LEXINGTON, Ky. – Many recent college graduates who have just earned their bachelor's degree have bravely entered the work force since walking across the stage last May. However, many others have made the decision to continue their education by working toward a master's degree.

Regardless of what type of diploma you have framed in your bedroom, getting a degree is an accomplishment that will help you throughout your career. However, the tough job market raises some questions: When do I stop? When have I received the amount of education I need to reach my fullest potential?

Dr. Aaron Thompson is the Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs for Kentucky's Council on Postsecondary Education. He said there are many benefits of continuing your education after receiving a bachelor's degree.

“As you move up the ladder, you have career benefits, you have economic advantages, but you also have advanced intellectual skills,” said Thompson. “We know that master's degrees increase the opportunity for higher intellectual input and output. You have better physical health. You have more social benefits, more emotional benefits, more of an effective citizenship interaction. You also have a higher quality of life for yourself and your children.”

According to a chart frequently used by the Council on Postsecondary Education, the median weekly earnings nationally in 2012 for someone with a bachelor's degree were $1,066. Median weekly earnings for someone holding a master's degree were $1,300, a $234 difference. In 2012 the national unemployment rate for bachelor's degree holders was 4.5 percent, whereas unemployment for those with a master's degree was 3.5 percent.

The real dollar value of receiving a master's degree is apparent, however there are a number of other factors to consider when thinking about taking your education to the next level.

“A master's degree allows two things to happen for people who are in the traditional and liberal arts area,” said Thompson. “It allows an opportunity for employment at a higher level than just by having a bachelor's degree. It shows commitment. The second thing it allows is a continuance to other paths, such as a doctorate degree or a professional degree like law school. So, a master's degree in that case becomes a stepping stone to a higher degree or a stepping stone into employment.”

Some factors to consider when deciding if you should further your education are based on the field you are pursuing. For example, someone who has a bachelor's degree in nursing can be clinically licensed, and not see much of an economic advantage by obtaining a master's degree and staying in the same job. However, receiving a master's degree in nursing would allow the individual to move up the ladder and spend more time with administrative duties rather than working on the floor.

Lenroy Jones is an associate director at the University of Kentucky's Stuckart Career Center. He said there are some questions you need to ask yourself before leaping into a master's degree program.

“I think the key thing to consider if you are graduating with a bachelor's degree and you are considering going for a master's is: what's your motivation,” said Jones. “What's the purpose of the advanced degree? Why are you doing it? Some industries require that you have a master's degree to really continue to pursue employment.”

Jones recommends those who are considering a master's degree program research their fields to confirm a higher degree is necessary.

Thompson said it's best to begin thinking about whether to obtain a master's degree as early as possible, and to start talking to people as early as your freshman year of college about where you want to go. He advised not to think of a master's degree as a way to put off reality for one to two more years.

“It's not a way for you to figure out what you want to do for the rest of your life,” he said. “A master's degree should be used to really hone intellectual skills and competency. Master's degrees are designed to be specific. Whether you move into administration or you move into a higher professional status, people want that honing of knowledge at a deeper level.”

Jones agreed that it is a poor decision to pursue a master's degree because of career indecision.

“I would tell them to really pause their journey and begin to process and just brainstorm and sit down with a person that's a career advisor or a career coach,” he said. “I like to tell people to go back to that question you were asked when you were very young. What do you want to be when you grow up? Then, begin to build up the answers to that.”

Jones also advised not to pursue a master's degree because you want to wait for a brighter economy before entering the workforce.

“You have to explain that in an interview,” said Jones. “Saying it was a tough economy, that's not a good answer to give to an employer who is about to hire you for a 50 to 60 thousand dollar job that you may be well qualified for. They're looking at all these different degrees and how they make sense.”

Jones added that pursuing the advanced degree could give your competitors a chance to gain experience in the work force you wouldn't have, which could lead to not being paid as much as someone with more career experience.

Regardless of your field, a master's degree has the potential to expand your knowledge, increase your income, and make you more marketable to employers. Furthering your education past a bachelor's degree is a big decision. But with the right mindset and expectations, the decision to pursue a master's degree is one that could significantly boost your success in the work force, and in your life.

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