Most desired master's degrees
Source: AFP.

In a world with so many young people saddled in debt, is there value in getting a master’s degree?

The short answer is yes, especially if you get one of the most desired master’s degrees today.

In 2020-21 alone, 3.1 million people in the US earned their bachelor’s degrees. Each of them is likely vying for the same jobs.

In these situations, it’s those with the best grades, experience and an extra degree stand out. 

On the other hand, we’re seeing reports where the US, home to some of the world’s best universities and champion of higher education, is seeing undergraduate studies fall out of favour with the people.

Of the 2.7 million who graduated from secondary school in 2021, only 61.8% went on to college or university.

In job applications, we’re also seeing big multinationals removing a bachelor’s requirement — leaving us with a question: if even the lowest level of higher education is losing its lustre, what value is there in master’s degrees? 

The most desired master’s degrees set you apart from the crowd

Despite the declining interest in bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees are still a common sight everywhere. 

This tells us a lot — particularly their staying power.

They bring many advantages (however slight) to the table, offering:

  • Higher salaries. In 2022, graduates with master’s degrees made median weekly earnings of US$1,661; bachelor’s degree holders made US$1,432.
  • Lower unemployment rates. Graduates with master’s degrees saw an unemployment rate of 1.9%; bachelor’s degree holders saw 2.2%.
  • More career advancement opportunities. In 2019, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics projected that occupations requiring master’s degrees would grow 16.7% through 2026.
  • A wider network of personal and professional connections. 
  • Better knowledge of the programme’s subject.
master's degrees

Former professional basketball player Shaquille O’Neal has an MBA from the University of Phoenix. Source: AFP.

Most popular master’s types you should know about

Like how different undergraduate programmes lead to different roles and job prospects, master’s degrees come in different forms too, mainly as postgraduate taught (PGT) or postgraduate research (PGR) programmes.

PGT, like undergraduate programmes, follows a series of modules with a set timetable led by your programme’s professors and teaching staff.

The most common PGTs are the Master of Arts (MA) and Master of Science (MS, MSc), the step-ups from the Bachelor of Arts (BA) and Bachelor of Science (BS, BSc).

PGR emphasises independent research; you won’t have the same set of modules and timetable, or you might not have any at all.

You will conduct your research with support and guidance from a supervisor, but work will be done mostly independently. 

Examples of PGRs include the:

  • Master of Research (MRes)
  • Master of Philosophy (MPhil)
  • Master of Studies (MSt)
master's degrees

For those seeking a career in research, a postgraduate research programme is the way to go. Source: AFP.

MRes programmes are ideal for those training to be researchers, whether for professional work or in preparation for the PhD.

Here, modules on research techniques and methodological principles will help the independent study process.

MPhil, or the Master by Research, is a pure research degree with very little, to no taught modules. It is based entirely on completing an independent thesis whilst still having the guidance of a supervisor.  

The MSt is unique because it is only awarded by a handful of universities and requires completing classroom study and a thesis. 

A part-time master’s degree, it originated due to Oxford, Cambridge, and Dublin automatically awarding Master of Arts degrees to graduates after a certain period of time. 

Even with all of these, it barely scratches the surface of the volume and range of master’s degrees in the world. 

The most desired master’s degrees to specialise or advance your career

Master of Business Administration (MBA)

The most popular master’s degree by far, Statista reports that more than 200,000 were earned in the US in 2020-2021.

Here, you learn key business practices in accounting, finance, marketing, and human resources, preparing you for senior management roles.

Most MBA candidates are mid-career professionals as it often requires at least three years of professional experience to enrol in the programme.

Shaquille O’Neal, Bloomberg co-founder Michael Bloomberg, and Nike co-founder Phil Knight are just three of the many known entrepreneurs who pursued an MBA and have created a legacy in their sectors.

In QS Global MBA Rankings 2024, the top three universities for an MBA are:

  • Stanford Graduate School of Business
  • Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania
  • Harvard Business School
master's degrees

A patient being taken care of by a team of anaesthetists, including the lead doctor. Source: AFP.

Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)

With more than 140,000 in health programmes and related sectors earning their master’s in the US in 2020-2021, healthcare is another popular industry that rewards those with advanced degrees.

In the MSN programme, registered nurses or Bachelor of Science in Nursing graduates pick up a speciality to further develop their knowledge and skills through intense practice and theoretical classes. 

Advanced career opportunities and having greater influence within healthcare organisations aside, the pay boost is welcomed too.

Specialities like certified registered nurse anaesthetists command a national average of US$178,249 per year in the US – making them one of the highest paid in the field.

Plus, the healthcare industry has been projected to grow the most rapidly out of any other sector, with an estimated 45% of job gains from 2022 to 2023.

QS World University Rankings by Subject 2023 ranked these three schools as the best for nursing:

  • University of Pennsylvania
  • King’s College London
  • Johns Hopkins University
master's degrees

Chairs sit empty outside Stanford University’s Dean of Students Office. Source: AFP.

Master of Education (MEd)

While a Bachelor’s in Education gets you early childhood or special education roles, an MEd lets you work at specialist institutions or a higher level with an older age group. 

Not only that, it’s a programme that helps you move beyond the classroom and into the education system itself.

Careers include education policy analysts who review education policies or educational directors who lead curriculum development, community outreach, and programme evaluation outside a traditional school setting. 

MEd has always had a high demand, and though it has slowed in recent years, it remains at the top, with more than 150,000 being awarded in the US in 2020-21. 

In the UK, earning an MEd can get you a 48% increase in pay compared to its bachelor’s equivalent. 

The programme is available as an MA or MSc, and an entirely separate Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT).

The MAT programme is for those who seek to advance their careers in teaching and want a specialisation that focuses on a specific branch or subject of teaching. 

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2024 named these three schools as the best for a master’s in education:

  • University of California, Berkeley
  • Stanford University
  • University of Oxford
master's degrees

The shadow of Uruguyan developer Tammara Leites poses in front of a text generated by (digital Simon) thanks to artificial intelligence ahead of the (dSimon) performance at the Avignon fringe festival. Source: AFP.

The next big master’s degree

MS in Computer Science and Master of Information Technology (MIT)

Technology’s non-stop advancement means a greater demand for cybersecurity products and services, which is great news for computer and mathematical occupations.

Projected to experience a 15.2% job growth from 2022−2032, MS in Computer Science graduates already see an average starting salary of US$85,894 in 2022.

MIT graduates aren’t far behind, earning an average starting salary of US$78,683.

The information security analyst occupation, in particular, is projected to grow 31.5% between 2022 and 2032, making it the fifth fastest-growing occupation in the economy.

On the other hand, computer and information research scientists in 2021 saw a median salary of US$131,490, more than nurse practitioners, who earned US$123,780. 

MA, MSc, and more to add to the list

Sometimes, a programme can fall under either an MA or an MSc, like a degree in geology.

In cases like this, an MA is directed at those with a liberal arts background, while the MSc is a way to prepare for a future PhD or to specialise in more technical knowledge that involves science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Architecture is another programme that can carry several title options: MA, MSc, and a third Master in Architecture (MArch) with varying specialities.

As with the norm, the MSc programme has more research and technology focus, while the MA programme is art-focused and specialises in design.

Conversely, MArch suits those with an undergraduate degree in a different subject. 

Within an MArch programme, students are assessed via practical internships, final examinations, and possibly a thesis or final project in order to receive a license.

The coursework involves subjects like design, building science, structural engineering, architectural history and theory, and professional practice.

master's degrees

A Master of Engineering has two pathways, an academic-based MS in Engineering or the professional-based MEng. Source: AFP.

Engineering is another programme that you’ll see come with a few titles. 

There’s the academic-based MS in Engineering and the (usually) professional-focused Master of Engineering (MEng).

The MEng focuses more on coursework, application and specialisation of an engineering sub-discipline, such as mechanical engineering or chemical engineering.

Spanning two semesters or a year, you’re tested through exams or projects.

The MS, on the other hand, focuses on theories and research, and usually includes a thesis presentation as your assessment.

It’s typically half a year longer than an MEng and better preparation for a PhD compared to the MEng.