Is Grad School Worth It? Five Degrees That Are


Want to take the next step in your professional life? These five master's degree programs could be well worth the time and money.

By Andrea Duchon

To go to grad school, or not to go: that is the question that many bachelor's degree-holders face. And while some top positions might require a master's, the actual benefits of an advanced degree might be less apparent for other career paths.

In fact, in January 2012, a report from Georgetown University based on the most recent U.S. Census, "Hard Times, College Majors, Unemployment, and Earnings: Not All College Degrees Are Created Equal," found that graduate degree holders had only slightly lower unemployment rates at 3 percent versus than those with a bachelor's only, at 5 percent.

So to help you figure out if a master's might be worth pursuing, we did some digging for you. We talked to career experts who weighed in on certain degrees that might be worth it, and reasons why you may want to think carefully about pursuing others. Keep reading to find out more.

Degree #1: Master's in Health Care Administration (MHA)

Maybe you already work in health care on the clinical side, but envision your next move to be toward administration or management. Would going back to school to earn a master's in health care administration be a smart move?

Tim Dugger, a longtime career coach at Career Café, a provider of one-on-one career coaching programs, certainly thinks it would be.

"If you have a clinical background, this is definitely a degree that is going to enhance your career," says Dugger. "The general business education topics contained in these programs, coupled with the increased knowledge of hospital and practice operations make this one a clear winner, both personally and financially."

Dugger also says that a master's in health care administration is the perfect complement to those seeking career advancement in the medical field, or an enhanced skill set for running their own practice.

Next step: Click to Find the Right Health Care Administration Program.

Potential Career Path: Medical or Health Services Manager
Median Annual Salary*: $88,580
Top 10 Percent of Earners: $150,560
Bottom 10 Percent of Earners: $53,940

While a bachelor's degree is required to pursue a career as a medical and health services manager, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, master's degrees in health services, long-term care administration, public health, public administration, or business administration are also common.

The Department of Labor also says that if you already work in the medical field, a master's in health services administration or a related field could be necessary to move into more advanced positions. For example, if you're a registered nurse, this degree could help prepare you to pursue a position as a nursing service administrator, according to the Department.

Degree #2: Master's in Psychology and Counseling

Have you always had a knack for listening to your friends' problems and helping them work out a potential solution? If you already have a bachelor's, you may want to think about enrolling in a master's program in psychology and counseling.

But is it worth the time, money, and commitment?

Dugger says yes. "In areas such as mental health, marriage and family counseling, industrial and organizational psychology, therapy, and counseling, a master's degree is the entry-level ticket to admission in this high-growth field," he says.

Next step: Click to Find the Right Psychology and Counseling Program.

Potential Career Path: Marriage and Family Therapist
Median Annual Salary*: $46,670
Top 10 Percent of Earners: $75,120
Bottom 10 Percent of Earners: $25,540

You'll need that shiny new master's degree in counseling or marriage and family therapy for this career, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Marriage and family therapy programs typically teach students how different types of relationships function, and how they affect mental and emotional disorders. They also say that you'll need to be licensed - which in addition to the master's degree, requires two years of supervised clinical practice.

Degree #3: Master's in Business Administration

Do you work in business, but feel you've hit the proverbial ceiling at your current position? Earning a master's degree in business administration - or an MBA - could be just what you need to get a leg up.

But not all MBAs and career paths are created equal, and Dugger explains why: It all depends on your area of expertise, he says. "In general, undergraduate technical degrees (in areas like science, tech, engineering, or math) married with some kind of graduate business education can create a well-rounded and more promotable individual. For these people, an MBA is a powerful career enhancer."

But if you're not in a technical field - don't fret. Dugger says you could still do well with an MBA if you look specifically at a concentration in finance.

"I've seen this degree make the difference in numerous hiring situations. Finance done right is a 'big picture' field and so it only makes sense that a finance MBA with its broad focus is viewed as an asset by hiring managers," he says.

Next step: Click to Find the Right MBA program.

Potential Career Path: Financial Analyst
Median Annual Salary*: $88,580
Top 10 Percent of Earners: $150,560
Bottom 10 Percent of Earners: $53,940

While you may be qualified to pursue this gig with a bachelor's degree in a field like accounting, economics, or business administration, many employers now require an MBA, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Additionally, The Department of Labor says an MBA or a master's in finance can improve your chances of advancing to positions like portfolio manager, in which you might oversee a team of analysts. Another career you could advance to with a master's is fund manager, in which you would be in charge of big portfolios for single investors.

Degree #4: Master's in Public Administration (MPA)

Do you pride yourself on keeping up on government and always have a finger on the political pulse? If you dream of entering the world of politics yourself one day, earning your master's degree in public administration could set you up to pursue a high-powered career in the political system.

But do you really need that master's degree to snag your dream job? According to Dugger, yes.

"Most people pursuing this degree are seeking a career in some area of government. This is yet another degree that can be a significant contributing factor in a person's advancement potential within government roles," notes Dugger.

There is one caveat, however: If you ever want to switch career tracks and transition out of government, this degree could hold you back - in terms of both general preparedness and marketability, says Dugger. That's because it may be more difficult for employers to relate to the skill set this degree may have given you.

Next step: Click to Find the Right Public Administration Program.

Potential Career Path: Political Scientist
Median Annual Salary*: $102,000
Top 10 Percent of Earners: $155,490
Bottom 10 Percent of Earners: $49,290

You'll need at least a master's to pursue this career, since the U.S. Department of Labor lists a master's degree or Ph.D. in public administration, political science, or a related field as a requirement for this career track. Most students in an MPA, Master of Public Policy (MPP), or Master of Public Affairs program can choose a specific area of interest, says the Department of Labor. And political scientists with a master's degree could also qualify for teaching positions at community colleges, the Department notes.

Degree #5: Master's of Science in Nursing

You may be thinking that you don't need a master's degree to pursue a career as a nurse - and you'd be right. But did you know that in some states, nurse practitioners with a master of science in nursing can perform many of the same functions as a physician - including physical exams and writing prescriptions?

It's true, says Joe Weinlick, vice president of marketing at, a career network website that helps people grow and succeed professionally. And earning a graduate degree in nursing could pave the way to new job prospects, he says.

"Nurses don't necessarily need a master's degree to find good jobs - but getting a master of science in nursing (MSN) can open up additional doors and opportunities," he says.

For example, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) says that a job as a nurse practitioner can be highly rewarding and also pays as much as 50 percent higher than a registered nurse. And Weinlick agrees, but says you'll need to hurry to cash in. "Today an RN can become a nurse practitioner in most states by obtaining an MSN. Starting in 2015, a Doctor of Nursing Practice will be required, according to the AACN," he adds.

Next step: Click to Find the Right Nursing Program.

Potential Career Path: Nurse Practitioner
Median Annual Salary*: $89,960
Top 10 Percent of Earners: $120,500
Bottom 10 Percent of Earners: $64,100

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, you'll need a master's degree to move forward in your career to a position as an advanced practice registered nurse - which includes nurse practitioners. And here's an important point: In addition to earning your MSN, you must also be licensed as an RN, the Department says.

* All salary information from the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Employment and Wages data, May 2012.

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