I remember thinking about this question way back when I was in high school. I was getting ready to go to college to get my chemical engineering degree. After finishing undergrad, what’s next? Should I jump straight into the working world? Should I go for grad school? Or should I drop out of college and start a startup?
Back then, I don’t think there were too many articles that went into detail on the value of graduate school. I just knew that common knowledge says that more education is better.
One day, I got a chance to talk with someone at my church who studied chemical engineering. He said yes it is worth it, but do the thesis route. Long story short, I took his advice and did a 126 page master’s thesis in nanoengineering. Was it worth it? Looking back on it, I’m confident that I can say that it was worth it for me. But then again, I can’t imagine anyone who would look back and say they regretted getting a master’s. “Oh man, I sure wish I didn’t go get my master’s degree!”
Even now (after having already gotten my master’s) I’m kind of curious to know the true answer to this question. Is my opinion biased because I ended up with a decent job by chance? Did my master’s degree really provide educational value for me and my career? Or did it just give me a way to trick people into thinking I’m smart?
So I decided to do some research and gather some data on master’s degree holders in engineering. I’ll also throw in my own two cents on this, which you can take with a grain of salt.
How are the Job Prospects with a Master’s vs. Bachelor’s?
This is probably what the question is really asking in terms of a master’s being “worth it”. Do the positive outcomes of doing a master’s degree outweigh the costs? With rising tuition costs and uncertainty about finding relevant jobs for new grads, it makes sense to ask this question.
To answer this question (without relying purely on anecdotal evidence), I looked at data from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). NACE is a nonprofit association founded in 1956 that connects thousands of professionals from college career services, university relations, and recruiting. If there is a definitive source to gather data on career outcomes of college graduates, this is the place to go.
They published a 144 page pdf detailing where 2018 graduates ended up within six months, on average, after receiving their degree. They looked at 529,000 graduates at the bachelor’s degree level and 131,000 graduates at the master’s level.
Salary and Employment
Here’s what the data says about salary and employment for new master’s vs. new bachelor’s graduates in engineering:
- Bachelor’s in Engineering:
- 63.2% employed after graduation
- 18.4% pursued continued education
- 11.3% still seeking employment
- $66,638 average starting salary
- Master’s in Engineering:
- 69% employed after graduation
- 15.7% pursued continued education
- 11% still seeking employment
- $82,242 average starting salary (23.4% higher than bachelor’s)
Of course this information will vary by major and even location, but you can check the data yourself if you’re curious about a specific situation. There’s also info on non-engineering degrees if you were curious. Just from looking over the data, this trend seems consistent across all engineering majors.
The data seems pretty clear, master’s degree holders earn a higher median starting salary and a slightly higher employment rate. So if you were wondering if a master’s degree in engineering is just another expensive piece of paper, the data says otherwise. A master’s degree in engineering does hold value in employers eyes and more importantly, they are willing to pay you extra in your starting salary for that value.
Surprisingly, this conclusion is true for computer science as well:
- Bachelor’s in Computer Science:
- 75.5% employed after graduation
- 11.1% continued education
- 11.4% still seeking employment
- $77,564 average starting salary
- Master’s in Computer Science:
- 82.8% employed after graduation
- 5.8% continued education
- 10% still seeking employment
- $96,852 average starting salary (24.9% higher than bachelor’s)
I always heard that you don’t need a master’s in computer science because of the high demand for new computer science graduates. I guess that’s true if you just want to land just any job, but the data definitely shows that it leads to a hefty boost in your starting salary. If anything, the hot tech industry may even cause employers to value graduate degrees more. They might want to entice these top notch candidates to work for them with higher starting salaries before they get scooped up by another company.
NACE’s data looks pretty comprehensive, but their data does not consider one thing: underemployed graduates. They considered full-time employment as being employed for 30 hours per week or more on a regular basis. For each graduate, only one outcome could be designated. This means that the data miscategorizes engineering graduates who became Starbucks baristas, were employed for 30 hours per week, but were still looking for “real” engineering jobs in the meantime.
In reality, the percentage still seeking employment should be higher. According to a study by the New York Fed, 17-29% of engineering graduates are underemployed for their first job after graduating. They didn’t distinguish master’s vs. bachelor’s graduates, but based on the trend from NACA’s data, I think it’s reasonable to assume underemployment rates should also be slightly lower for master’s degree holders. This may be reflected in the higher average starting salary for master’s degree holders.
