Putting My Graduate Degree to Work: Does It Really Give Me a Competitive Edge?

Now more than ever, students are filling graduate school classes at colleges and universities across the country.

According to a UCLA survey, three-fourths of freshmen at four-year colleges plan to go to graduate school. That’s up from 51 percent in 1974. Post-secondary institutions awarded 821,000 master’s degrees during the 2013-2014 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That’s up from 754,000 in 2011-2012.

The statistics make sense. In general, master's degrees help you attain better jobs and earn more money. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, over a lifetime a person with a master’s degree typically earns $400,000 more than someone who holds only a bachelor’s degree. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the unemployment rate for those with master’s degrees is just 2.8 percent.

Everyone, it seems, is in search of that elusive dream—a job they love, that pays well and has attractive benefits. Some go to grad school to earn a promotion; others go for a career path change, and others go because, for some jobs, the master’s degree has become the new bachelor’s degree.

Graduate degrees have numerous benefits, no doubt, but those benefits don’t just fall into your lap. Like everything worth working for, reaping the rewards of an advanced degree requires effort on your part.

Internships/Part-Time Work

One great benefit of going to graduate school is the opportunity for internships and part-time work. Colleges and universities are fantastic at connecting employers who need a little extra help with eager grad students looking for opportunities to learn the trade. Not only do internships teach you about real-world work, but they also give you a chance to network with industry experts. So, not only will you prove that you can put your new knowledge into action, but you will meet industry decision makers who are looking for innovative, hardworking employees. But, you have to put in the time to get the return on investment.

Professional Growth

Another benefit of spending time on a college campus is that they offer career management services, behavioral assessments, workshops with guest speakers within the industry and on-campus company presentations. But, these opportunities are only beneficial if you actually take the time to participate. You can’t expect to gain this priceless industry knowledge just by showing up to class. And, from someone who has changed career paths, I can’t tell you how much I wish I had these options when I was trying to decide ‘what I wanted to be when I grew up.’

Showing the Value

If you have a job or are looking for one, don’t count on managers automatically appreciating the benefits of a graduate degree. Proving its worth is up to you. Explain how a master’s degree will help you do your job better or how it qualifies you for a promotion. Quantify the value using specifics of how the knowledge you acquired will help the company. Demonstrate that you are now an expert in your field. This can be accomplished by taking on new projects at work, or by showing a portfolio of relevant work experience to potential employers.

At a time when employment is more competitive than ever, a master’s degree is one more way to demonstrate to employers that you are willing to put in the hard work to become the best. But, simply getting the degree doesn’t guarantee a better job or more money. It’s up to you to take advantage of the available growth and networking opportunities and to market your increased knowledge, skills and value.

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