Should I get a Master’s degree now - or start working?
Author: Last update: 20 August 2020
When you are nearing the end of your Bachelor’s degree programme, you are faced with an important question: Should you get a Master’s degree? And if yes, should you start with a Master’s programme directly, or should you first get a few years of work experience?
This guide is written by Gerrit Bruno Blöss, Founder and CEO of Study.eu. Between finishing his Bachelor’s degree and starting his Master’s programme in another country, he did an internship that also led him abroad.
Should you work, or should you study?
Career decisions are rarely easy. A big one is whether you should continue studying right after your Bachelors, or whether you should start working and do a Masters later on.
Both options have a lot of good reasons going for them. Let’s have a look at them:
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Reasons to do a Masters instead of working:
- A Master’s degree makes it much easier to qualify for the jobs you want and increases job security in the long run. That’s especially true in an economic downturn; first, it’s easier to compete against applicants without a Masters, and second, those with only Bachelors might be among the first to be let go when times are tough.
- You’ll earn more money with a Master’s degree. With the additional qualification and the added responsibilities, you can expect a higher salary than with only an undergraduate degree.
- After a longer break from university, it will be more difficult to get back into the “groove” of learning. Some more selective universities, particularly in continental Europe (as opposed to the UK or Ireland), therefore prefer students with not too much work experience. (Yes, this sounds counterintuitive - because more is always better, right? The reasoning is this: Academic learning is very different from most typical jobs, and if you’ve been away from campus for too long, you may find it difficult to get back into the “rhythm” of attending lectures, writing essays, and studying.)
- If you don’t want to take a 2-year break, consider 1-year Masters! These are sometimes not enough to get into PhD programmes, but employers usually don’t see a big difference and value them just as highly.
- Some scholarships are only available to students who have no work experience, or are under a certain age. Postponing your Masters in favour of work may disqualify you.
- Some careers will de facto require professionals to have a Master’s degree to advance beyond a certain stage.
- If your goal is to do a PhD later on, a Masters is the right (and often necessary) next step after an undergraduate degree. Even if you could do a PhD without a Masters, it will be much more difficult.
Reasons to work and postpone your Master’s degree:
- Work experience can help figure out what to study: If you are unsure what subject to get a Masters in, get a relevant job, or try finding an internship. The experience you gain will help you make the right decision later on. This is especially true of versatile entry-level jobs like graduate/trainee programmes where you cycle through multiple departments, or a job in consulting where you would work with multiple clients across different industries.
- You can save money, and rely on your savings when you do a Masters later. Financing studies with your own money is much smarter than taking a student loan. That’s usually smarter than taking a student loan.
- Initial work experience in a relevant field adds value to your learning experience during a Masters. This can be in a full entry-level position, but also one or two internships can be very insightful. (For example, when I started my own Masters in Finance, I had already done internships where I learnt a lot about topics I would then explore further at university.) Even better: Try doing an internship abroad!
- If you didn’t finish your undergraduate degree with a good grade, or if you lack formal education in a certain subject, relevant work experience will help you get into a good university later.
How long should you work before you do a Masters?
If you plan to get work experience before you pursue a Master’s degree, there is the question of timing: When is the right time to leave your job and go back to university? While this is highly individual, consider working between 18 months and 3 years before you go back to university. Here are a few points to take into account:
- If you work longer, you can save more money. That’s a good argument to work longer. The only risk is that, with a good income, over time you’ll get used to comforts that you might not be able to afford while you are back at university.
- After your Bachelors, if you start in an “open-ended” entry-level job, then stay at that company for at least 18 to 24 months.
- On the other hand, if you only have 12 months before your desired Master starts, consider doing two internships (and maybe taking some time off). Less than 18 months is only advisable if it’s a fixed-term scheme, like a graduate trainee programme that runs for a set amount of time. Here’s why: Employers prefer to be able to plan ahead, because recruiting is an expensive and time-consuming process. If your CV contains too many signals that you change jobs often - and leaving your first job after 12 months can be such a signal -, your chances at being hired will decrease.
- Don’t wait too long: If you plan to go back to university, do not work longer than 3 to 4 years. There are two main reasons for this: First, it will become more difficult to readjust to university life and studying for courses. Second, because of that, some universities actually prefer MA/MSc applicants with a maximum of 3 to 4 years work experience. Also, you may find it a bit harder to make friends on campus if you are significantly older than your classmates.
