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Graduate degree, higher salary does not always connect

By Alexia Boyarsky

June 6, 2013 2:27 a.m.

Students across the nation are increasingly pursuing graduate degrees, often as a way to increase their salaries or give them a boost in their careers.

Salary and employment data, however, point to a discrepancy in this trend – having a higher degree may not necessarily impart more job security or a higher salary, but it increases the probability of both.

About 80 percent of UCLA undergraduate students said they plan on going to graduate school after completing their undergraduate degree, according to a Daily Bruin/UCLA Department of Statistics survey conducted from Feb. 28 to March 6.

Many students stated that the possibility of getting higher wages was a large factor in choosing to go to graduate school, according to the survey.

“Graduate school is what makes you different and more competitive for jobs,” said Rachel Thompson, a fourth-year anthropology student who is currently planning on attending a one-year master’s program. “People are worried about getting jobs, so it makes sense that more are going (to graduate school).”

Although students said they sense the need to go to graduate school, research has shown that a graduate degree may not lead to the financial outcomes they want.

Data collected by Job Search Intelligence, a company that analyzes national salary data, shows that salaries for students with master’s degrees in many fields are similar to salaries for students with only bachelor’s degrees. Employment statistics also do not vary widely.

For example, recent master’s graduates in history earn an average of $39,300. In comparison, students who earn a bachelor’s degree in history are projected to earn about $41,700.

More professional degrees are awarded now, which could account for the similarities in wages for individuals with a master’s degree compared to those with just a bachelor’s degree, said Alice Ho, director of UCLA Academic Advancement Programming.

The number of master’s degrees that are awarded spiked from about 463,000 in 2000 to 693,000 in 2010, according to the Institute of Education Sciences.

“Getting a professional degree has traditionally been very valued and very lucrative, but now you have oversaturation (of people with higher degrees),” Ho said.

Still, some students said they feel pressured to go to graduate school to keep up with their peers.

“Jobs are more competitive now and getting a bachelor’s degree is like what getting a high school degree used to be,” said Patricia Hernandez, a third-year psychology student. “Now you need to get a higher degree to compete for a job.”

Graduate students in the humanities said that often the decision to pursue a higher degree is a matter of following their passions, rather than securing a career.

Lisa Mendelman, an English graduate student, said she and her fellow students are aware of the realities of the economy and the difficulties of finding a job – even with a higher degree.

“In light of what today’s (academic) job market looks like, I don’t think there are very many people who are going into (graduate school in the humanities) as a calculated career move,” she said.

Despite an influx of graduate students on the job market, some students said they feel the need to go to graduate school to set themselves apart from their peers. Similar to the growth rate of master’s degrees, the number of bachelor’s degrees given out has increased by about 400,000.

But the growing fields of science, technology, engineering and math – known as the STEM fields – provide a ripe outlet for graduate students with abundant jobs and higher salaries.

“In the sciences: that’s where the money is at right now,” Ho said. “If you go on and get a graduate degree in the sciences, there’s more demand for those who come out with a doctor’s degree or a master’s degree.”

For a variety of reasons, however, students do not seem to be going into those fields, Ho said. A lack of preparation in K-12 combined with a rigorous curriculum sometimes discourages students from pursuing STEM fields, she said.

Besides the larger availability of jobs, mathematics graduate student Nicholas Cook pointed to the wider array of possibilities that are open to students who have STEM graduate degrees. While humanities graduate students often look for jobs in academia, STEM students can work for private companies, the government and pursue professorships.

“That could be one side of why students in STEM (graduate programs) seem to have more job security,” he said. “It’s a combination of less STEM students and more STEM jobs.”

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Although graduate school may not impart the type of financial success that many students assume it will, Ho said the choice should be a personal one for students that involves weighing the pros of obtaining a degree against the cons which may include more student loans.

“Graduate school doesn’t have to be for everyone, and there are certain jobs that you don’t need a graduate degree to do,” Ho said. “It’s important for students to determine whether or not a higher degree is necessary for them.”

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Alexia Boyarsky
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