May is the month of commencements. This year, more than 1.6 million
students will graduate with a bachelor's degree. While it is a matter of
celebration for the students to achieve a major milestone in their life, it
is also a harsh reality that now they have to face either a tight job
market or an expensive graduate school.
The long-term value of a master's degree is evident from lower
unemployment rate and higher salaries among degree-holders. Thus,
many students have thought about going to graduate school prior to
even entering undergraduate program, according to a recent report by
Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) and Educational Testing Service (ETS).
In this environment of economic undertainity, who is more likely to apply for which master's degree?
Who goes for a master's degree?
Research by David J. English shows that "individuals most likely to aspire to, apply for, and enroll in
graduate school were dependent students who obtained high undergraduate grade point averages,
majored in the humanities, social or behavioral sciences, mathematics, or life and physical sciences, and
attended a master's or doctoral institution."
The job market is even tougher for arts and humanities majors, compelling them to gain a higher
credential. "If you major in art, realize you will have to get a master's degree. The economic calculus has
changed," says Anthony P. Carnevale, director of Georgetown University's Center on Education and the
Workforce, in an article in the New York Times.
Research by Liang Zhang notes that "...undergraduate college quality increased the probability
of enrolling in graduate programs and helped determine the quality of graduate schools selected." She
adds that "...because part of socioeconomic factors has been crystallized into academic performance and
educational credentials, socioeconomic factors exert significant direct and indirect effects on graduate
While influence of GPA, majors and socioeconomic factors is not surprising in predicting the interest in
graduate school, it is counter-intuitive to see that high undergraduate debt has not decreased the interest
in advanced studies. Research shows that undergraduate indebtedness does not affect graduate school
Top three broad fields for first time enrollment in master's degree are Education, Business and Health
Science, according to CGS/GRE Survey. Nearly 45% of all master's students enroll in one of these three
The largest field is Education, which continues to see interest in master's degree leading to administrative
tracks. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics, education administrators at all levels --Elementary,
Secondary School and Postsecondary -- are projected to increase between 10-19% in the period 2010-2020
with an entry level education requirement of a master's degree and median pay of $75,000 (2010).
Within Business, field interest of American students seems to be waning as compared to global growth.
Consider the number of GMAT test-takers, which is required by many B-schools for admissions purposes.
A recent GMAC report notes that number of GMAT test-takers in the US had remained stagnant over five
years; however, they grew by nearly 47% in Asia.
Students interested in business career also try to gain work experience for a few years before applying
for management programs, not only due to admissions requirements but also due to perceptions of a
bleaker economy and higher cost of education. On an average, it takes about five years from the time
undergraduate students earning their bachelor's degree to the day they submit an application to graduate
business school, according to GMAC.
For Health Science and allied fields, which require master's degrees, several jobs are expected to grow at
a rate faster than the average growth rate. For example, number of jobs in Epidemiology, which studies
the causes of diseases, are expected to increase by 24% between 2010-2020. Most Epidemiologists
hold a master's degree in public health. Likewise, jobs of Physician Assistants, Occupational Therapists
and Healthcare Social Workers all require a master's degree and projected to grow at a rate of 29% or
faster. These projections are also influencing students in terms of which consider which master's degree to
Deciding to go for a master's degree is costly, complex and confusing process. Having a deeper
understanding of the fit and future career opportunities may help you make an informed choice. With more
than 650,000 students graduating with a master's degree this year, perhaps "the master's is the new
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