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The Value of a Masters Degree

The Value of a Masters Degree main image

You probably already know very well what a graduate degree could do for you: differentiate you from those with bachelor’s degrees, demonstrate your deep commitment to a particular area, hone your expertise - and perhaps even give you a year out to dodge the recession.

But it’s still a lot of money to spend on something that will end up as a line or two on your CV. Companies and public sector organizations will do graduate recruitment, MBA recruitment, experience-hire, and occasionally, post-doctoral entry for those with very high-value technical skills. However, you don’t usually see the words, “People without a master’s degree need not apply.”

Lack of targeted recruitment for graduate degrees

Talk to individual employers and it sounds even more doom and gloom. Hannah Slaney is graduate program manager at the UK’s mutually-owned financial and retail conglomerate, the Co-operative Group. “I have had people come up to me at careers fairs who ask what opportunities I have for people with graduate degrees,” she says. “Unfortunately I can only point them to the graduate recruitment program.”

Sej Butler is recruitment manager for IBM in Europe. “The key element that distinguishes between graduate entry and whether someone joins IBM as an experienced hire following a master’s degree is the length and relevance of their work experience,” he says.

“If you have an undergraduate degree and have gone straight into a master's, then you will likely be treated as a graduate entrant. The only exception would be if the master’s degree was in a precise subject area which exactly matches what we are looking for at the time, or if the one or two years of experience was with one of our direct competitors or involved a relevant industry skill.”

Do employers value masters qualifications?

“MBA or master's graduates apply, but more so those with bachelor’s degrees,” said a senior manager in an international IT services firm, quoted in a UK report, ‘Talent Fishing: What Businesses Want from Postgraduates’. 

“We don’t see any difference in what they do in the company generally speaking. They are paid the same. But there is a slight difference in maturity, and they can handle the ups and downs of business life better.”

Look deeper into the report and it seems employers do see more in master’s holders. When asked what qualities they value about employees with graduate degrees, nine out of ten of those employers who recruited master’s holders liked their analytical thinking and problem-solving skills.

Eight out of ten liked their subject-specific knowledge, their research or technical skills, while the same proportion also liked the new ideas and innovative attitudes they brought with them. However, only about half liked their maturity and thought they had future leadership potential, while just three out of ten thought a master’s degree guaranteed them high-calibre candidates.

Can you expect salary differentiation?

Salary figures would suggers employers do realize they are getting something extra when they recruit people with master’s degrees. The winter 2008 survey of employers conducted by the UK’s Association of Graduate Recruiters found that those employers who were prepared to pay a premium would pay master’s holders around UK£3,508 more than the bachelor's degree average of UK£24,000 (figures which exclude those with MBAs).

What’s more, in an article entitled ‘The economic contributions of PhDs’ published in ‘The Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management’, Bernard Casey argues that there is a significant premium on lifetime earnings.

“The most up-to-date estimates of the premium associated with university study in the UK indicate that, on average, it is positive and substantial,” he says. “Male holders of a bachelor’s degree enjoy an earning level that is over 20% higher than men who could have studied but chose not to, while women who studied earn over 35% more than an equivalent comparator. Men with a master’s degree can earn 29% more than the base; women with a master’s 55% more.”

Show off your individual abilities

Employers often don’t have any formal way of recognizing in their recruitment strategies the value that a master’s qualification brings. It might therefore be better to think of yourself not as a master’s holder with an entitlement to better career prospects and salary, but as a “graduate-plus”: better skills, more maturity, a more focused sense of your career goals and greater cutting-edge knowledge.

“We do sometimes get a negative response from employers at careers fairs who feel some graduates present themselves with a sense of entitlement because they have done a master’s degree,” says Elizabeth Wilkinson, head of postgraduate career development at the University of Manchester Careers Service in the UK.

“So if your first instinct when you approach an employer is to ask them what they do for master’s holders, or if they pay a higher salary, you might want to think again. You would be better off presenting yourself as a university graduate who has lots of extra abilities on top of a bachelor's degree.”

QS Staff Writer's profile image
Written by QS Staff Writer

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