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Career Advice

Master’s Degrees: Is It Where You Go or What You Study?

Master’s Degrees:  Is It Where You Go or What You Study?

Thousands of master’s degree candidates, whether they are enrolled in online mph programs or other types of programs, wrestle with the issue of if it is exactly where they attend school or what they choose to study. The answer, as you might expect, is often as complicated as the question itself. There are several different ideas on whether the degree itself or the field you choose to pursue matters most when it comes to picking a school, selecting a degree plan and deciding how much education you need to achieve your career goals. To find a solution feels on the front end like trying to answer the famous chicken-and-egg question. But if you drill down past the surface to investigate your specific goals and dreams, the answer may reveal itself with startling clarity.

Accredited Programs Do Matter

The first step is to examine the issue of accredited versus non-accredited programs. All popular opinions, no matter what you are hoping to pursue, agree on one thing: accreditation does matter significantly. Experts caution against selecting a non-accredited program, even if the school has other programs which are accredited or if accreditation is “pending” in your selected program. Even if the school is top-ranked, in the Ivy League or happens to be where your personal hero matriculated, be prepared to decline your acceptance letter if your specific program has not yet been accredited. So lock this in your brain and remember this important phrase as your new mantra: “accreditation matters.”

What Matters Most in Your Field of Study

The next step you must take as you attempt to answer the question of whether to opt for a lucrative field of study or a prestigious institution – or try for both – is to look at the answer from the perspective of the field of study you are entering into. Assuming any program you will choose is accredited, it is time to gain a better understanding of what the financial payoff will be in a field such as finance or healthcare versus social work or education. The former are in the higher-end salary range while the latter are amongst the lowest paid professions stateside.
For instance, paying for an online master’s in public health from a well-known and prestigious institution is only a wise choice if the specific employer you wish to work for is known to hire graduates strictly from certain institutions or if in your specific career path degree pedigree trumps field of study. At every phase of your education and career lifespan, you must evaluate the costs versus the benefits. Do not be afraid to opt for a more affordable education if you are lucky enough to work in a field where posting an Ivy League university on your resume will give you little to no payoff. But if you are not able to get a toe in the door with your chosen employer without a prestigious university on your resume, then the wise choice is equally as obvious.

Evaluate Your Financial Situation

Yet another tactic that can be useful towards answering this question, since there is no one uniform consensus to lean on from the various sentiments regarding this issue, is to evaluate what you can actually afford to do so. To investigate answering this question, it is time to sit down and take a look at your current financial picture, your current financial obligations, any existing debt burden and what you can expect to make upon graduation from a best and worst case scenario viewpoint. For instance, if you are planning to enroll in one of the several online mph programs you have been accepted to, you can take a look at the financial aid package, any scholarships or work-study packages you are eligible for or have already been awarded, the amount of free time you may have to work while you are enrolled and other aspects to determine what is actually manageable for you.
Finally, it can even be helpful here to make a simple chart of each program you are considering. In making your chart, you will sketch out the pros and cons of each program in your specific field of study and factor in everything you know about your ultimate earning and career growth potential. If you do this, you will create a visual aid for yourself that can make deciding whether it is where you go or what you study that matters most for success in your personal career path.

This article was written by Debbie Smithers. Debbie has worked in the admissions offices of several major universities in the U.S. and has helped countless students make decisions regarding their careers in higher education. She currently resides in Ohio.


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