Do You need a Master’s Degree?<!-- --> | <!-- -->Assume Wisely
Do You need a Master’s Degree?

Do You need a Master’s Degree?

Posted: September 19, 2022

Is a degree worth the cost? How do you value a master's degree... or any degree for that matter!

Are you you asking these same questions? If so, I believe my experience might be useful to you. I just earned my masters's at Western Governor's University.

Over the last several years I've learned managers won't necessarily hire you because you have a master's degree, but they might skip you if you don't. It may not bear on the quality of your work, but it does seem to make getting work easier.

My Decision to Go Back To School

It's after eleven on a Friday night. The food at Twin Donut is cheap and greasy. We're waiting for our food because it's also the only place still open. Sitting at a table, I recount a scene from Good Will Hunting where Matt Damon, as Will, outwits and outsmarts an unoriginal snob in a bar closing with the classic flourish,

You wasted $150,000 on an education you could have got for a buck fifty in late charges at the public library.

The pair of beautiful blue eyes across from me are unimpressed. All they see is a college dropout with no future.

The next day, I enroll for the following semester.

Four years later I graduate with a BS in Economics from Brigham Young University.

But Do I Need A Masters?

Early on in my career, I'm having a frank talk with the director of my department. He thinks I don't need a master's degree: he doesn't have one. He believes in the value of learning, but the piece of paper doesn't matter. I believe him.

Over time I bring up this topic with several data scientists. I attend a confernece where it is addressed in a panel discussion. The general agreement is that you don't need a master's degree to be a data scientist. The strange thing? They all have master's degrees. Some of them - PhDs.

Time passes, my career goes nowhere. I'm interviewing. I get in front of decision-makers but it seems there is always someone else with more experience they end up choosing. Everyone around me is promoted or hired into new positions. Over time I notice that this same director is fond of hiring . . . master's degree holders.

I'm fed up not seeing progress. I decided a master's degree might help.

What is A Master's Degree Worth?

The high cost of tuition is often the first thing people think about when considering going back to school. It's no secret that the cost of higher education has been on the rise for years. According to The College Board, for the 2021-22 school year, private college tuition and fees averaged $38,070 while state residents attending public colleges paid an average of $10,740 per year. Out-of-state residents at public universities shelled out an average of $27,560 annually. Cost is the obvious challenge everyone likes to bring up. But focusing on cost alone is a mistake.

I know many people with graduate degrees who work entry-level jobs. A graduate degree is no guarantee of a high-paying job. The value of a degree is not in the price tag. Price and value are very different concepts. Price is what you pay, while value is the benefit you get. The value of a degree is in what it can do for you and - and - what you do with it?

What A Master's Degree Will Do For You

Graduate degrees typically act as a filter for hiring managers when they are trying to decide who to interview. HR managers are busy, with everyone in the program having been pre-screened, there's less of a chance the manager will waste time. The filtering aspect of graduate programs is very real, and difficult to overcome on your own.

A degree can open doors not previously accessible. Once my resume displayed my newly minted degree, I encountered less opposition throughout interviews. I started getting offers. It didn't seem to matter that it was post-dated to 2022.

What a Master's Degree Will Not Do

In "The End of Business Schools? Less Success Than Meets the Eye," a study published in Academy of Management Learning and Education Jeffrey Pfeffer of Stanford University and Christina Fong of the University of Washington analyze forty years of data in an effort to find evidence that business schools make their graduates more successful. The result?

Business schools do . . . almost nothing. Business schools are ineffective, as neither an MBA degree nor grades obtained in coursework correlate to professional success. Getting an MBA has zero correlation with long-term career success. None.

By now I start to see a master's degree will get me to the interview. And help me look less risky as a new hire. After that it is all on me.

How To Value A Degree

My student debt is shown as a liability on my financial statements. That doesn't give the whole story. It simply shows how I paid for school. On the other side of my financial statement, I have an asset called human capital. Now, what is the value of my human capital asset?

On my financials, I record the value as what I paid. This offsets my loan so it's a wash and keeps things simple. It really doesn't matter.

What does matter? The proportion of my student loan payment to the increase in earnings. According to a Payscale study, the typical wage for someone with a bachelor's degree is $60,000 per year. However, the average income for individuals without a bachelor's degree is only $47,000. Is it worth going back for a batchelor's?

The batchelor's degree holder makes around $1,000 extra each month. With a student loan payment of about $300, that leaves $700 more to spend every month. That investment makes sense.

You can expect to make over $100,000 as a data scientist. Perhaps not right away, but certainly over time. That is twice as much as the original non-degree employee. Even if your student loan payment is double - triple - that investment makes sense.

Brush Your Teeth

How to make sense of it all? There is evidence that an MBA has no real influence. Many people in the business agree. In fact, before I finished my degree, I started a new job - twice. So... Do you truly need one?

I think so.

The filtering aspect of graduate programs is very real, and difficult to overcome on your own. Look at a degree as a hygiene factor like brushing your teeth. Good hygiene doesn't win you a date, but bad hygiene will loose you a date. Similarly, managers won't necessarily hire you because you have a master's degree, but they might skip you if you don't. It may not bear on the quality of your work, but it does seem to make getting work easier.

It's a mistake to believe a degree will do all the heavy lifting. My career growth (ahem, income) is largely due to the field I pursued, business intelligence reporting as a BI developer. My earnings return is largely influenced by my line of work. It's crucial to consider the area in which you want to work.

The degree checks a box and clears the way for you to advance. I just needed a little leverage to get in a specific door, I believe my degree helped me do that.


If you're having trouble finding employment or advancing in your career, a graduate degree may give you an edge in your career journey. You don't need to overspend. A degree is a degree. You need it, doesn't matter from where. The less you spend, the better your ROI.

WGU was a great fit for me. I am a non-traditional student. I grew up in a culture that did not value education. I'm a parent. I work full time. I cannot quit either of those responsibilities. I needed to squeeze graduate school around those responsibilities. Working at my own pace allowed me to better manage everything else going on in my life. WGU not only understood my needs, they met them - and the price was very reasonable.

Are you walking?

When I graduated from Brigham Young, I skipped the graduation ceremony. I didn't "walk". I just wanted that piece of paper. That didn't change when enrolling at WGU - I just wanted that piece of paper to list on my resume. Along the way that changed.

In August, I walked for two reasons: so both of them could see their dad earn a master's degree. My first experience at a graduate degree ceremony was my own. I wanted their experience to be different. Growing up, I didn't see many people who look like me earning degrees. I want their experience to be different. I grew up in a culture that did not value education. I want their experience to be different.

Git Sum (un)common sense,

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