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Science Careers Blog

September 14, 2007

More Masters Degree Opportunities, but for Whom?

While our lead article this week discusses the question asked by many undergrads, "Should I Do a Ph.D.?", many bachelors-degree grads are already jumping at the chance to do a masters degree. The New York Times this week delves into dual explosions in masters degrees, both in the numbers of students enrolled in masters programs and the institutions offering the degrees. The Times says the number of students earning masters degrees has nearly doubled since 1980. And since 1970, the growth rate has reached 150%, more than twice the rate of bachelors or doctorate degrees.

The highest rates of growth in enrollees between academic years 1980-81 and 2004-05, according to statistics cited in the article from the National Center for Education Statistics, are in education (124%) and business (114%). However, science and technology disciplines are not too far behind: Science masters have increased 92% since 1980 and social science and engineering have each gained 81%

The article explains how masters degrees apparently are a sweet deal for both students and institutions. For students, a masters degree opens up more employment opportunities as well as advancement potential in their current jobs. For institutions, new masters programs can provide a large shot of income: Graduate tuition is often significantly higher than for undergrad degrees, with less overhead than new doctoral programs. For example, schools can use the same labs and professors for many masters courses as they do for existing doctoral offerings, which means much of the income from masters students goes right to their bottom lines.

For masters students, however, gratification is delayed until after the degree's completion. The article says masters candidates at private institutions need to borrow as much as $50,000 for each year of school. Public institutions may not be that pricey, but a 2-year masters degree from University at Minnesota required a recent hire at 3M to take out $35,000 in loans. Doctoral students typically find more financial support, from research stipends and other grants, than masters candidates.

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