Are the salary & career expectations of people with master's degrees realistic?

In this thread is a complaint that I’ve heard expressed IRL by several people with master’s degrees, especially education and social work graduates, that they “only” get paid a middle class wage, and even so a non-degreed person often makes a comparable wage. There is often a plaintive tone and sub-text to this complaint that it simply isn’t fair that this should be so.

I don’t want to sound unsympathetic, but (IMO) in 2009 having a masters degree is simply not that big a deal. The workforce is lousy with people with master’s degrees. Good on you that you decided to go the extra mile and get it, but I think that any expectation that this should be, as a matter of fairness and justice, opening significant salary and occupational doors simply isn’t justified. Masters degrees simply aren’t that special anymore.

I think you are misinterpreting.

The thread is about how to attract more quality teachers into the profession. The complaints are not “teachers deserve more money because they have master’s degrees” as much as “of the jobs that require a master’s degree, teaching is among the lowest paid.” This means that the best and brightest are probably going to choose something else.

I think degree bloat is a huge problem in our society. We have people with undergrad degrees doing jobs that could be done with a high school diploma. We have people with Master’s doing things that could be done by any college graduate. We have people investing more and more time and money into an education system that is providing less and less in return. It seems like in a few years we will need to go to school until we are 30 and be 70,000 in debt to get a job as a secretary.

That said, I’m applying to grad school now because I don’t want my career opportunities to be limited. Everything in this world is a gamble, but of course I hope that investing tens of thousands of dollars of two years of my life leads to some kind of return. Would you honestly expect me not to?

Sometimes people forget (or willfully ignore) the fact that all Master’s Degrees are not created equal. The field of study and institution attended both have a significant impact on a graduate’s marketability. It is unrealistic of the Education graduate from a small, largely unknown school to expect to make the same money as the MBA from Harvard. (I’m not commenting on whether or not this is fair – I’m just saying that’s the way it is.)

Income is driven by supply and demand. The reason that a person with an M.Eng. out earns a person with a MSW is that, in general, the supply of people capable of earning the M.Eng. is smaller than that of the MSW, and that there is considerable demand for engineers above and beyond social workers.

Income is a matter of the economic value of the job, not a value judgment on the person.

If Richard Feynman had gone into Early Childhood Education or Social Work, he’d be utterly Nobel Prize free and completely obscure.

Engineers out earn general social workers and teachers because for every person who can master mathematics and apply it to engineering problems, there are thousands of people who cannot.

I think MBAs have lost almost all value because there are so many easy ways to get one that everyone gets one. I’ve heard of 6 month MBA programs for Christs sake. The majority of people who do hiring rarely look at the school any more, just look to see if youhave the MBA box checked.

Engineering on the other hand gets significantly harder in grad school and is very specialized so they are generally worth more.

Master’s degrees in many fields aren’t a ticket to anything much. English literature, librarian, social work, comparative lit–you’re never gonna get rich. (Teachers make good money compared to librarians.) If a solid salary is what you wanted, you should have chosen something else.

–Dangermom, MLIS

Well, first of all, let me say that I am not an MBA student, nor am I interested in getting an MBA. But I’m a grad student at a university with a top MBA program, and I have some friends that are working on their MBAs. And I would disagree here. First of all, what kind of resumes are you submitting that there’s a box to check? The university is usually right there next to the degree, it would be hard to miss. Second, companies actually come to the business school at my university to recruit. A lot. The business students are easy to pick out from the rest of us schlubs because they’re always wearing suits, as they have a year-long series of recruitment interviews and meetings. (First year students go through the process too, looking for summer internships.) There’s also a really strong alumni network that helps a lot in getting work. Even in this economy, people I know who graduated from my school’s MBA program have had a pretty easy time of getting really good, well-paying jobs.

Maybe the usefulness of an MBA drops off if it’s from a middling school, or whatever, but imho, it’s inaccurate to say that it’s a valueless degree.

Well, I’m an MSW student in social work, and I did sufficient research to have a reasonable notion of how much I am going to make after I graduate. (Median starting salary for a graduate of my program is $45k.) I didn’t make my choice based on expected salary (uh, obviously), but based on what I would like to do with my life.

I’m not thrilled that my profession is so undervalued, but I know why it is, and I would like to contribute to changing that. Part of the problem, I am already learning, is declassification, meaning that ‘‘social worker’’ covers everyone from a high school graduate in a temporary service position to a D.S.W. who graduated from Columbia. We suffer from a fractured identity, not just in educational preparation but in fieldwork as well – there are social workers teaching in universities, there are social workers in our U.S. Congress, and there are social workers providing mental health services, so we have a situation in which it is increasingly difficult to define what it means to be a social worker.

I chose social work for a number of reasons, none of which were remotely related to how much money I would make. Because my husband is a graduate student in clinical psychology I saw firsthand what that would entail. I’m interested in social justice on a broad level, not merely mental health treatment. I’m as liable to go into policy or research as clinical work, so social work was the correct choice for me. It is fascinating to see the differences between the psychology track and the social work track in a firsthand and parallel way. They are two completely different fields, so I find it odd that they both happen to intersect at the mental health level. It’s even odder that social workers and psychologists seem to be equally as effective in this particular role. (I have a theory, but that’s a whole other thread.) I chose to become involved in social work because of what I perceive to be serious flaws and a lack of scientific rigor in the execution and implementation of programs and treatment for the mentally ill. Nowadays the dominant professional standard in both psychology and social work seems to have fallen to, ‘‘Well, most of my clients say I’ve really helped them, so X treatment must be effective.’’

