Photographer: jwhor/Flickr

When a Graduate Degree Just Isn't Worth it

"While the college you go to does matter to some extent, the reality is that with earnings, what really matters is what you study"

College graduates stuck with a ho-hum job might think going to graduate school will get them an instant salary bump. They'd be wrong. Across nearly every field, bachelor's degree holders with at least three years in the workforce out-earn people freshly out of graduate school, a new report (PDF) shows. 

The report, released on Thursday, Feb. 19, by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, analyzed census data from 2009 to 2012 and found that work experience—in some cases even more than a degree—wields a major impact on what people earn. For most majors, being an experienced bachelor's degree holder—defined as having at least three years of experience—gave workers a bigger advantage over high-school graduates than would holding a graduate degree with no additional experience. 

Experienced engineers with only a bachelor's earned 190 percent more than high school graduates did. Engineers who had just finished an advanced degree won a still-significant but comparatively smaller 143 percent premium over high school graduates. The trend held for humanities majors, too. Experienced bachelor's degree holders had a 78 percent earnings premium over high school graduates, while the earnings premium for new graduate degree holders was just 62 percent. 

That's not to suggest that going to graduate school is a waste of time (or money). "For recent graduates, it will take time, but they do catch up," says Anthony Carnevale, director of the Center on Education and the Workforce. Once graduate degree holders have at least three years of work experience, they tend to earn significantly more than even those with experience and bachelor's degrees. "The data shows you the value of the combination of your major field, degree level, and experience," Carnevale says, "since the value of experience accelerates as you get more education." 

Work experience pays. In most fields, college graduates who have been working in the field for at least three years make more money than workers who have recently earned a graduate degree.

Work experience pays. In most fields, college graduates who have been working in the field for at least three years (shown by the blue lines) make more money than workers who have recently earned a graduate degree (shown by the pink lines).

The gains aren't all equal. Earnings premiums rise particularly dramatically with additional education in such fields as the social sciences, physical sciences, and biology—probably because entry-level jobs for candidates with just a bachelor's degree tend to be scarce. There's no way to become a doctor with just a bachelor's in biology. (Nor should there be.) "While the college you go to does matter to some extent, the reality is that with earnings, what really matters is what you study," Carnevale says.

An arts major going back to get an MFA, then, shouldn't expect the same pay bump as a computer scientist getting a Ph.D. But give it a few years, the numbers suggest, and the advanced degree should give the MFA a handsome lead over the BFA.

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