Should I pursue a master’s degree?

Prof. Pettigrew explains the basics of grad school


Photo by Gibson Claire McGuire Regester

Even if you’ve just started university, you may already be wondering what graduate school is all about. By “graduate school” I don’t mean professional programs like law or medicine or education; I’m talking about continuing your studies in the same academic discipline you’re majoring in now, like Anthropology or Physics at the master’s level. Obviously, every school and program will have unique features, and you should do your own research to decide where to go and what to take. But here are a few thoughts to help you decide whether a graduate degree may be right for you in the first place.

1. Is it hard to get into a graduate program?

Yes. Graduate programs will often give a minimum requirement for admission (say a B or a B-) but in reality, the standards are usually much higher. You will generally need at least an A- average.

2. Is it expensive?

Yes and no. Again, setting aside professional programs which are deregulated and very expensive in some provinces, graduate tuitions are generally comparable to undergraduate fees. The upside is that most programs will provide you funding that will mostly or even entirely cover your costs. Funding generally comes in three forms: external funding like that provided by the national granting agencies like the SSHRC (for humanities and social science students), NSERC (for science and engineering), and CIHR (for health research). That funding alone may be enough to pay for all your living costs for a single year—if you can get it . For example, SSHRC gives 2,000 Graduate Scholarships to master’s students each year worth $17,500 apiece. There are also internal scholarships provided by the university itself, and paid student assistantships that may involve helping to teach a course or helping a professor with research.

3. Will the atmosphere be different?

Absolutely. If you’re a top undergraduate student, you may have felt out of place in your classes because you cared more about your courses, worked harder at them, and enjoyed them more than most of your classmates. In graduate school, however, everyone cares. Having a whole class of high achievers can be daunting, but it can also push you to be your best. Most grad students are starting fresh in a new stage of their life so it’s easy to make friends. And if you went to a big univeristy as an undergrad, you’ll enjoy the change of working closely with top professors. The profs may even seem more cheerful, since professors love teaching graduate classes because they can sit back and let their eager students fill the classes with presentations and discussions.

4. Will it help me get a job?

Maybe. As more people earn undergraduate degrees, a master’s degree is increasingly useful in distinguishing candidates with university education. It shows an employer that you are smarter than most, and dedicated enough to set your sights on a tough goal and attain it. If your goal is to become a university professor, a master’s is usually required to enter a PhD program. Another benefit: statistics suggest graduates with master’s degrees are somewhat more likely to be employed than those with only a bachelor’s degree. According to this study, university graduates with a master’s degree earned about 25 per cent more than those who had only a bachelor’s.

5. It sounds like a lot of work to maybe get a slightly better job.

Don’t do it just for the job. Do it because you know you’re smart and you really want to see what you can do in an atmosphere where smart counts. Most master’s programs are no more than two years in length. And you can probably get it mostly paid for. If you’ve got the brains, are willing to work hard, and you really think about it, the question quickly becomes not why go? But why not?

Todd Pettigrew (PhD) is an Associate Professor of English at Cape Breton University.


Should I pursue a master’s degree?

  1. Excellent points Prof. Pettigrew. I pursued a Masters degree for many of the reasons you articulate: as one of the top students in my program, I wanted more and I wanted to learn more about my chosen field of study.

    I do know that a lot of graduate programs (traditional thesis-based programs at least) won’t even accept you unless you have an external source of funding. Although in some cases, a professor might have a small portion of an already-funded research project that you can latch onto.

    A traditional (ie. thesis-based) Masters program certainly isn’t for everyone. I know some very strong students who absolutely hated their graduate studies and developed a strong distaste for research as a result. But for those who either know they like research (perhaps they had a summer research position, took a research-based course, or completed an undergraduate thesis) or who strongly feel they will like it, then pursuing a Masters degree is an excellent idea.

  2. On the tuition note, it’s worth pointing out that many programs (my experience is in the sciences, so YMMV) will offer substantial tuition scholarships to incoming graduate students–especially those with external funding sources. NSERC recipients, for example, are generally exempt from tuition in most Canadian universities.

  3. The decision to go to graduate school should not be made lightly. As a graduate programs have proliferated, and as the academic job market has become more competitive, there are now a great many miserable grad students and former grad students.

    You will find evidence of this on sorrowful blogs like “100 reasons NOT to go to grad school”

    Consider the decision very carefully. It requires a major investment of time and energy at a crucial point in your life.

  4. The desire to improve oneself via post graduate study will always result in greater opportunities for the individual. In developed economies whilst manufacturing has been in decline for decades, the reverse holds true for education. Our knowledge is now our greatest export, the more you know the further you will go.

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