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Understand the Value of a Graduate Degree

Graduate degrees in the sciences and social sciences pay off, according to a Georgetown study.

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Michael Brenner earned a doctorate in education from the prestigious Teachers College at Columbia University in 2010, assuming a degree from an Ivy League institution would open numerous doors for him and bolster his chances for success entering the field of corporate consulting. However, after starting his own leadership and team-building consulting firm, he finds the doctorate has added little value to his business. "At this point, I would say that attending graduate school was not worth the cost," he says. "However, I recognize that it is early in this venture and the doctorate may pay off financially in the future." 

Though many with graduate degrees echo Brenner's feelings, graduate school does lead to increased earnings across every discipline, according to a recent study on the economic value of college areas of study by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. Among the 15 fields of study analyzed in the report, median earnings of those with a graduate degree in the field, irrespective of tenure, are an average of 38.3 percent higher than those who only possess a bachelor's degree in the same field. "Is it worth it?" asks Reid Linn, dean of the Graduate School at James Madison University. "I am unaware of any study that has ever proven that more education and more guided practice and direct experience has hurt anyone or negatively impacted someone's life over a lifetime." 

[See the 10 M.B.A. programs with the most value at graduation.] 

But while the study found that earnings for students with graduate degrees increased, the extent of that benefit varied wildly. Biology and life science majors earn 70 percent more with graduate degrees in those disciplines than those with bachelor's degrees in the same field and social science workers with graduate degrees earn 55 percent more than their counterparts with bachelor's degrees, according to the study.

[See U.S. News's rankings of Best Graduate Schools.] 

Shane Ellison, for instance, who received a master's degree in organic chemistry from Northern Arizona University in 2000, parlayed the degree into a successful career as a medicinal chemist-turned-health author. "The education was invaluable to me as a chemist, as it taught me how to handle the unique rigors of scientific research, namely pharmaceutical drug design," he says. 

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the median journalism/communications major and arts major earns only 19 percent and 25 percent more, respectively, with a graduate degree, though degrees from top programs in those fields can cost $40,000 a year or more in tuition alone. 

In fields where the median salary increase after graduate school is below average, work experience might prove more helpful than another degree. Eric Peters thought the master's degree he earned in 2009 from Radford University in corporate and professional communication would bolster his job chances and boost his earning potential, even amid the recession. In his job search, however, he found that his master's degree was trumped by those with more work experience in the communications field. He ultimately landed the type of entry level job typically reserved for younger workers with less educational experience. 

[Is it time to go back to school?] 

"I expected to get out of grad school and find a job fairly easily, even in the down economy," he says. "What I found after applying to more than 150 jobs was that experience weighs far more than education. And I'm talking paid full-time experience, because I had four internships under my belt when I graduated that didn't seem to matter very much." 

Students shouldn't look at graduate degrees holistically, academic officials say. Instead, they should carefully examine the payoff an advanced degree typically garners in their field. "I would not recommend enrolling in any graduate program—if your primary goal is full-time employment—without some hard, externally verifiable evidence that the program is successful at placing its graduates in positions that the applicant would regard as acceptable," says William Pannapacker, professor of English at Hope College in Holland, Mich.