The decision to go back to college for a master's degree was easy for Army National Guard 1st Lt. Gregg Carey.
The battalion mortar platoon leader received a head injury in a roadside bomb blast in Iraq in 2005 and was forced to medically retire the following year. After running his own coffee shop in Athens, Ga., and later working for a friend, he learned of the Army Wounded Warrior Education Initiative, or AW2EI, at the University of Kansas. The Army covers Carey's tuition, pays him the salary of a GS-9 and will help him find a job within the service's Training and Doctrine Command after he graduates.
"In today's world, that's like falling though a hole in ‘The Matrix,'" Carey says.
Before applying, he did his homework, researching, via the Bureau of Labor Statistics website, career fields with high future employment demand. Finding one he liked, the 32-year-old decided to pursue a master's in education technology.
"If you look at a master's as a marketable skill that you are gaining, then it would behoove you to do some research to see what skills are going to be in demand in the future," he says. "Search around for things you are interested in, fields or jobs."
The advanced-degree boom
Master's degrees generally mean better job prospects and higher earning potential, says Randy Masten, program assistant in KU's office of professional military graduate education.
"In this economy and job market, a bachelor's degree may get you the entry-level position you want, but if you are looking for promotability, the master's degree is going to give you that edge," he says. "There is a surplus of workers, and anything you can do to set yourself apart is well worth it."
That goes for those still in uniform, too, says Masten, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel. "For promotability in the officer corps above, really, lieutenant colonel, a master's is pretty much a requirement," he says.
Master's mania is sweeping higher education. A July 2011 article in The New York Times heralded "the master's as the new bachelor's," and with good reason. The number of master's degrees awarded in the U.S. is up 46 percent in the past decade, from about 430,000 in 1997-98 to more than 631,000 in 2007-08, according to the Council of Graduate Schools.
It all begs the question: Do you need a master's to succeed in today's workforce? Not always. But, depending on your field, a master's can give you a significant leg up.
Robert Augustine, dean of the Graduate School at Eastern Illinois University, points to his own field communications disorders as an example of one that requires a master's for licensure.
"When you earn a master's in some fields, you get the credentials you need to practice," he says.
Many of the fastest-growing occupations that require a master's are in science or health care, including occupational therapists, physician assistants, anthropologists and environmental scientists. But other professions where master's degrees have become the norm include curators, instructional coordinators and operations research analysts.
More money, opportunities
Experts contend that a master's makes you more marketable, even in professions for which the degree isn't required.
"I don't think there is any question that a person who is going into the job market is going to be more employable with a master's degree than without a master's degree," says Robert Sowell of the Council for Graduate Schools.
Part of the reason is the so-called "soft skills" that master's students hone as part of their learning. Chief among these are excellent communication skills.
In master's programs, "you are in with a smaller cohort of people and are working one-on-one with faculty. You are working on oral and written projects," Augustine says. These all heighten communication skills that are "highly valued in the workplace."
Problem-solving skills and the ability to work well under pressure are other skills that emerge from the rigors of a master's program.
Master's degree-holders typically also enjoy greater likelihood of employment, faster career advancement and higher salaries than their counterparts, Sowell said.
The median weekly earnings of full-time workers 25 and older with master's degrees was $234 more than for those with bachelor's degrees and $505 more than those with associate degrees in 2010, according to BLS. A worker with a bachelor's will earn, on average, $2.3 million over a lifetime, while a worker with a master's will earn $2.7 million, according to a report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
Some contend that although master's degrees bring higher income potential, their high price tag is not worthwhile in terms of the heavy debt many students will incur.
But Augustine says most schools offer graduate assistantships and traditional scholarships to offset some of the cost of advanced degrees. Employer-supported education benefits also are common. And Masten says that for service members and veterans, military tuition assistance and veterans education benefits can make graduate school a smart choice.
"The services are looking to cut [troops]," he says. "There is going to be an influx of veterans into the economy. For any of those people who are looking for their next step, there is probably no better time than right as you are coming out to try to get into a degree program."
For his part, Carey is looking forward to pursuing a new career in an up-and-coming field.
When he finishes, "I'd like to I like to work in TRADOC developing educational technology content for the Army," he says. "If I enjoy that, I'll stick with it, and, if not, I'll try and find something else in the field. I think that there is some pretty good opportunity in educational technology in the future."