A Master’s Degree In Tough Times?

What’s bad for the markets is often good for education. With the national unemployment rate at 9.8% in September, analysts are predicting a prolonged "jobless recovery." Fewer open positions and still-growing ranks of job-seekers means unemployed and worried workers are flocking back to school to try to gain an advantage in a competitive and troubled economy.

In fact, women are taking the lead in the collegiate race. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, women will earn 59% of bachelor’s degrees and 61% of master’s degrees this year, as well as half of all Ph.D.s.

But career experts warn: Do your homework before you enroll. Pursuing an advanced or professional degree without thinking through whether it’s really required or analyzing the return on your investment of time and money may not be worth it. Leaping too soon may land you a degree that doesn’t open doors or offer much career or salary growth, and instead leaves you with a hefty debt.

Reflect: Matriculate or Nine-to-Five It
"It’s easy to go back to school if you don’t have a job," says Robert Hellmann, a professor at New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies. "You study hard and don’t have to deal with life for two years. But it may not lead to career growth."

Hellmann advises that anyone considering a master’s begin with a "self-assessment," or working definition of her long-term career goals. Once you decide on the industry, positions and types of companies you’d like to pursue, then it’s a matter of researching the prerequisite steps to get ahead. You may not need the diploma, he says.

Career transition specialist Deborah Bailey agrees. "Look at the success rates of others in your field," she advises. At the top of the finance, legal and science industries, a master’s degree from a prestigious school may be the norm to gain admission or to attain a management position.

A Master’s Degree In Tough Times? Is the return on your investment of time and money worth it? What’s bad for the markets is often good for education. With the national unemployme?nt rate at

A master’s is usually required for secondary and post-secondary teaching positions, so an M.A. or M.F.A. may open the door to positions in education. But in other fields, such as information technology, human resources and sales, work experience and relationships may matter more than a new degree.

Change Direction: A New Career
It’s pointless to earn a degree and then not utilize it. Bailey relays the stories of two women at AT&T ( T – news – people ) who both went back to get their M.B.A.s. One leveraged her education to move into a management position; the other continued in the same job she’d had before she got the master’s. "School’s expensive," she says, "and if you think it will instantly open doors, think again."

Bailey says she once considered getting her M.A. in English, but ultimately concluded it wouldn’t offer her much more earning power. "At that time I was considering some changes in my career and I wanted to do more writing," she says. "Not to say an advanced degree is bad, but I haven’t found it to be necessary when one is running their own business."

In the corporate world, however, master’s degrees can be especially useful for career-changers and those who want to upgrade their alma mater to a more elite institution.

Laurence Shatkin, Ph.D., author of Best Jobs for the 21st Century, adds: "Most people need the discipline of a formal education, and most employers more easily recognize the piece of paper." While it’s possible to switch career tracks through hard work and networking, an express route is often more education. The time in school will broaden your skill set in a way that employers can see in black and white.

Consider: The Just-Right Program
If you decide a higher degree is the way to go, the next step is figuring out which program is right for you. Health care, science and technology services are the best industries to be in now, Shatkin believes. He ranked today’s "best jobs" by measures of salary, job growth and job openings, and found that the top five were in medicine and science–including physical therapists, physician’s assistants, occupational therapists, environmental scientists and geoscientists–and all require a master’s. (See "Top 10 Most Secure Jobs.")

And in these fields, like the corporate world, a master’s of business administration may offer an edge in attaining management level. While general M.B.A.s have long been considered safe bets and offer greater flexibility in terms of career options, Lawrence Hamer, associate dean of DePaul University’s Kellstadt Graduate School of Business, has seen an increase in specialized business degrees in the last year and a half.

The most popular are the master’s of accountancy, human resources, finance and real estate. Hamer recommends a specialized degree particularly for people who have a business undergrad degree, those who already have a general M.B.A. and want to focus their skills or people trying to break into a new field. "It pays to specialize in something for which there’s a need," agrees Shatkin.

Compute: Return on Investment
Five years ago, Lisa Crockett, a resident of Olympia, Wash., decided she wanted to move out of technical writing and into business operations. After she made up her mind that a business degree would round out a résumé long on writing and short on business operations–and distinguish her from other candidates–she looked at three factors: convenience, quality and cost. She wanted to attend a prestigious university but didn’t want to rack up the debt or compromise her full-time job with Providence Health & Services.

Crockett opted for an online M.B.A. program at Norwich University, which allowed scheduling flexibility, cost less and didn’t interrupt her job. After graduating in 2006, she received multiple job offers, including one from Providence, which she accepted.

The degree made her more viable, helped her change career tracks, and moved her from a local hospital to the regional office. Now she works as a strategy analyst for the Washington/Montana region and feels that getting her M.B.A. was the smartest move she’s made.

"If you think a master’s is what you need to get where you want to go," says NYU’s Hellmann, "then it’s time to do a return-on-investment calculation." Use an online calculator to weigh tuition costs, investment of your time and expected salary growth. Consider also if your anticipated job will require just the degree itself (which can be secured from a local school or online) or whether the expectation is that the degree come from a top-tier school, often helpful if hoping to impress clients.

The calculation may reveal a 20-year debt and not much real salary growth, he says. In that case, an alternative is to enroll in a less-expensive certificate program that will be a shorter commitment of time. Hellmann also suggests trying to work with a volunteer organization in a role that will help you gain skills in your desired field without the monetary investment.

"This is a great time to get a master’s because of the economy, but do it with your eyes wide open," says Hellmann. "Avoid the common mistake of wasting time and money for something that won’t get you what you want."


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