My Thoughts on Job Prospects for Master’s Graduates
In my opinion, I think getting a master’s degree in engineering is definitely worth the 1-2 year investment in terms of job prospects. That isn’t to say it will guarantee you will find a higher paying job (that’s not how statistics works), but it definitely increases your chances. A lot of my older, more experienced coworkers either have a master’s degree or have told me they wished they had pursued one early on in their career.
Most companies have a system in place to pay graduate degree holders more than bachelor’s degree holders. For example, someone with a bachelor’s might be categorized as a level 1 entry level engineer. But if they were to have a master’s degree, many companies would categorize him/her as a level 2 engineer, which pays a higher salary. Most companies do this even if both of these engineers have equal years of experience. To them, it’s just another factor when determining your compensation.
Some employers also see a master’s degree as a substitute for a couple years of work experience. In my case, my master’s degree enabled me to get my current job at Boeing as a Quality Engineer. We don’t have level 1 contributors, so there was no way I would have gotten this job without either a couple years of work experience or a master’s degree.
Another thing to consider besides employability and salary is the opportunities that open up to you because of your master’s degree. From what people have told me, a master’s degree is the bare minimum required if you ever hope to get into research or design type of work. If you do a specialization in your master’s work, that could also open up some doors to some opportunities that need field specialists to do work for them.
Is There Educational Value in Doing a Master’s?
Here’s what I think: yes, but probably not in the way you think.
Let me explain.
The Contents of Your Education Probably Won’t be Relevant to Your Job
Almost everything they teach you in school has little to no relevance to what you will be doing in the working world. My chemical engineering professor told us this (without any sarcasm, this is 100% serious): “none of you here will be using what I’ve been teaching you in class over the past 4 years.” And I agree with him. I believe this is true for all engineering degrees. Even computer science *gasp*.
Here’s the thing. Anything taught in the classroom already has a solution. I can almost guarantee you, someone out there has already figured out a way to automate those engineering calculations with software. These engineering problems do have exact solutions after all.
But in the working world, people want you to solve problems that have never been solved before. So by definition, that isn’t something they can teach you in class. By that logic, the content of your education has no value for any employers out there. You will never be asked to solve a differential equation by hand or calculate the steady state temperature of a small droplet of n-butane that falls through still air at 325K. Even if you are asked, you will probably have a software package that will run the calculations/simulations for you.
Your Problem Solving Skills Definitely Have Value Anywhere You Go
A master’s degree will give you specialized knowledge in a particular area, but it is unlikely that that specific knowledge will have any value for you or your employer. What does have value though is the engineering and problem solving mindset that you develop while gaining that knowledge.
In my experience, the education at the graduate level places more emphasis on the problem solving, analytical, and communication skills compared to the undergraduate level. The master’s degree is like a 1-2 year crash course on academic problem solving. At least at UC San Diego, my professors really emphasized being able to dissect scientific articles, come up with intelligent questions, and design projects.
While you won’t have much use for the specific content of your knowledge, the training in analytical problem solving and academic reading/writing definitely has value for both your employer and your career. You get some of that in the undergraduate level, but the graduate level places more emphasis on your ability to produce high quality solutions to larger problems with no exact solution.
Overall, there’s more creative problem solving and less rote memorization and crunching numbers. In that sense, the master’s degree definitely has value in training you get on thinking differently in your approach to problem solving.
Should I do the Coursework Route or the Thesis Route?
Most schools offer 2 options for a master’s degree: the coursework route and the thesis route. If you want examples and specifics, you can take a look at UC San Diego’s program.
Coursework vs. Thesis Route
Briefly, the coursework route requires you to take a certain number of courses. At the end, you take a comprehensive exam that covers everything you learned. The exam has an oral component where a panel of professors will grill you on how to solve their problems. There’s also a written component where you just take a big test.
The thesis route requires you to take a fewer number of courses. In their place, you will be working with a professor on an original research project. When you are ready, you will give a 45 minute presentation on your work. You will deliver it in public and in front of a panel of professors who will grill you on their problems with your research project. Basically, you are just trying to show you know what you’re talking about without making a fool of yourself on stage.
