In 2005, there were 14.3 million people in the work force holding advanced degrees. In 2015, that total reached 19.6 million.
For most of her life, Priya Frank harbored a vague sense that she wanted to work in the arts to make a difference in the community.
Today, she is associate director for community programs at Seattle Art Museum, doing what she considers her “life’s work.” She doubts that would be happening if she hadn’t gone to graduate school at University of Washington, Bothell.
She has pursued her passion for art and community since 2011, when she graduated with a master’s degree in cultural studies.
“It wasn’t just about the academic journey,” she says. “It was also a personal one. It was the opportunity to step out of my comfort zone and challenge myself in ways I had never done before. I wanted to explore what I could be, I wanted to try new things, I wanted to discover what I was capable of.”
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. At first, she says, she didn’t know anyone who had been to graduate school. And she hadn’t taken the SAT, not to mention the GRE, because of her fear of exams. She remembers being in tears, feeling overwhelmed by the whole process, until she discovered the Cultural Studies Program.
She was excited to learn that the classes were small and met in the evenings, allowing her to continue her full-time job at the university while taking advantage of the tuition exemption for employees.
“That was a huge factor that led to my decision to even consider graduate school as an option in the first place,” she says.
“That meant that a large portion of my education at UW Bothell was covered, so I graduated with minimal debt.”
Lisa Y. Hall, UW Bothell spokeswoman, says Frank was already putting her skills to work before she left the university by starting a Women of Color Collective at the university.
“Tools in the program helped her understand how the arts can be tools for social change,” Hall says. “To have that support has had a great impact on her success.”
Frank is part of an upward trend of job seekers who earn postgraduate degrees.
In 2005, there were 14.3 million people in the work force holding advanced degrees. By 2010, that number had risen to 16.6 million. In 2015, that total reached 19.6 million, the greatest single-year increase in 10 years.
According to a 2015 study by Georgetown University, graduates with advanced degrees earned a median salary of $78,000, while those with bachelor’s degrees earned a median of $61,000.
There are significant variables in those findings, however. A specialist in early childhood education with a bachelor’s degree earned an average of $39,000, while those with advanced degrees earned an average of $53,000. In the field of zoology, a bachelor’s degree brought an average salary of $58,000, while an advanced degree brought $104,000.
That’s a start, but a job hunter’s tool belt should contain more tools than a diploma, says Sam Henry, principal of Seattle Corporate Search, a recruitment agency.
“In the old days, parents used to think, ‘If I can just get my kid through college … ’ In the past that meant you’ll be set. But look at how that’s unfolded. There are thousands of people with advanced degrees that can’t get a job.”
While advanced degrees generally command a higher salary, there is a lot more to consider, says Kerry Thompson, a financial consultant, tax planner, certified accountant and principal at Kerry Thompson & Co., P.S., in Seattle.
His advice for students considering an advanced degree:
1. Analyze the return on investment.
Prospective graduate students would do well to weigh any anticipated salary bump against the cost of the advanced degree, he says. There are no iron-clad guarantees.
2. Have a plan for debt reduction.
Newly minted graduates often enter the workplace saddled with large debts that can linger for a decade or more if not addressed promptly, Thompson says. What are you going to do about yours?
3. Take advantage of employer tuition reimbursement.
If you decide to attend graduate school while working, ask about tuition reimbursement from your employer. Many companies offer partial or even full tuition reimbursement.
4. Take advantage of tax deductions for education.
“If you’re pursing a degree that gives you more knowledge in your field — that is, it doesn’t qualify you for a new line of work — it’s tax deductible,” he says.
5. Choose a field of study with the long-term job market in mind.
Thompson related a story about a client who specialized in voice-recognition software as a graduate student some years back.
“He pursued a graduate degree in a field that turned out to have huge demand,” he says. “He was a very hot commodity, constantly being recruited.”
6. Don’t count on the diploma alone.
“A graduate degree in itself is no guarantee of success. It’s so important to build a network of references as well.
“That’s one of the things we always looked at very closely when hiring: Do they have good references?”