Students attend graduate school for a wide variety of reasons. And the degrees—from the overtly professional programs, such as a J.D. or M.D., to those that are largely about pursuing an intellectual passion, such as a PhD in the Humanities—reflect the various motivations students have for pursuing them.
Before you even begin to search for a graduate degree, you need to understand the pros, cons, and purposes of the various available degrees.
The Pro - A well defined career path after graduation.
Broadly speaking, professional degrees enable students to acquire and practice the skills necessary for a given profession. These programs stand in contrast to graduate pursuits that focus on research and theory in a particular academic concentration.
Degrees in such fields as Law, Medicine, Education, Engineering, Nursing, Dentistry, and Theology fall into this former category. While it’s certainly possible to pursue a more theory or research-centered degree in many of those fields, generally students seek an advanced degree in medicine with the intent to become a doctor, a degree in law with the intent to become a lawyer or a degree in education with the intent to become a teacher.
As a result, whether to pursue a professional degree tends to be a relatively straightforward question. If you want to work in the relevant field, you need to pursue the relevant degree.
The Con - Substantial Debt.
While the pathway for professional degrees is clearly laid out, it’s still important to investigate your educational choices. Pay attention to employment data in the field you’re considering. For example, a law degree is something of a gamble today because of the shortage of well-paying jobs in law and the over-abundance of lawyers. In addition, you will accrue substantial debt—often in excess of $200,000—while in law school.
That being said, one advantage of a professional degree is that the path from degree to career is well spelled out for the student.
The Pro - It can help advance your professional career.
Non-professional master’s degrees are often viewed either as credentials that will help advance a career without necessarily being attached to a particular profession or as a tool a facilitate a switch from one career track to another. And of course sometimes a master’s degree is simply about pursuing a passion. There are a number of important considerations for pursuing a master’s degree for any of these purposes.
The Con - Work experience may be more valuable.
If you are considering pursuing a master’s to help advance your career, do your research first. Look at the career track you want to pursue: how much do jobs on that track value experience versus education? In many cases, taking two years off work to pursue a master’s degree will do you more harm than good since you may be sacrificing both increased experience and continued income for increased education. There are many fields that would value the experience more.
Even if a master’s is a necessary credential in your particular field, it’s important to carefully consider whether you’ve reached the point in your career trajectory where you should be pursuing a graduate degree. For example, it’s usually best to pursue an MBA after a candidate already has 4-6 years of high quality work experience.
If you are considering a master’s to help you transition from one career track to another, you should do a great deal of research into the new career track. Talk to hiring managers in the field and ask them what they’d look for in a candidate who was trying to switch careers. Figure out which skills you can leverage from your current career and how big a switch you’re actually making. In many cases, it might be more practical and effective to take a few relevant continuing education classes or do a focused certificate program than to actually pursue a master’s degree.
Finally, if you want to pursue a master’s degree because you’re passionate about an area of study, be sure you go in with your eyes wide open. That MFA in Creative Non-Fiction Writing may be your dream, and unquestionably the professional and peer workshop experience will help you to improve your craft. Nonetheless, make sure you have an idea of how you’ll use the skills you have (and that you’ll gain from your MFA) to earn a living in case being a writer doesn’t earn you enough to survive.
The Pro - Make a career in academia.
A PhD normally consists of in-depth research into a specialized field within a broader discipline. A PhD is almost exclusively a research degree. Candidates usually pursue a PhD with the intent of entering academia or working as a researcher in their area of expertise.
A PhD is a substantial time commitment; the average student takes over 8 years to complete a PhD, and often is guaranteed funding only for the first 4-5 years (or sometime even less than that). And the “funding” students receive is often only enough to live a very bare-bones existence.
The Con - Well paying jobs in academia can be hard to find.
To make matters worse, in many fields, the pay-off for a PhD is very poor job prospects. This is particularly true for PhDs in the Humanities. If your goal in pursuing a PhD is to work in academia, research the state of hiring for your particular career very carefully. The changing job market in academia is leading to an increased percentage of jobs going to adjunct professors, who get no benefits, no job security, and abysmal pay.
If you have true passion for your discipline, strong direction for the research you want to do, and the drive to do the work necessary to complete the degree, a PhD program can be an incredibly rewarding experience. Just be aware that the investment in time and money you’ll be making in the degree may very well not pay off when it comes to your career, particularly if your PhD isn’t in a professional or STEM field.