If you have already worked longer than that and plan to go back to university, contact the admissions offices at the universities or business schools you are interested in. They will be able to answer how well their programmes suit you, and how successful other mature students have been before you.
Is a Master’s degree worth the cost?
Getting a postgraduate degree can be expensive, especially when pursuing it full time. You do not earn a salary for the one or two years you are at university; you may have to pay high tuition fees; and perhaps you study abroad in a country that’s more expensive than your home country. You may try to find a scholarship, but those are not available to all students. You could also get a student loan, but debt is never advisable if you can avoid it.
These factors add up, so you need to ask yourself if you can (or want to) afford it. The good news: Generally, getting a Masters is worth the money! While you may find it difficult to finance your studies, over time, the financial benefits will outweigh the initial costs. You will earn a higher salary and be much more flexible in your career.
The salary increase with a Master’s degree
With a Master’s degree, you will earn more money. That’s an undeniable fact. The question is: How much more money will it be? And that’s difficult to generalise. The added value of the degree depends a lot on your industry, your country and region, the shape of the economy, and your individual experience, skills and circumstances.
To get a rough idea of the potential salary increase, it pays off to look at labour market statistics. The European Statistical Office (Eurostat) reports that - among the whole workforce, i.e. at every age and level of experience - those employees with a Masters (or higher) earn on average 24% more than those workers with only a Bachelors, with differences in some countries as high as +53%:
Source: Eurostat [earn_ses14_30]
Now, keep in mind that these numbers refer to the whole workforce, across all industries. Having a Masters will not automatically net you a 24% higher salary in your first job.
But your starting salary will be higher, you will be more likely to get promoted, and eventually earn substantially more, all the while enjoying higher job security. (And for you Americans considering grad school: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports similarly promising numbers, with wage premiums of 14 to 89% for those with a Masters.)
This way, while getting a Masters may be an expensive investment, it generally pays off over time.
Do you need a Master’s to do a PhD?
A PhD (Doctorate) is the highest academic qualification a student can achieve, and requires substantial research work. To be accepted into a PhD programme, universities usually require students to have a Masters in a relevant field.
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However, and especially in the UK, it is often theoretically possible to progress directly from a Bachelor’s degree to a PhD programme (“fast track”). The explicit minimum requirement for admission is then usually an “upper second class” Bachelors (2:1), or the equivalent from your country. (What a UK institution considers equivalent to a 2:1 differs from university to university.)
In other European countries, the eligibility criterion for acceptance into a PhD programme is often a certain number of ECTS credits that you are unlikely to have obtained after just a Bachelor’s programme.
In any case, doing a PhD directly after a Bachelors is more common in the “hard” sciences (STEM subjects) than it is with the humanities.
But before you apply to PhD programmes with only a Bachelor’s degree, ask yourself why you want to skip the Masters. If you’re already fed up with studying and doing academic work, then the research-heavy path of a PhD - and the career in academia that may follow - is most certainly not the right option for you, anyway.
Should you even get a Masters degree at all?
If you can, then get a Masters degree, and do it abroad. You will learn a lot, make friends from all over the world, grow as a person, and open up many new opportunities for yourself. And you can expect to earn more money, as well.
Don’t feel bad if you decide against a Masters: There are many reasons that can make it difficult, like family or finances. If the time just is not right, it is always possible to go back to uni or graduate school later in life.
If you dislike the idea of going back to college for two years, don’t forget about shorter Master programmes: You will find plenty of options that are 18 months, 1 year or even 9 months. 1-year Masters are particularly common in the UK and Ireland, and also available in the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, and elsewhere.
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Should you get a second Master’s degree?
If you already have a Master’s degree, there are a few scenarios where a second Master’s degree may be worthwhile, and a few where it’s not a good idea. Let’s look at it in detail:
- Getting a second Masters in the same discipline is often not a smart decision - even if the subject is slightly different. That’s because course curricula will overlap and you’re investing time and money into “learning” things you should already know. And the new things you could learn by other means much more efficiently. In such a case, consult the curriculum to be sure it contains enough new things for you to learn.
- Some students with an MA or MSc in a Business subject plan to do an MBA later on, short for Master of Business Administration. This only makes sense in very few cases. At the very least, you should have relevant work experience before enrolling in an MBA, and you should make sure that the curriculum contains new topics. (Find MBA programmes in Europe)
- Regardless of the subjects, from an employer’s perspective it will look especially weird if you’re doing the second Masters directly after the first one. It may look like you failed to find a job or were afraid of even looking for one. All else being equal, an applicant with two Master’s degrees and zero work experience is usually less attractive than an applicant with one Master’s degree and one or two years of work experience.
