Is it worth getting a master’s degree?

a young, female university student wearing a hat works on homework on her laptop

More people are pursuing higher education across the country than ever before. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the percentage of Americans 25 years and over with a master’s degree or higher rose from 10.1 to 11.5 percent between 2009 and 2016. And it’s not just recent college graduates driving these numbers up. In addition to recent college grads, many experienced, working professionals are pursuing graduate school as a way to sharpen their skills and stay competitive in the labor force.

the ratio of U.S. adults getting advanced degrees has risen over time

The question of whether or not to re-enroll in school is often a difficult one, especially for young parents who support a family. There’s no right answer, but a number of factors can play into that decision, including the time commitment, cost of education, and pay raise that often accompanies a higher degree.

Across all occupations, employees with more advanced degrees can expect an increase in annual wages. According to data from the U.S. Census, the median worker 25 or older with a bachelor’s degree had earnings of $51,094 in 2016, while the median worker from the same group with a master’s degree earned about $67,832—a difference of more than $16,000, or a 32.8 percent increase. This trend, however, doesn’t hold across all occupations. Master’s degrees command large wage premiums in some professions, while in others, the difference is small or nonexistent.

the median earnings for adults is higher the more education one has

To determine which occupations pay the largest premium for master’s degree-level employees, Haven Life analyzed data from the U.S. Census American Community Survey. Haven Life compared the median salary for employees with bachelor’s degrees to those with master’s degrees across the most common occupations. To improve the relevancy of the results, Haven Life limited the analysis to occupations where at least five percent of all employees held a master’s degree. Here’s what they found:

Takeaways

  • There’s a broad range in advanced-degree wage premiums across the most common occupations. At the top end of the distribution, market research analysts and marketing specialists with a master’s degree earned 50 percent more than those with just a bachelor’s. By comparison, some occupations, like photographers, showed no statistically significant difference in wages across the two groups.
  • Workers in management positions stand to gain a lot from continuing education. Six of the ten positions with the highest wage premiums for a master’s degree are managerial in nature.
  • Occupations with the most educated workforce are also the most rapidly growing. Among occupations in which at least five percent of employees held a master’s degree, there is a significant correlation between the percent of employees with a master’s degree and the projected growth in job opportunities for that occupation.

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Jobs with the largest wage premiums

10. Social and community service managers

  • Master’s degree premium: 30.0% higher (+$15,000 per year)
  • Median annual salary for master’s degree: $65,000
  • Median annual salary for bachelor’s degree: $50,000
  • Percent of employees with a master’s degree: 28.6%
  • Projected job growth by 2026: 18.0%

Social and community service managers help underserved communities, such as the homeless, the elderly, or the sick. While not the most highly paid profession on this list, it’s often reported to be more rewarding than the typical nine-to-five job. Social and community service managers frequently work through government programs such as Child Protective Services, but many also opt for nonprofit opportunities.

9. Purchasing managers

  • Master’s degree premium: 30.7% higher (+$23,000 per year)
  • Median annual salary for master’s degree: $98,000
  • Median annual salary for bachelor’s degree: $75,000
  • Percent of employees with a master’s degree: 18.5%
  • Projected job growth by 2026: 5.5%

Pursuing a career as a purchasing manager is a good choice for someone who is analytical, organized, and good at negotiating. Purchasing managers are tasked with making buying decisions for an organization after thoroughly researching and evaluating various vendors in the marketplace. As such, a key benefit of this position is getting exposure to a wide range of products and services in a given industry.

8. First-line supervisors of non-retail sales workers

  • Master’s degree premium: 33.3% higher (+$25,000 per year)
  • Median annual salary for master’s degree: $100,000
  • Median annual salary for bachelor’s degree: $75,000
  • Percent of employees with a master’s degree: 10.0%
  • Projected job growth by 2026: 4.9%

First-line supervisors get to teach and work closely with others in performing their regular job duties. These supervisors generally coordinate employees from the ground, ensuring a smooth operation during working hours. In non-retail contexts, this can mean managing inspectors, machinists, toolmakers, and others involved in manufacturing processes.

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7. Transportation, storage, and distribution managers

  • Master’s degree premium: 33.8% higher (+$22,000 per year)
  • Median annual salary for master’s degree: $87,000
  • Median annual salary for bachelor’s degree: $65,000
  • Percent of employees with a master’s degree: 6.3%
  • Projected job growth by 2026: 6.7%

With advances in technology, consumers are becoming more accustomed to inexpensive and fast shipping options. Transportation, storage and distribution managers will gain an in-depth understanding of the logistics and technology responsible for this. These workers establish organizational supply chains, maintain product stocks, and direct deliveries to end customers, such as online retail shoppers and brick-and-mortar stores.

6. General and operations managers

  • Master’s degree premium: 34.2% higher (+$26,000 per year)
  • Median annual salary for master’s degree: $102,000
  • Median annual salary for bachelor’s degree: $76,000
  • Percent of employees with a master’s degree: 11.1%
  • Projected job growth by 2026: 9.1%

General and operations managers are senior roles in organizations that require complex decision making, problem-solving, and people management skills. People in these positions are given the responsibility and autonomy to make big organizational decisions, such as rolling out new product lines and engaging major clients.

