Success was published nearly 3 decades ago, the master’s degree remains one of the great successes of American higher education by providing a diverse population of students with the valuable skills and competencies needed to spur innovation, support strong communities, and act as informed citizens.

    The master’s degree provides a diverse population of students with the valuable skills and competencies needed to spur innovation, support strong communities, and act as informed citizens.

    What is a master’s degree?

    The master’s degree is a postgraduate academic credential that may focus on research, professional practice, or a hybrid of both.

    For research master’s degrees, such as the Master of Arts (M.A.), required coursework will focus on building research competencies in a specific field. These programs will usually culminate in a written thesis or a comprehensive examination.

    The professional master’s degree, by contrast, is designed to align academic training with workforce demand. Coursework may be combined with hands-on experiences such as internships or fieldwork. These programs often replace the written master’s thesis with an experiential capstone like an internship or with a project showcasing the skills developed in the program.

    Read: What are professional doctorates?

    Some programs, such as the professional science master’s (PSM), combine research and professional skill development to prepare graduates for careers in science research that may also involve management, policy, law, or other professional skills.

    The master’s degree’s flexibility also extends to its length of study. Some master’s programs may take only 1 year, while others (such as the master of fine arts) can take more than 3. Often, program duration is determined at the field level, so most degree programs in a particular field should be roughly the same length.

    How common are master’s degrees?

    Master’s education is the fastest growing part of graduate education in the United States. According to the CGS/GRE Survey of Graduate Enrollment & Degrees for Fall 2020, 84.0% of first-time graduate students were enrolled in programs leading to a master’s degree or a graduate certificate and nearly three quarters (72.9%) of total graduate enrollment was in master’s programs.

    Beyond its rapid growth, master’s degrees serve diverse students who pursue post-baccalaureate education for a variety of reasons. While master’s education can provide degree holders with the skills needed to advance their careers, it also can support communities by preparing socially-engaged and informed citizens.

    The master’s degree can accommodate a wide variety of students with diverse career goals.

    What can you do with a master’s degree?

    For Shabana Sayed at Hood College, a master’s degree in educational leadership was a way to achieve a particular career goal. She has been an educator in Maryland for 8 years and used her master’s degree to prepare for a move out of the classroom and into education administration.

    Jack Hoda’s motivations for seeking a master’s degree were different. He sought a degree in English literature from the University of Southern Mississippi because he was passionate about literature and wanted to become a high school teacher. His experience as a community organizer in graduate school caused him to rethink his plans, however.

    Fortunately, he found that his master’s degree provided him with a variety of transferable skills – ranging from critical thinking to written and oral communication – that paved the way for a career supporting LGBTQ+ healthcare access. The master’s degree’s flexibility makes it a valuable credential for supporting diverse career goals and community engagement.

    The master’s degree’s flexibility makes it a valuable credential for supporting diverse career goals and community engagement.

    The flexibility of master’s degrees has made it an attractive credential for students from underrepresented groups. As of 2018-2019, nearly a quarter of all master’s students were from groups historically underrepresented in higher education.

    Furthermore, master’s degrees are an important pathway for underrepresented students into doctoral programs and the professoriate. Underrepresented students in STEM doctoral programs, for example, were more likely to succeed in their doctoral program if they had already completed a master’s degree.

    With its demonstrated success in supporting underrepresented students, the master’s degree is vital in diversifying higher education and promoting equity.

    KEY TAKEAWAY

    A key feature of the master’s degree is its flexibility, often providing transferrable skills individuals can apply in a variety of professional and community settings. They are also an important pathway for underrepresented students into doctoral programs.

    What are the benefits of a master’s degree?

    Master’s degree holders gain personally and professionally from their degree. Jobs requiring master’s degrees are increasing. The US Department of Labor estimates that jobs requiring a master’s degree will grow by 15% between 2019 and 2029. As a result, master’s degree holders have lower unemployment rates than those with only a bachelor’s degree.

    The US Department of Labor estimates that jobs requiring a master’s degree will grow by 15% between 2019 and 2029.

    Though not true for all types of master’s degrees, many master’s degrees are in growing fields like healthcare where workers can expect higher wages and better benefits than those economic sectors that do not require a master’s degree.

    While master’s degree holders may enjoy personal gain from their degree, the expertise acquired in master’s programs often benefits the community directly. This is particularly true in the healthcare sector, where over three-quarters of nurse practitioners and nearly two-thirds of midwives have master’s degrees. The knowledge gained by these essential workers in their master’s programs proves important every day as they treat and care for those who need it.

    Over three-quarters of nurse practitioners and nearly two-thirds of midwives have master’s degrees.

    Educators are another sector where personal and community benefits intersect. As Shabana’s story illustrates, a master’s degree can help teachers advance in their careers. Still, it is not just educational administrators who earn master’s degrees. Over half of all secondary teachers have master’s degrees.

    A deeper knowledge of pedagogy in a teacher’s chosen field like English or history provides field-specific expertise and may make those teachers better able to communicate that knowledge to students. The specialized knowledge acquired in master’s degree programs can be particularly valuable in working with students with special needs – and over half of all special education teachers have master’s degrees.

    KEY TAKEAWAY

    Jobs requiring master’s degrees are increasingly common. In sectors like healthcare and education, where an advanced degree can mean direct professional benefits, pursuing a master’s degree is a particularly sound choice.

    A graduate education also benefits communities indirectly in ways unrelated to skills development. Master’s degree recipients generally have higher rates of civic engagement. A study of the 2016 congressional elections found that over 80% of U.S. citizens with at least a master’s degree voted, compared to 74% with a bachelor’s degree, and only 52% of high school graduates.

    In 2016, over 80% of U.S. citizens with at least a master’s degree voted, compared to 74% with a bachelor’s degree, and only 52% of high school graduates.

    Furthermore, there is evidence that children of parents with master’s degrees are better prepared for school, more active in extracurricular activities, and better informed about the world and national events.

    Each person will value their master’s degree differently. As the case studies above demonstrate, a master’s education can be a gateway to professional advancement or a new career. While often motivated by personal objectives, post-baccalaureate education can also benefit communities either directly, through the acquisition of needed skills and competencies, or indirectly, by creating more engaged and informed citizens.

    The master’s degree is no longer a silent success. Instead, it is a vanguard credential that has capitalized on its flexibility to deliver value to a diverse group of students with different personal, professional, and community goals.

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