What's a Master's Degree Worth?

Image credit: Mark Ramsay / CC BY 2.0

By: Nancy Ordman

Is a master’s degree in engineering worth the price? A recent US News and World Report article took a look at advanced degrees that could position a graduate with in-demand skills.

Data Science/Computational Analytics

In a world where big data is everywhere, advanced computational and analytical skills can punch a graduate’s ticket for positions in banks and hedge funds to medical research to astronomy. Financial technology—fintech—is a growing consumer of graduates with data science expertise. Employers like PayPal and Mint expect graduates to develop innovative financial products and services based on hard data.

"Quants" can expect this job market to increase 12 percent in the next few years. Candidates with a blend of math, finance and computer knowledge can expect starting salaries of at least $100,000.

Biomedical Engineering

The aging population, among other factors, is increasing the demand for biomedical engineers. Another hot field that evolved fairly recently, biomedical engineering graduates now have many more tools available—3-D printing, advanced materials, imaging technologies—to use to craft solutions for worn-out joints or to develop more precise diagnostic tools. Physicians also use tools developed by biomedical engineers for advanced surgery, among other occupations.

Projections indicate a 23 per-cent increase in demand over the next few years. Entry-level salaries start at around $80,000.

Computer Software Engineering

Perennially in demand, computer software engineers with education and skills in several evolving industries can expect demand to exceed supply for the next few years with a 32 percent increase in jobs. Cybersecurity and mobile applications, along with cloud computing, lead the list of specialties with solid demand. Beginning salaries are over $100,000.

Mechanical Engineering

Mechanical engineering is a staple at engineering schools, but mechanical engineers work in fields that did not exist a generation ago. Development of alternative and unconventional energy, such as solar and wind, is one economic sector generating demand. Hybrid and electric car design firms will also seek out experienced engineers. Nanotechnology firms need mechanical engineers who can apply their skills on an extremely small scale.

Demand is expected to increase about 5 percent between now and 2024. Starting salaries are around $84,000.

The Costs of a Master’s Degree

The true cost of an advanced degree is more than the price of tuition. Employed engineers might have education benefits that offset all or part of the tuition to work on a degree part-time. Additional expenses—books and software, and incidentals like gas for commuting and meals on campus—will come out of the student’s own pocket.

Leaving a job to return to school full-time, with or without employer support, has an opportunity costthe value of those missed paychecks—along with expenses mentioned in the last paragraph. Add in the cost of replacing benefits that employers generally cover, like health insurance and paid vacations, and a second degree starts to cost quite a bit. Accelerated programs that take less than the traditional two-year master’s program can mitigate some of this cost.

Before making a commitment, take some time to read Forbes Magazine’s seven-step method for calculating the return on this investment. Other calculators are offered by LearnVest, Money Under Thirty and others.