5. Financial managers

  • Master’s degree premium: 37.5% higher (+$30,000 per year)
  • Median annual salary for master’s degree: $110,000
  • Median annual salary for bachelor’s degree: $80,000
  • Percent of employees with a master’s degree: 19.7%
  • Projected job growth by 2026: 18.7%

Financial managers, who direct investment activities and develop long-term financial strategies for organizations, are in extremely high demand. With a projected growth rate far exceeding the national average, this position may be a good choice for those seeking job security. Its well above average salary makes it even more attractive.

4. Librarians

  • Master’s degree premium: 39.5% higher (+$15,000 per year)
  • Median annual salary for master’s degree: $53,000
  • Median annual salary for bachelor’s degree: $38,000
  • Percent of employees with a master’s degree: 56.8%
  • Projected job growth by 2026: 8.9%

Those who are avid readers, have a knack for organization, and enjoy working with students or researchers will feel right at home in a library. Librarians wear many hats, directing most of the day-to-day operations of their respective libraries, which includes hiring/recruiting library technicians, cataloging resources, managing information systems, organizing events, and engaging with visitors.

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3. Tax preparers

  • Master’s degree premium: 40.0% higher (+$16,000 per year)
  • Median annual salary for master’s degree: $56,000
  • Median annual salary for bachelor’s degree: $40,000
  • Percent of employees with a master’s degree: 15.4%
  • Projected job growth by 2026: 10.8%

Tax preparers are experts in the U.S. tax code and perform a lot of the same functions as certified public accountants, such as compiling information from clients and preparing tax returns. Unlike CPAs, who can provide broader assistance to clients, tax preparers are more limited in their scope of work. That said, tax preparers often form close relationships with their clients through the services they provide.

2. Securities, commodities, and financial services sales agents

  • Master’s degree premium: 47.7% higher (+$42,000 per year)
  • Median annual salary for master’s degree: $130,000
  • Median annual salary for bachelor’s degree: $88,000
  • Percent of employees with a master’s degree: 16.2%
  • Projected job growth by 2026: 6.2%

Securities, commodities and financial services sales agents are the stop between buyers and sellers in the global financial market. They advise their clients on stock options, mutual funds, and other financial instruments to maximize profitability and diversify their portfolios. They are also the highest paid workers on this list. Not surprisingly, gaining employment in this field is extremely competitive.

1. Market research analysts and marketing specialists

  • Master’s degree premium: 50.0% higher (+$30,000 per year)
  • Median annual salary for master’s degree: $90,000
  • Median annual salary for bachelor’s degree: $60,000
  • Percent of employees with a master’s degree: 23.4%
  • Projected job growth by 2026: 23.2%

Market research analysts and marketing specialists identify potential customers and their preferences, research competitors, and create marketing campaigns for the purpose of bringing a product to market. The best marketers will gain an extensive understanding of the human mind and what drives consumer behavior. They will also become intimately familiar with cutting-edge technologies and a wide range of new products in the marketplace.

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Jobs with the smallest wage premiums

10. Paralegals and Legal Assistants

  • Master’s degree premium: 11.1% higher (+$5,000 per year)
  • Median annual salary for master’s degree: $50,000
  • Median annual salary for bachelor’s degree: $45,000
  • Percent of employees with a master’s degree: 6.2%
  • Projected job growth by 2026: 14.6%

Working as a paralegal can provide great experience prior to law school or serve as a fulfilling career on its own. Paralegals work directly with attorneys on cases, which involves conducting legal research, investigating the facts of the case, filing case materials, interviewing witnesses, and performing administrative duties.

9. Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists

  • Master’s degree premium: 11.1% higher (+$5,200 per year)
  • Median annual salary for master’s degree: $52,000
  • Median annual salary for bachelor’s degree: $46,800
  • Percent of employees with a master’s degree: 18.1%
  • Projected job growth by 2026: 5.7%

Probation officers and correctional treatment specialist work directly with people who’ve been convicted of a crime to help them in their rehabilitation. People who do best in this profession are understanding, tolerant, and have a true desire to help another person in need. Correctional treatment specialists oversee inmates’ progress and provide recommendations for rehabilitation and treatment, while probation officers serve a similar function for non-inmates under state supervision.

8. Computer and Information System Managers

  • Master’s degree premium: 10% higher (+$10,000 per year)
  • Median annual salary for master’s degree: $110,000
  • Median annual salary for bachelor’s degree: $100,000
  • Percent of employees with a master’s degree: 25.2%
  • Projected job growth by 2026: 12.0%

If working with computers and technology is a passion, this high-paying profession might be a terrific fit. Computer and information system managers orchestrate the vision of what their organization’s computing environment should look like. They keep current on the latest technology trends and spearhead internal efforts to determine and implement the sort of infrastructure best suited to their organization’s particular business needs.

