Important Questions to Ask About Master's Degrees

Getting a master's degree is a much different endeavor than getting an undergraduate degree.

Plus, the questions can be slightly different. The main question you should certainly ask yourself, though, is: "What goal do I think this program will help me achieve?"

First, figure out the answer for yourself. Then, proceed with the following questions to help you make the most informed decision about getting a master's degree:

What Are Your Master’s Degree Goals?

To improve prospects in my current career: Check to make sure the degree is actually important to improve your career. Keep in mind that for many careers, individual courses, certificate programs, or even simple work experience is as valuable as a master’s degree for aiding career advancement.

To help me transition into a new career: Speak with some recruiters or hiring managers in this new field. It’s possible that you don’t need a degree to make the transition, especially if you can leverage your existing skill set and expand it with some individual courses or professional development.

To acquire a credential that will make me a more desirable employee: (This is often a factor in the first two points.) In addition to any relevant research above, check employment data for students who have this credential. Does it provide an immediate salary boost or impact average income over time? Is job placement better for graduates who’ve added this credential?

To enable me to pursue research I’m passionate about: If your master’s goal is research-related, you may want to weigh the option of entering a PhD program instead. PhD candidates are often funded (meaning they get paid to go to school rather than having to pay), and you often have the option of a terminal Master’s (taking a Master’s degree and leaving the program) if you decide completing the PhD is more time/effort than you’re prepared for.

To pursue a craft I’m passionate about: It’s great to pursue art, writing, dance, or other creative vocations. Just make sure you have an idea of what you’ll do if your creative path doesn’t lead to a viable career. Consider the skills you have and those your Master’s will help you to develop, and make a plan for what to do if you don’t make it in your chosen field.

How Flexible Do I Need the Program to Be?

Timeline is a major consideration for any graduate degree. Ask yourself: What timeline do I want for my program, and am I allowed to work while pursuing this degree?

Some schools have accelerated, one-year programs for particular master’s degrees if you want to minimize the amount of time you’re not employed. Other schools have part-time programs so you can pursue your master’s while still working. The average length of time to complete a regular, full-time master’s is 1.5 to 2 years, depending on the degree.

Some programs specifically prohibit students from working while pursuing a degree. If it’s important for you to continue working, even if you pursue a full-time degree, make sure this is not a conflict with the department or school policies. Also, think about whether or not you'll need a program that offers evening, weekend, or summer classes to fit with my work or family responsibilities. Does this program have high-quality, blended or online options that meet my needs?

How Important Is Location to Me?

Check to see whether, for the field you want to work in, the geography of the school impacts where you are likely to find work. For programs that have a practical placement component, geography may play an even bigger role because the mentoring relationships created often lead to future job opportunities.

Determine whether you are able to move for graduate school. If you can’t move, research the programs in your area very closely to ensure that they are actually worth the investment. You don’t want to waste time and money on a credential that won’t actually move you closer to your professional goals.

What Are the Outcomes for the Programs I’m Interested In?

Schools can be very cagey about releasing employment data. Push programs you are applying to for outcomes data; get a sense of the jobs graduates are finding and where. How long does it take graduates to find a job in this field? What are the salary outcomes for recent graduates?

Find out what kind of specific support the schools provide students to help find employment. How long do they provide these services after you complete your degree?

It may be useful to search on Linkedin or other similar social networks for recent graduates from the programs you’re interested in to see where they’ve been placed; consider reaching out to them and asking about the program and whether the degree helped them find their current job.

What Are the Research Priorities of the Programs I’m Interested In?

Here are the questions you need to think about when it comes to research priorities of the master's program you're interested in:

  • What are the primary research concerns of the department at each school I’m considering, and how well do they align with your interests?
  • How focused are the programs on theory? How focused on practical application? Which is more important to you?
  • Who are the all-star professors in the department? What are their interests, and do those interests align with yours? Will you have an opportunity to work with those professors?
  • What is the working environment in the programs you’re interested in? Will you collaborate with other students, or compete with them?
  • How closely will you work with professors?
  • What opportunities will you have to get an author credit for research with a professor?