While the generic case for graduate education is simple – more money, more opportunity – drilling down into the figures for specific occupations reveals that the real value of a Master’s degree varies widely by occupation.
The General Case: Materials and Biomedical Engineering
Perhaps the two strongest examples for the general case, where pursuing a Master’s in engineering is of unquestionable value, are materials and biomedical engineering. In each case, the numbers reveal impressive salary boosts and a seeming consensus on the value of graduate education to one’s career in the field.
Intuitively, we expect materials engineers to serve a critical role in the development of new technologies and process solutions through the development of improved photovoltaic cells, processor substrates, and similarly game-changing materials. Further, we expect the interplay of chemical, physics, and mathematical disciplines in the field demands rigorous higher education. Without more specific occupational figures, our reflexive conclusion would be that materials engineering is poised to be a serious growth industry where graduate education is practically a requirement.
Our intuitive expectations are only partly supported by the numbers. First, the projected job growth for materials engineers hovers around 9%, low-average for engineering disciplines – for all the interesting and important work going on in the field, it doesn’t seem to create many materials engineering jobs. As to the requirement for graduate education to ever enter the field in a serious way? Again, partly correct: materials engineers are split almost down the middle on pursuit of graduate degrees. 48% of working engineers in the field hold Master’s degrees or higher, while 52% hold undergraduate degrees.
However, there are very few fields in which a Master’s degree returns a more dramatic salary boost. Earning a materials engineering graduate degree yields a 39% increase in annual income. Earnings in the 75th percentile of mean wages in materials engineering are double that of the lower 25th, hovering around $96,000 by our most recently available data. Additionally, relatively poor growth within the field suggests increased competition for salaried positions – the competitive value of graduate-level education is only likely to increase, should this prove to be the case.
Materials engineering mirrors the general case, presenting a scenario where graduate education returns unquestionable value and is widely sought within the field. Biomedical engineering presents an even clearer case, in some respects: the field is intellectually demanding and demonstrably poised for rapid growth (the BLS forecasts an astronomical 62% growth in biomedical engineering jobs). A more detailed look at salary distribution further supports the value of graduate education. Half of all working biomedical engineers hold graduate level degrees, which is almost to be expected, but the startling 48% earnings bonus from graduate-level education is an eye-opener. As is the case with materials engineering, salary at the 75th percentile of earners in the biomedical engineering field is double that of the lowest 25th, suggesting that these two fields present the clearest case for pursuing a Master’s degree in your chosen specialty.
The Exception: Petroleum Engineering
In some cases, however, the salary increase realized through attaining a graduate degree in your chosen specialty simple isn’t enough to cover the tuition and opportunity cost of pursuit. The most stark example which comes to mind is petroleum engineering.
Petroleum engineering is one of the highest-paid specialties in engineering. The lowest 25th percentile of petroleum engineering, by salary and education, earn nearly as much as the top 75th in materials and biomedical engineering. Given a median starting salary for petroleum engineering jobs requiring bachelor degrees of around $103,000, losing two years of active employment to pursue a degree represents serious opportunity cost. Is the salary boost from graduate-level education worth it?
In a word, no. Petroleum engineers with Master’s degrees can only expect a 7% increase in mean salary through higher education. The consensus within the industry appears to bear this out, as only a third of petroleum engineers bother to pursue education past a bachelor’s degree. This doesn’t mean that petroleum engineering is a lower-paid or -skilled profession, as intuition may suggest; it is the highest-paid specialty in modern engineering, with a mean salary of $120,000, nearly twice that of biomedical engineering.
The opportunity cost, between lost experience and earnings, almost entirely rules out pursuing a Master’s in petroleum engineering. Unless you have very specific career goals within the discipline, or have the opportunity to pursue it part-time while working in the field, a graduate degree doesn’t appear to be worthwhile.
There are a number of fields with similarly low salary gaps between bachelor’s and Master’s degree holders, though the opportunity cost analysis is nowhere near so drastic. Petroleum engineering does serve to illustrate the case against reflexively equating higher education with higher salaries or chance of employment. Drill down to occupation-specific numbers for your specialty before making the decision to pursue graduate-level education.
If you want to analyze the value and opportunity cost of pursuing a Master’s degree in your chosen engineering specialty, here are some useful resources to consider. These reports were developed by the Georgetown Public Policy Institute’s Center on Education and the Workforce, based on 2010 BLS research and a survey of contemporary industry and economic data:
- Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements through 2018
- What’s It Worth? The Economic Value of College Majors
- The College Payoff: Education, Occupations, Lifetime Earnings
Image credit: Clark Maxwell