When you are nearing the end of your Bachelor’s degree program, you are faced with an important question: Should you get a Master’s degree? And if yes, should you start with a Master’s program directly, or should you first get a few years of work experience?
This guide is written by Gerrit Bruno Blöss, Founder and CEO of Study.EU. Between finishing his Bachelor’s degree and starting his Master’s program in another country, he did an internship that also led him abroad.
Should you work, or should you study?
Career decisions are rarely easy. A big one is whether you should continue studying right after your bachelor, or whether you should start working and do a Masters later on.
Both options have a lot of good reasons going for them. Let’s have a look at them:
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If you work longer, you can save more money. That’s a good argument to work longer. The only risk is that, with a good income, over time, you’ll get used to comforts that you might not be able to afford while you are back at university.
After your bachelor’s, if you start in an “open-ended” entry-level job, then stay at that company for at least 18 to 24 months.
On the other hand, if you only have 12 months before your desired Master starts, consider doing two internships (and maybe taking some time off). Less than 18 months is only advisable if it’s a fixed-term scheme, like a graduate trainee programme that runs for a set amount of time. Here’s why: Employers prefer to be able to plan ahead because recruiting is an expensive and time-consuming process. If your CV contains too many signals that you change jobs often – and leaving your first job after 12 months can be such a signal -, your chances at being hired will decrease.
Don’t wait too long: If you plan to go back to university, do not work longer than 3 to 4 years. There are two main reasons for this: First, it will become more difficult to readjust to university life and studying for courses. Second, because of that, some universities actually prefer MA/MSc applicants with a maximum of 3 to 4 years of work experience. Also, you may find it a bit harder to make friends on campus if you are significantly older than your classmates.
If you have already worked longer than that and plan to go back to university, contact the admissions offices at the universities or business schools you are interested in. They will be able to answer how well their programmes suit you, and how successful other mature students have been before you.
Is a Master’s degree worth the cost?
Getting a postgraduate degree can be expensive, especially when pursuing it full time. You do not earn a salary for the one or two years you are at university; you may have to pay high tuition fees, and perhaps you study abroad in a country that’s more expensive than your home country. You may try to find a scholarship, but those are not available to all students. You could also get a student loan, but debt is never advisable if you can avoid it.
These factors add up, so you need to ask yourself if you can (or want to) afford it. The good news: Generally, getting a Masters’s is worth the money! While you may find it difficult to finance your studies, over time, the financial benefits will outweigh the initial costs. You will earn a higher salary and be much more flexible in your career.
The salary increase with a Master’s degree
With a Master’s degree, you will earn more money. That’s an undeniable fact. The question is: How much more money will it be? And that’s difficult to generalise. The added value of the degree depends a lot on your industry, your country and region, the shape of the economy, and your individual experience, skills, and circumstances.
To get a rough idea of the potential salary increase, it pays off to look at labour market statistics. The European Statistical Office (Eurostat) reports that – among the whole workforce, i.e., at every age and level of experience – those employees with a Masters (or higher) earn on average 24% more than those workers with only a Bachelors, with differences in some countries as high as +53%:
Do you need a Master’s to do a Ph.D.?
A Ph.D. (Doctorate) is the highest academic qualification a student can achieve and requires substantial research work. To be accepted into a Ph.D. programme, universities usually require students to have a master’s in a relevant field.
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However, and especially in the UK, it is often theoretically possible to progress directly from a Bachelor’s degree to a Ph.D. programme (“fast track”). The explicit minimum requirement for admission is then usually an “upper second class” Bachelors (2:1), or the equivalent from your country. (What a UK institution considers equivalent to a 2:1 differs from university to university.)
In other European countries, the eligibility criterion for acceptance into a Ph.D. programme is often a certain number of ECTS credits that you are unlikely to have obtained after just a Bachelor’s programme.
In any case, doing a Ph.D. directly after a Bachelors’s is more common in the “hard” sciences (STEM subjects) than it is with the humanities.
But before you apply to Ph.D. programmes with only a Bachelor’s degree, ask yourself why you want to skip the Masters. If you’re already fed up with studying and doing academic work, then the research-heavy path of a Ph.D. – and the career in academia that may follow – is most certainly not the right option for you, anyway.
Should you even get a Masters’s degree at all?
If you can, then get a Masters’s degree, and do it abroad. You will learn a lot, make friends from all over the world, grow as a person, and open up many new opportunities for yourself. And you can expect to earn more money, as well.
Don’t feel bad if you decide against a Masters: There are many reasons that can make it difficult, like family or finances. If the time just is not right, it is always possible to go back to uni or graduate school later in life.
If you dislike the idea of going back to college for two years, don’t forget about shorter Master programmes: You will find plenty of options that are 18 months, 1 year or even 9 months. 1-year Masters are particularly common in the UK and Ireland and also available in the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, and elsewhere.
What are the alternatives to getting a Master’s degree?
A master may not be the best way forward for you. Depending on the goals you want to achieve, the following options are worth exploring:
Postgraduate diplomas (PgDip) and postgraduate certificates (PgCert): Postgraduate diplomas and certificates are credentials you will find offered, especially at British universities. In many cases, their course syllabi are similar or equivalent to the respective Master’s programmes, but with a few courses removed, and usually, they also do not require a thesis at the end. This makes these courses an attractive option if you are looking for Masters-level education but have less time and money to invest.
Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and micro-credentials: The internet has made education much more accessible, and online learning is easier than ever. There are a number of platforms where you can enrol in courses – some shorter, some longer – to learn about any topic you can imagine. Some offer exams or other ways leading to credentials.
Try a different job at your current employer: If you are already working and your goal is a career change, perhaps that is possible at the company you work for – without going back to university. You might transfer to another department, try a completely new role or move to another office location where you would have different or more responsibilities.
Professional qualifications and industry certifications: In many professional fields, you will find qualifications or certifications awarded to skilled professionals who undergo some exam. For example, in the financial industry, many professionals strive for the CFA qualification, which is considered somewhat comparable to an MSc in Finance. Such professional qualifications exist in nearly every field; note that they are usually not easy and require solid subject knowledge.
If none of these alternative options seem attractive to you, don’t give up: There are many ways to obtain a Master’s degree, and you will find one that suits you best!