Graduate Degrees With the Best Futures

In a tough job market, it makes sense to look for ways to set yourself apart from the competition. But is extra school the best — or most cost-effective — way to advance?

This year, 26 percent of graduating seniors headed for a graduate or professional degree, up from 24 percent last year, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, a professional association. Add to those ranks people who are working but want to go back to school — or who are simply not working and are applying to school as a back up — and enrollment swells even more.

But if these students are looking at grad school as a refuge from a tough economy, it’s the wrong approach, says Kathy Sims, the director of the University of California, Los Angeles Career Center. Prospective students should be even more careful about investing in further education in the current environment, because the long-term impact of the recession on particular fields isn’t yet clear, she says.

Career counselors say that for individuals who have been out of the work force for a while, or who are switching fields, a fresh degree can help a resume look more attractive. Yet in a tough job market, pursuing an advanced degree could narrow your options by making it more difficult to pursue opportunities outside of your chosen field.

Keep in mind that you’re making a substantial financial investment. “Consider not just the cost of that degree, but the opportunity cost in lost wages” when deciding if grad school makes sense for you, says Marcia Harris, a career counselor and the former director of the University of North Carolina’s Career Services office. In some cases, volunteer work, internships or even travel could enhance your resume for far less than the cost of a degree, she adds.

Prospective students should do careful research before heading back to school. The Bureau of Labor’s Occupational Outlook Handbook projects future demand for workers in different fields and gives a sense of how much people typically earn. Professional associations can also be a good source of information on current trends and opportunities. One good exercise: Go through a mock job search as if you have the degree you’re considering, including contacting organizations you might want to work for, Harris suggests.

Here are some examples of fields where an advanced degree might help you advance or increase your earning power — and some where a degree might just increase your debt:

Health Care

Employment of nurses projected to grow 23 percent between 2006 and 2016.

In an uncertain economy, it’s difficult to tell which fields are growing, but health care is one of the few “sure things” out there, says Emily Westerman, the associate director of the Office of Career Management at New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies. Nurses, in particular, stand to gain because they are seen as a cheaper alternative to doctors, and could benefit from the drive to cut the cost of care. Nurses will need a master’s degree to become clinical nurse specialists, nurse anesthetists, nurse-midwives or nurse practitioners, and many administrative positions also require advanced degrees. Clinical nurse specialists may see the greatest financial return on their investment in a master’s degree: The median annual salary for a registered nurse in 2008 was $62,450, and the median salary for a nurse anesthetist was $65,880, but for a clinical nurse specialist the median was $80,240.

Education

Employment of teachers (elementary to secondary) projected to grow 12 percent between 2006 and 2016.

Relative to other fields, teachers still don’t make much — 16 percent less than other college-educated professionals, according to the Economic Policy Institute. But the gap for teachers with a master’s degree is less than for those with only a bachelor’s. Thanks to union contracts, a master’s degree automatically bumps many public school teachers up to a higher pay range, says the University of California’s Sims. Moving up into administrative roles also typically requires an advanced degree, and the jump can pay off. The median salary for a high school teacher in 2008 was $51,180, while elementary and secondary administrators made a median salary of $83,880.

Green Jobs

Employment of industrial ecologists, climate change analysts and environmental scientists projected to grow more than 21 percent between 2006 and 2016.

Politicians talk a lot about how the new jobs of the future will be “green” or “sustainable,” but what does all that talk add up to? “It’s not just a buzzword that you can just hop on with just any old background,” Sims says. It’s possible to become, for example, an energy auditor who can evaluate energy efficiency and recommend improvements with relatively little education. However, efficiency consulting firms with specialists on staff who have advanced degrees seem to be growing faster, says Rosemary Haefner, the vice president of human resources at CareerBuilder.com.

Workers already in fields that could see the impact of new environmental regulation or spending — like architecture or urban planning — should consider continuing education classes to stay current on trends in sustainable design.

Law

Employment of lawyers expected to grow between 7 percent and 13 percent between 2006 and 2016.

Getting a law degree is definitely a big investment: The average amount borrowed by students at private law schools was $91,506 in 2008, according to the American Bar Association. Many students just assume that going to law school will open up doors, but “there are many, many unemployed lawyers out there,” Harris says. Prospective law students who are interested in public interest or public service jobs should consider that law school “is a launching pad to lots of different things, but you may be able to get there without a degree,” says Jane Finkle, a career counselor and graduate school advisor based in Pennsylvania.

One potential area of growth: More corporations seem to be hiring in-house attorneys in an effort to cut costs, and more attorneys seem to be pursuing that option earlier in their careers.

Social Work

Employment of medical and public health social workers expected to grow more than 21 percent between 2006 and 2016.

Most careers in social work require an advanced degree, but the median salary for medical and public health social workers in 2008 was $45,650. Child, family and school social workers made a median salary of just under $40,000 that same year. The math of salary minus student loans may not work out for social workers, Finkle says. “I’ve had a lot of them question whether it was worth the investment,” she says.

Business

Employment of executives expected to show little or no change between 2006 and 2016; employment of management analysts expected to grow more than 21 percent between 2006 and 2016.

Statistically, graduates of MBA programs do earn more than those without the degree, Haefner says. But that observation “doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to get, dollar for dollar, in your salary what you paid in tuition,” she says. Prospective students interested in an MBA should keep in mind that career opportunities, particularly in finance, are changing rapidly, making it all the more important to do careful research, including informational interviews, Sims says. “An MBA might not have the same meaning in three to five years that it had in the past 10,” she says.

Over the last few years, workers with MBAs have found opportunity in a greater variety of fields than they typically did in the past, says Haefner. And among the class of 2009, more students in MBA programs had found jobs before graduation than in other programs, according to research from the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

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