Master’s degrees, earning power, and specialization

The Times education section has taken a break from its usual chronicle of anxious students and even more anxious parents desperately jockeying for Ivy League admissions. This week, Education Life turns to grad school, declaring that the master’s is the new bachelor’s, whatever that means. Mostly what it means is what we all knew–that it’s increasingly tough to land a solid job with the potential for advancement with only a bachelor’s degree. The article claims, though, that a master’s degree (“Once derided as the consolation prize for failing to finish a Ph.D. or just a way to kill time waiting out economic downturns”) can now provide a necessary leg up over the mere BAs.

Of course, not all master’s degrees are created equal, and another article lays out the return on investment for different programs. Not surprisingly, a master’s in engineering comes with a significant bump in earning power, but then, it’s not exactly difficult to find a job with a bachelor’s in engineering, either. On the other hand, a master’s in social work is necessary to get a job in the field, but it’s such a low-paying field that even with a solid job, it’s likely to take quite a while to pay off the graduate school loans.

The article makes sure to point out that while a master’s program may provide a respite from the economy and an increase in earning power, a PhD, even in engineering, requires a sacrifice of both time an earning power that is generally not borne out by increased earnings later on. But then, as if to comfort those of us who’ve made the poor decision to stick it out for the PhD (see here and here), the author reminds us that graduate programs in journalism still exist, and that people are evidently willing to pay $50,000 for a one-year master’s in journalism from Columbia. A journalism degree, by the way, boosts starting salary to $39,000, assuming you can actually find a full-time job, which only 31 percent of Columbia’s class of 2011 was able to do.

In other words, a master’s degree is not in itself a ticket to a higher salary, or even a job itself (my MA in English, for example, is not likely to get me hired anywhere but a private high school). A master’s degree can be evidence of specialization and vocational training, and, as the author of “The Master’s as the New Bachelor’s” points out, the increased emphasis on the degree is a win for employers, since it essentially means that future employees train themselves at their own expense.

The call for specialization implicit in the master’s degree is at odds with what this Education Life article from 2009 claims employers are looking for from students with a bachelor’s:

“There’s evidence, though, that employers also don’t want students specializing too soon. The Association of American Colleges and Universities recently asked employers who hire at least 25 percent of their workforce from two- or four-year colleges what they want institutions to teach. The answers did not suggest a narrow focus. Instead, 89 percent said they wanted more emphasis on ‘the ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing,’ 81 percent asked for better ‘critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills’ and 70 percent were looking for ‘the ability to innovate and be creative.'”

I point this out because one of the major tensions in the university right now is the degree to which an undergraduate degree should provide specialized vocational skills, versus broader and more fundamental liberal-arts skills like thinking, reading, and writing. The article presents the proliferation of master’s programs as addressing a need for specialized practical learning in specific fields. But the article also notes that the draw of the master’s may be as much about credentialing and distinction as actual skills:

“‘There is definitely some devaluing of the college degree going on,’ says Eric A. Hanushek, an education economist at the Hoover Institution, and that gives the master’s extra signaling power. ‘We are going deeper into the pool of high school graduates for college attendance,’ making a bachelor’s no longer an adequate screening measure of achievement for employers.”

If the master’s is really about distinction in a job market where more and more people have bachelor’s, then we would do well to continue to place emphasis at the undergraduate level on fundamental, transferable skills, particularly writing and critical thinking–equipping students with the necessary skills to communicate effectively and learn on the job, or to do well in a master’s program if that’s what the field requires.


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