If I have any resentment at all as a social worker, it is toward the idea that there is no discernible professional distinction between systematic program evaluation and working in the soup kitchen.

I figure if anyone drops thousands of dollars on a higher education, he or she has a right to bitch if they don’t get some return on the investment. But singling out master’s degrees for unrealistic expectations is misleading. There are a lot of people with Ph.Ds pissing and moaning about how little money they make. And that’s fine, if you ask me. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to feel a little miffed that your years of hard work didn’t have a huge payoff monetarily. There was a time when getting an education virtually guaranteed you a good job, and that’s no longer the case, but a large swath of society is still pretending like it is. Kids are being misled. I don’t think that’s right.

That said, I may very well go on to get my Ph.D. or D.S.W., but I won’t have many expectations with regards to an increased salary.

Checking the box is a figure of speech that basically says “I’ve got one”. What I meant by “they don’t check your school” is that they don’t look into or care about the quality or heritage of the school you went to. They just care that you have the MBA.

Just curious but are you in the workforce or have you been in school forever because those are fairly common knowledge.

I don’t have a substantive comment right now, but the NY Times ran a series of articles this summer on the value of a master’s degree. The general verdict is that engineering and business degrees are the only ones that really work out financially, but there are other reasons to pursue a master’s in other fields.

No, I worked for eight years between getting my BA and going back to grad school. But don’t worry, that comment wasn’t condescending at all! I was actually joking a bit about the literal checking of the box, but I still think I disagree. Big name schools are still going to catch an employer’s eye. I have a friend who recently got an MBA from a small school. She’s been looking for a job for months and hasn’t found anything. More recently than that, the husband of one of my best friends graduated from the MBA program at my school. He was offered a job at Household Name Company A, but lost the offer due to his non US citizen status (if you follow business news, you can probably guess what company this is, it was a bit of a scandal when they withdrew all of their job offers to non-citizens), then got an offer with Household Name Company B, where he’s currently working, but he was recently offered another job with Household Name Company C, which he’s going to take.

/anecdote time

Well, the M.S.W., for instance, is pretty much a requirement if you want to do clinical work, or if you want a decent paying job in the field. In terms of basic quality of life, there’s a big difference between $35k and $45k annually. That $45k could mean medical insurance, a car that doesn’t break down, and a roof over your head.

Not true everywhere - I started my librarian job at the same time as a friend started teaching with a masters’, and we started at a very similar salary but I get a raise every year, so I outstripped him fairly quickly. Of course, many libraries don’t pay as well as mine.

In the biological sciences, a master’s is literally worthless, in my experience. I saw many many job listings asking for a master’s or two years’ work experience. So you can pay for school for those two years or get paid to work those two years, and end up in the same spot. It’s PhD or nothing. A bachelor’s only gets you through the door and qualifies you for jobs that would be high-school diploma level in most fields.

Many school districts give an automatic pay increase to a teacher who obtains a master’s degree.


The price of a loaf of bread is determined by supply and demand. Likewise, a salary is a price. Your salary will primarily be determined by supply and demand.

MBA here.

That is absolutely false. If you are looking to get into a lucrative career in investment banking or management consulting with a firm like Bain or McKinsey, an MBA from the “right” school is essential. You can also see from thischart that there is are significant differences is starting salary, salary growth and lifetime compensation depending on where you went to school.

Now you might say, well that’s only for the small percent of MBAs who want to work on Wall Street or some white shoe consulting firm. Well, that happens to be a significant number of the MBAs who go to Harvard or Wharton or Stern. Other MBAs, not so much.

And if anything, I think those or Payscale surveys understate what people earn. Because there are (or were) a lot of MBAs on Wall Street earning a lot more than $200 k with their bonuses.

Degrees only help if you SPECIFICALLY need that type of education to do your work.

MBAs are a dime a dozen. Therefore the jobs that NEED an MBA will be very selective about which MBA they take.

Masters are needed for such things a specialties in psychology or social work for instance.

A lot of Masters are earned “part time” as such and are earned over a period of years. If a person is taking ten years to complete a masters, he is thinking he only needs the degree to enhance his wallet OR he truly loves the subject and enjoys studying it.

I know a lot of community college instructors and professors who got their MBA just because the job requires a masters, and it’s the easiest one to get (no thesis, plenty of online and accelerated programs, etc.) They teach completely unrelated fields like English, film, geography, etc.

Call me whatever you want to call me but, I’ve always thought of a person with a Master’s Degree, at least from most American universities, as being only at the education level that a person with a Bachelor’s Degree should be–and perhaps would be-- if it weren’t for grade inflation and other factors that cheapen the value of most college degrees.

That leaves a U.S.graduate with a *Bachelor’s *at about the level that most Asian or European high school graduates are. I think it’s rather sad, but I guess college ends up being just another for-profit industry here.