Starting in 11th grade, American high school students are already taking the SATs and deciding what colleges they want to attend. The nail-biting and sleepless nights begin early on: Are my scores good enough? Will I get accepted? What’s the right program? But these high school students do not yet realize that for many of them this won’t be their last degree if they want to succeed in their careers. They will have to go through this whole process AGAIN when they apply to master’s programs.
An article in The New York Times (“The Master’s as the New Bachelor’s”) discusses the fact that an undergraduate degree is no longer enough to make it in the working world. When flipping through professional job listings they mostly state: “bachelor’s required, master’s preferred.”
So why is a bachelor’s no longer enough? One possibility is that having a master’s degree serves as job market “signaling,” a term coined by A. Michael Spence. A master’s degree “signals… your go-get-’em qualities” to future employers. It’s not about the quality of your education; it’s how much effort you’ve expended to get there. Similarly, Eric A. Hanushek, an education economist at the Hoover Institution, suggests that the “devaluing of the college degree” provides a master’s degree with more signaling power.
Another reason master’s degrees are becoming more popular is that they are also becoming more practical and specialized. There are now degrees being offered, like an M.S. in skeletal and dental bioarchaeology, or a professional science master’s (PSM) that combines training for specific jobs with key business skills. Even the MBA has been broken down into specializations, such as supply chain management or managing mission-driven organizations.
Possibly the most upsetting part about this new trend is that students must pay for their education while universities and businesses benefit. Employers no longer have to help train their employees, and universities can charge even more per year for a master’s degree than a bachelor’s.
But job seekers really have no choice. Richard K. Vedder, professor of economics at Ohio University and director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, explains that colleges are educating more students than the market has space for, and a master’s might be the only way for someone looking for work to stand out (“that, or a diploma from an elite undergraduate college,” says Vedder).
So those looking to jump-start their careers will have to swallow the costs and start looking at which master’s degree program is right for them. And do it fast—before the PhD becomes the new master’s!
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