Do the Thesis Route
In my opinion, the thesis route is the way to go if you can. The logic behind this is the same as my thoughts on the educational value of the master’s degree. The thesis route places even greater emphasis on creative problem solving and academic reading/writing than the coursework route. This will definitely yield greater returns for your career whether you choose to start working or continue pursuing a PhD.
As an added bonus, you will have completed a huge year long project. That’s a big accomplishment that will give you plenty to talk about in any future job interview. This is true even if the job has very little to do with your specific thesis work. In my interview with Boeing, 80-90% of the conversation was about my thesis project. Especially about the data analytics I did for it.
So I can say that my thesis work directly led to me getting my current job despite having nothing to do with machine learning prediction of hybrid perovskites or surface energies of magnetic full-heuslers. This will give you a huge advantage compared to someone who only has a bachelor’s degree and not much else to show for it.
If you want to get into research or pursue a PhD, you will definitely need to go the thesis route. The thesis will prove that you can handle performing original research, design your own projects, and drive them to completion.
Is a Master’s in Engineering a Financially Smart Move?
According to the data, yes. However, it’s important to note the following assumptions in these calculations:
- The average job salary with just a bachelor’s degree in engineering is $66,638
- On average completing a master’s in engineering will increase your starting salary by $15,604
- Let’s assume it takes 2 years to do your master’s degree (I did mine in 1)
- Let’s assume the degree will cost you $30,000 to fully complete the program. (mine cost $0 because I was a teaching assistant)
- Let’s assume you will get a raise of 4% per year
- Let’s assume you didn’t take out any loans to pay off tuition
- To simplify things, let’s not consider tax brackets or tax rates
Here’s a graph to show you a picture of the net earnings over time:
The graph shows a crossover in net earnings around 14 years following completion of the bachelor’s degree. Anything after 14 years you will be ahead of the bachelor’s only situation. So according to these calculations, the master’s degree is well worth the investment, but you might not see the return on investment until midway through your career.
In my case, I did my master’s degree in just 1 year and it cost me nothing in tuition. If anything, I got paid to do my master’s since I was also working as a teaching assistant. So financially, I believe this was a smart move to make. In my situation, I should expect to see a payoff in about 10-11 years if we follow the simple 4% raise model.
However, the data might not accurately reflect the true salary changes over time with just a 4% raise every year. If you change jobs or step into a new role, you could boost your income significantly in a short time. I would guess a master’s degree holder should have a slightly easier time making a job change than someone with only a bachelor’s degree. These events should pull the crossover point a little sooner to maybe 10-12 years.
On the other hand, I’ve also been told that salary depends strongly on the job title. Let’s say the bachelor’s only route leads to a promotion in 1-2 years. This would lead both the bachelor’s and master’s route to lead to the same position with the same salary. If from that point on, your degree doesn’t matter for calculating salary/promotions, then the bachelor’s route wins out in terms of financial gain. Both paths lead to the same place, but the bachelor’s route didn’t lose out on 2 years of pay.
An alternative option is to start with a bachelors, land a job, then have your company pay for your master’s degree. This could arguably be the best option. You don’t miss out on 2 years of salary and you still get the benefits of having a master’s degree, just at a later time. It may take longer to complete the degree while working full-time, but the financial benefits will yield immediate payoffs since it costs you nothing in lost wages or tuition.
According to the data, a master’s degree in engineering is definitely a worthwhile investment. In terms of employment prospects, master’s degree holders have a slight edge compared to bachelor’s degree only candidates. Financially, the master’s degree should pay itself off in 10-15 years and anything after that is pure profit. In my experience, the training I underwent provided great value for my career in terms of critical problem solving and scientific reading/writing.
If you enjoyed reading that, check out some of my other articles:
- How to Hack Your Job Search with Jobscan
- My Job Search in 5 Stages
- 7 Job Search Tips that Actually Work
- My 60 minute Financial Planner (see below)
- Where Does The Money Go When You Buy A Stock? - November 22, 2020
- Why Is It Important To Save Money At A Young Age? - November 15, 2020
- What To Do If Someone Is Not Giving Your Money Back - November 8, 2020