Making the Most of a Master's Degree: Choose the Right Program and Time It Right

I work for a university that confers advanced degrees, so you might expect me to wholeheartedly endorse the idea of earning a master's degree. But I also study the job market, hiring trends and corporate cultures, and I speak to many corporate recruiters and hiring managers.

The bottom line is this: A master's degree can be a great investment in your professional future, but the situation needs to be right. Your degree is going to be much more valuable if it's timed to support your career progression and is clearly aligned with career goals. Here's a list of questions I encourage students to ask themselves to make sure they get the most out of their advanced degree.

Is a master's required to get the job you want?
Advanced education is necessary to land some jobs -- like marriage therapist and school administrator. If you're not sure if the work you'd like to do requires a master's, use LinkedIn to check out the profiles of individuals working in jobs similar to the ones that interest you: A second degree may be mandatory, preferred or widely held among the leaders in the field. In some cases, the expectation may be geography-based. In Austin, for instance, the percentage of the workforce with advanced degrees is significantly higher than the average, so there's more of an expectation for advanced degrees.

Will your future boss be impressed by your achievement?
A bachelor's degree is the minimum requirement for many entry-level jobs. Companies may view candidates who are seeking entry-level jobs with master's degrees as overqualified -- and be wary of hiring them only to see them move on after gaining initial experience. In these cases, it may make sense to wait a few years before going back to school. It's also worth considering that some corporate or industry cultures value advanced education more than others. You'll be more likely to land an interview if your future boss knows firsthand the value of a master's.

Will your area of study align with the career you've chosen?
Some undergraduates plunge straight into master's programs without first gaining requisite work experience to better hone in on the kind of position they hope to someday have. As a result, the focus of their master's may be mismatched with the positions they ultimately pursue. A master's degree in journalism, for example, may be a strike against you if you apply for a marketing job. It looks like you've jumped tracks from your true goal, applying for any job you can get, rather than one that's a natural product of your education. Instead, take some time to be sure your degree plan is aligned with your career goals.

Is there opportunity to gain work experience through the master's program?
Even employers who value advanced education will be looking for relevant work experience. In evaluating master's programs, consider ones that have internships, consulting opportunities and immersion programs. If classes call for independent study, develop projects that get you into the field. The more you can demonstrate that you've gained experience directly applicable to the job you want to land -- as well as the wider grasp of the field that a master's demonstrates -- so much the better.

Will your employer pay for it?
Increasingly, employers who want their staff to have master's degrees are willing to foot all or some of the cost of getting such education. It's worth asking what your current employer can contribute -- or seeking a job at a company or nonprofit that offers tuition reimbursement benefits. If you can get the degree for free (or at a reduced cost), the investment of an advanced degree becomes even more valuable to you.

Ray Rogers is the director of Career and Professional Development at St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas.

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