Master’s degrees don’t mean more job offers

An expert’s advice on when to stop at a bachelor’s


Queen's University (Jessica Darmanin)

If you think the letters M.A. will help your resumé get picked out of the pile when applying for your first post-university job, you may be mistaken.

Newly-released data from the National Household Survey (the replacement for the Census) show that Canadians aged 25 to 44 with master’s degrees had higher unemployment in 2011, at 5.7 per cent, than those with only bachelor’s degrees (4.8 per cent). Meanwhile, a recent report by the Certified General Accountants Association of Canada showed a gap as high as four points in unemployment rates between those with bachelor’s degrees and those with graduate degrees.

As counter-intuitive as it may seem that those with more schooling have higher unemployment, it’s unsurprising to Lauren Friese. The founder of Talent Egg, a company that helps students and graduates launch their careers, has long suspected that most master’s programs (particularly arts and social sciences) not only fail to improve job prospects, but may indeed hurt them.

Still, the message isn’t getting through. A 2012 survey of 15,000 Canadian students in their final year of bachelor’s degrees showed 49 per cent planned on more schooling.

Friese says the problem is a disconnect between the student’s perspective and the employer’s.

Students who earn master’s degrees feel that, because they’ve invested more time in education, they should be rewarded with higher starting salaries and more challenging work.

“The problem,” she says, “is that employers see those with master’s degrees as no more qualified, because they usually have no work experience.” The big bank or consultancy, she says, won’t be any more likely to hire an M.A. in English than a Bachelor of Arts in English for an entry-level job.

In fact, there may even be a stigma against the master’s graduate among employers who don’t want to deal with the master’s graduate’s bloated expectations about pay and responsibilities.

That’s not to say master’s degrees aren’t worthwhile. Friese has an M.A. in economic history from the London School of Economics, a university she chose partly for the brand name. She also had modest expectations. “I never thought that I was going to be an economic historian,” she says. On top of that, she worked in finance during her degree, so she had job experience at graduation.

For those considering a master’s degree, Friese has advice. “Be realistic about whether you’re going into a program to build specific skills for a career or if you’re going in for a learning experience,” she says. “If you’re looking for a learning experience and can afford just a learning experience, there’s nothing wrong with that.” If you’re on the fence, she says, take a job and start building a career. “A master’s degree can be rewarding,” she adds, “but it’s not career prep.”


Master’s degrees don’t mean more job offers

  1. There are some graduate programs, however, that DO prepare students for certain careers. For example, and MPH prepares a student for a career in public health. Most public health jobs require an MPH or equivalent; a bachelor’s degree is simply not enough. In other fields (dietetics) there are combined Masters/internship programs, that allow students to apply to write the dietetic practice exams upon completion of the program.

    So in some cases Masters’ degrees DO provide “career prep.” It all depends on the program and the discipline.

  2. It seems to me like the employment rates are higher because the people with BAs might be employed more in part time work or work unrelated to their field. Also, many master’s programs are fully funded and would not require any student debt, so if you’re in it for the learning experience and won’t go in debt for it, why not better yourself and learn more? The degrees that aren’t funded are the professional masters as the commenter above suggested, the MPH and the MPA usually come with internship opportunities and have high employment rates.

  3. The data used to support this article is irrelevant it has been gathered by the National Household Survey which replaced the long form census and turned data collection into a self-report exercise, weightings are now being used to adjust the information collected. Many reporting biases are impacting the data and interpretaion.

    Education is just a piece of paper showing you’ve been trained in something. You can barely pass, or excel and still get the piece of paper, its up to you what you do with it.

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