Many signs point to an improving job market—for example, last week the number of people seeking unemployment assistance dropped to its lowest level since 1973, according to the Labor Department. The unemployment rate sits at 5.3 percent, which is the lowest it has been in 7 years. But the post-recession recovery hasn’t been even across the board. It’s much easier to find a job in some sectors than in others. And while having a bachelor’s degree used to mean a decent job was a sure thing, that just isn’t the case anymore.
Escaping the recession
The abysmal job market that existed during the recent recession caused many people to flock to grad school. Because of how difficult it was to find a job, many people reasoned that they could wait out the worst of the job market by returning to school, and after a couple years, they’d enter a better job market, armed with an impressive new credential.
The ubiquity of this approach becomes apparent when you look at degree completion statistics that correspond to the years of the recession. “The number of adults completing a master’s degree grew by 18 percent from 2008 to 2013,” according to a U.S. Census Bureau blog post on educational attainment.
More education does tend to lead to more pay, but there are no guarantees. As Ron Rosenbaum wrote in Slate, “The choice to go to graduate school may only offer the illusion of comfort and security.”
If you plan to take out loans to pay for graduate school, the typical recommendation is to not take out more than what you expect your salary to be when you find a job after graduate school. Also, consider whether your likely earnings bump is worth the time you would take away from work to attend school—or whether trying to juggle both work and graduate school would negatively impact your career.
Increased demand for skilled workers
“Today’s premium for college degrees is caused partly by increasing selectiveness among employers about whom they hire and screening based on education even for positions that do not require higher skills. But jobs themselves have changed, too,” Catherine Rampell wrote in The New York Times.
Her piece notes the influence of technology on the job market, requiring skilled labor and technical aptitude in an ever-increasing number of fields. Today’s car mechanics, Rampell’s article points out, have to understand computers in addition to cars. Fields that once had a relatively low barrier to entry now require additional training, technical aptitude, and other specific skills.
So it’s no surprise that the master’s degree has grown in popularity in recent years. “The master’s degree is the fastest-growing college credential in the US,” Libby Nelson wrote in Vox earlier this year. “More than 16 million people in the US—about 8 percent of the population—now have a master’s, a 43 percent increase since 2002.”
Earning a bachelor’s degree used to be a notable educational attainment. Now that bachelor’s degrees are so common, job seekers who want to stand out are turning to master’s degrees.
This makes more sense in some fields than in others. With as heavily as STEM education is pushed these days, some students who graduate with bachelor’s degrees in STEM subjects are surprised to find that many jobs require master’s degrees. (Graduate work in the sciences can land you on Shark Week, if that’s the sort of thing that motivates you!)
If you’re considering a master’s in the humanities, take this quiz from Stephen Burt, an English professor at Harvard: Should You Go to Grad School? (It’s practical, but it also takes into account the reality that some people have a bone-deep need to formally study their passion further, regardless of whether a lucrative—or merely reliable—career is on the other side of that master’s degree.)
No matter what field you’re considering, there are certain things you can do to get the most out of graduate school—things that will help you find a job once you’re done. Establish good relationships with your professors and peers; attend lectures, conferences, and events while in school; and get involved with alumni groups after graduation. Networking continues to be one of the best routes to a job, and graduate school can be a fantastic way to expand your network and make more contacts in your field. While you’re in graduate school, you should also make sure to complete projects that would translate well into resume accomplishment statements, such as presenting at a conference.
And—take it from me—defending a thesis makes for surprisingly good interview practice. You prepare in advance, build your case, answer some questions that are expected, and then have to prove your ability to think on your feet when you get some questions that surprise you.
Besides, once you’ve completed a thesis, customizing your resume is a cinch.