- If you want to stay in academia, consider going for a PhD instead.
A second Master’s degree can facilitate a career change. Just make sure you have explored other options, too: See if you can change positions at your current employer, or find a different job elsewhere. And keep in mind that - depending on how different your new desired career is - your previous work experience may not be relevant, and you may be forced to start in a junior position again.
Some universities, especially in France and Belgium, offer Advanced Masters in addition to their “normal” Masters. Such programmes are specifically targeted at applicants who already have an previous Master’s degree - it’s an admissions requirement. They usually last 1 year, with usually 60 ECTS credits.
Here is another very good reason to get a second Masters, and maybe even in a similar discipline to what you studied before: If you will attend university in another country - in which you then plan to stay and work after graduation. Such a move will substantially increase your chances with local employers. You are already on location (and perhaps enjoy the benefits of a post-study work visa), and it will be easier for companies to judge the contents and quality of the degree you obtained in that country.
Also, don’t forget that a university degree is not the only way to learn and qualify yourself for new endeavours. Consider flexible alternatives like short courses, professional certificates or others.
What about doing a gap year?
When you cannot decide between a Master’s degree or working, doing a gap year might be another viable alternative.
There are no fixed rules for what a gap year is, or what you can spend your time doing. It’s a chance to travel, gain new experiences and make up your mind about what you want to do later in life. It’s also something you will likely not do later in life - so if it appeals to you and you have the chance, go for it!
Here are just a few ideas of what you could be doing during a gap year:
- “Work and travel” programmes
- Volunteering abroad for a cause you believe in
- Summer schools abroad
- Short classes (and maybe part-time online while you travel)
- Just travel and enjoy some time off
Checklist: Is a Masters right for you?
A Master’s is not the right choice for everyone, and there is no shame in admitting it. If you are unsure, go through the lists below, and see which of the statements apply to you and your situation. And if you’re still unsure, don’t feel rushed: You can postpone this decision for a while and check again where you stand in 6 or 12 months.
Pursue a Master’s degree...
- ...if you are passionate about the subject and excited at the perspective of attaining more expert knowledge.
- ...if you are aware of the effort it takes to successfully finish a Masters, and willing to take it on.
- ...if you can afford the tuition fees and cost of living while earning no salary, or earning less, depending on the study mode you choose.
- ...if you are certain that the degree will positively impact your career.
- ...if you can find suitable study options that match what you’re looking for.
Do not pursue a Master’s degree (yet)...
- ...if you are not certain what you want to do with your career.
- ...if you struggled too much with coursework during your Bachelors - because a Masters will be more difficult.
- ...if you cannot afford it even with scholarships, financial help from your family, wages from part-time work, or a small loan.
What are alternatives to getting a Master’s degree?
A Masters may not be the best way forward for you. Depending on the goals you want to achieve, the following options are worth exploring:
- Postgraduate diplomas (PgDip) and postgraduate certificates (PgCert): Postgraduate diplomas and certificates are credentials you will find offered especially at British universities. In many cases, their course syllabi are similar or equivalent to the respective Master’s programmes, but with a few courses removed, and usually they also do not require a thesis at the end. This makes these courses an attractive option if you are looking for Masters-level education but have less time and money to invest.
- Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and micro-credentials: The internet has made education much more accessible, and online learning is easier than ever. There are a number of platforms where you can enrol in courses - some shorter, some longer - to learn about any topic you can imagine. Some offer exams or other ways leading to credentials.
- Try a different job at your current employer: If you are already working and your goal is a career change, perhaps that is possible at the company you work for - without going back to university. You might transfer to another department, try a completely new role or move to another office location where you would have different or more responsibilities.
- Professional qualifications and industry certifications: In many professional fields, you will find qualifications or certifications awarded to skilled professionals who undergo some exam. For example, in the financial industry, many professionals strive for the CFA qualification, which is considered somewhat comparable to an MSc in Finance. Such professional qualifications exist in nearly every field; note that they are usually not easy and require solid subject knowledge.
If none of these alternative options seem attractive to you, don’t give up: There are many ways to obtain a Master’s degree and you will find one that suits you best!
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