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7. Detectives and Criminal Investigators

  • Master’s degree premium: 9.3% higher (+$7,000 per year)
  • Median annual salary for master’s degree: $82,000
  • Median annual salary for bachelor’s degree: $75,000
  • Percent of employees with a master’s degree: 12.3%
  • Projected job growth by 2026: 4.5%

Detectives and criminal investigators bear the responsibility of determining what happened at the scene of a crime. While usually not as exciting as what’s depicted on TV, the job is certainly not for the faint of heart. Detectives and criminal investigators interview suspects, collect evidence, and work with forensic specialists (among other tasks) to identify the perpetrator in a criminal case.

6. Insurance sales agents

  • Master’s degree premium: 8.3% higher (+$5,000 per year)
  • Median annual salary for master’s degree: $65,000
  • Median annual salary for bachelor’s degree: $60,000
  • Percent of employees with a master’s degree: 7.0%
  • Projected job growth by 2026: 9.9%

Insurance can be complicated (although maybe not in all cases). The most helpful insurance sales agents work directly with potential customers to understand their needs and determine the best insurance products for their situation.

5. Dietitians and nutritionists

  • Master’s degree premium: 8.0% higher (+$4,000 per year)
  • Median annual salary for master’s degree: $54,000
  • Median annual salary for bachelor’s degree: $50,000
  • Percent of employees with a master’s degree: 27.3%
  • Projected job growth by 2026: 14.6%

Dietitians and nutritionists help clients live and eat healthier. They work closely with clients to develop meal plans based on their nutritional needs, dietary restrictions, and any specific conditions they may have. This profession requires strong interpersonal skills and knowledge of chemistry, biology, and psychology.

4. Library assistants, clerical

  • Master’s degree premium: 7.1% higher (+$2,000 per year)
  • Median annual salary for master’s degree: $30,000
  • Median annual salary for bachelor’s degree: $28,000
  • Percent of employees with a master’s degree: 10.5%
  • Projected job growth by 2026: 9.4%

Library assistants work as the right hand of the head librarian, performing most of the organizational activities that the librarian needs, such as sorting, cataloging, information retrieval, and other clerical tasks. Working as a library assistant can be a great stepping stone to a career in library science or research.

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3. Producers and directors

  • Master’s degree premium: 6.6% higher (+$4,000 per year)
  • Median annual salary for master’s degree: $65,000
  • Median annual salary for bachelor’s degree: $61,000
  • Percent of employees with a master’s degree: 13.9%
  • Projected job growth by 2026: 12.2%

Producers and directors bring creative ideas to life across different media formats, such as stage, film, TV, or radio. While the producer is generally responsible for logistics, legal, and financing, the director is responsible for the creative process.

2. Biological technicians

  • Master’s degree premium: No significant difference
  • Median annual salary for master’s degree: $44,000
  • Median annual salary for bachelor’s degree: $45,000
  • Percent of employees with a master’s degree: 8.7%
  • Projected job growth by 2026: 10.2%

Biological technicians work as assistants to trained scientists in a laboratory setting. They carry out experiments designed by the supervising scientist, adjust/calibrate instrumentation, and collect data in order to keep the lab operating effectively. Working as a biological technician is a popular choice for those considering medical school or a doctoral program in science because of the research experience it provides.

1. Photographers

  • Master’s degree premium: No significant difference
  • Median annual salary for master’s degree: $36,000
  • Median annual salary for bachelor’s degree: $38,500
  • Percent of employees with a master’s degree: 8.0%
  • Projected job growth by 2026: -5.6%

Photographers have the opportunity to capture and preserve stories, using a combination of creativity and professional acuity. These skills can be applied across many disciplines, often hopping between events, journalism, marketing, advertising, and, of course, pure creative art.

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Methodology

The occupations reported are based on the Standard Occupational Classification (SOC). Median salary by degree level for each occupation is derived from the Public Use Microdata Series (PUMS) samples of the U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey (ACS) 5-year estimates. Master’s degree attainment by occupation and projected job growth are reported from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Projections data.

For each occupation, a master’s degree wage premium was calculated by comparing the median salary for employees with a master’s degree to those with just a bachelor’s degree. Only specific occupations with at least 65,000 full-time employees 25 years or older, and for which at least five percent of employees have a master’s degree, were included in the analysis. Occupations that require a master’s degree were excluded. The resulting wage premiums were tested for statistical significance. Occupations were ordered according to their wage premium.

Haven Life Insurance Agency LLC (Haven Life) conducted this research for educational/informational purposes only. Haven Life is an online life insurance agency offering term life insurance issued by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company. Haven Life does not provide tax, legal, investment, or occupational advice, and the information in the study should not be relied on as such. You should consult your own tax, legal, investment, and other advisors, as appropriate.

Haven Term is a Term Life Insurance Policy (ICC15DTC) issued by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual), Springfield, MA 01111 and offered exclusively through Haven Life Insurance Agency, LLC. Not all riders are available in all states. Our Agency license number in California is 0K71922 and in Arkansas, 100139527.

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