The Exact Value of a Graduate Degree Quantified [infographic]

College Salary Report

Do you want or need an advanced degree? People pursue Master’s degrees and Ph.D.s for a variety of reasons. Some students want to increase their earning power while others simply want to immerse themselves in a subject they are passionate about. Any graduate degree is an investment of time and money. Even if you attend graduate school on a complete tuition waiver, you are still likely to lose time from work or even defer entry into the workforce. Graduate programs also take a surprising amount of time to complete. A Ph.D. usually takes a minimum of four years, and many students find that writing the dissertation slows them down. It’s not at all unusual for a Ph.D. to take six or seven years. Some graduates have been known to take even longer. A Master’s degree seems like it should be much easier, but, in fact, many such degree programs are designed to take two years full time and four or five years if pursued part time.

If time and money are no object, there’s no reason not to pursue a graduate degree for the fun of it. But, if your primary goal in attending graduate school is higher on-the-job earnings, then you want to know just how this added degree and the time commitment it entails will affect your lifetime earnings at your company.

Luckily, has compiled a tool that helps you visualize how an advanced degree will affect your earnings over the course of a lifetime. You can view the tool here:

This tool is particularly helpful because it factors in years of experience. If you are good at your job, you will most likely make more money as the years roll by with or without a graduate degree. So it is useful to compare the earnings of a Ph.D. with ten years experience to the earnings of someone who holds a Master’s degree and has ten years’ experience in the same field.

A quick romp around the Payscale tool presents us with some very interesting facts. One thing that is immediately obvious is that a Ph.D. is not a clear asset in many fields. There are, of course, exceptions. Someone who holds a Ph.D. in statistics starts out with earnings that far outstrip his math colleagues with other degrees. And, with twenty years experience, the Ph.D. statistician is making $172,000 a year in contrast to the more modest Bachelors holder in math and statistics who, at twenty years in, is making $92,000.

In education, where you would expect the gains of a Ph.D. holder to be the highest, we find that, with twenty years in the field, a Ph.D. in educational leadership is earning only slightly more than a Master’s degree holder in the same subject and with the same years of experience. Within the field of education, the value of a Ph.D. is higher starting out. Earnings of early-career Ph.D. holders are substantially higher than entry-level employees with other degrees, but the earning potential of the Ph.D. diminishes as the years go by. The tentative lesson here is that a Ph.D. in education is most valuable if you can earn it before you begin your teaching or administrative career in schools.

In the field of communication, the award-winning degree is, surprisingly, an MBA. An MBA in communication starts out at a substantially higher salary than his Bachelors holding co-worker and, as they both rack up years of experience, the salary disparity becomes ever wider with the MBA with twenty years experience making $124,000 a year while the Bachelors degree holder makes only $80,000. Another high-earning MBA is the MBA in strategy. Such degree holders overhaul and modernize existing business structures, making businesses more profitable overall.

In the field of health, the award-winning degree is a Masters in Nurse Anesthesia. Anesthesia nurses with no experience whatsoever start out of the gate making over $130,000 a year and their earnings increase slowly but steadily to $167,000 a year at the twenty year mark. Within the health field, the winning Ph.D. is in pharmacy. Pharmacists with Ph.D.s leave the gate making $103,000 a year. While their earnings flatline somewhat over time, they still log a respectable $133,000 at the twenty year mark.

In engineering, a degree in petroleum engineering is a clear winner. At the twenty year mark, the petroleum engineer will be making about $50,000 per year more than the Ph.D. in aeronautical engineering. Rocket scientists beware: there’s more money in petroleum. It is interesting to note that, according to Payscale, there’s very little cache in earning a Masters in this field. While the Master of Petroleum Engineering finishes his career earning a few thousand more than his Bachelor holding colleague, the Master starts out making LESS money than the Bachelor degree holder.

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