Are You Ready for an Online Graduate Degree?

Are You Ready for an Online Graduate Degree?

Students that earned a bachelor’s degree have made a significant start in their career because of the knowledge gained, related to their degree choice, during the process. Many students have also found that a bachelor’s degree is a pre-requisite for a number of jobs. As you progress in your career there may be a time when you will consider an online graduate education, either as a result of your interest in learning or as a means of advancing your career. I’ve made that academic journey; earning bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees – and there are several important aspects you should consider before you make the decision to pursue an advanced degree. 

One of the reasons that students choose to pursue a graduate degree is the belief that doing so will increase their earnings potential. From a general view of the job market, this is true. A 2011 report by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce: The College Payoff: Education, Occupations, Lifetime Earnings, presents the following statistics from 2009: those holding bachelor's degrees earn about $2.27 million over their lifetime, while those with master's, doctoral, and professional degrees earn $2.67 million, $3.25 million, and $3.65 million, respectively. The caveat is that this does not apply to all careers, which means it is necessary for you to research the field you are interested in to assess the average earnings and better understand what you can expect.

In addition to evaluating your career options, there are academic requirements to consider. As an online instructor I can attest to the fact that there are significant differences in undergraduate and graduate level work. There is a shift in thinking that is required for the graduate level and a new set of expectations regarding the quality of your work when you make a transition from an undergraduate degree program to a graduate degree program. You need to be prepared for graduate work.

Bachelor’s to Master’s Degree

The bachelor’s degree used to be the most sought after degree, but according to Debra W. Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools, “the master’s is now the fastest-growing degree” and “the number awarded, about 657,000 in 2009, has more than doubled since the 1980s.” Let’s examine the most important factors necessary for making a decision about obtaining a master’s degree.

1. Overview: Most programs take an average of two years, although some online schools offer master’s programs than can be completed at an accelerated rate – within 18 months. When you choose a master’s degree you will typically find courses that address a general focus (education, business, etc.) with a core curriculum, and a specialization or concentration (business administration, post-secondary education, etc.) based upon electives you will choose. As a general average, a master’s degree can range anywhere from 30-60 credit hours – there isn’t a set standard for all schools to follow.

2. Program Costs: According to a 2003-2004 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study the estimated cost of a master’s degree (on an average) is $37,000 – for all schools. For online schools, you need to look at the total number of credit hours per class and the per credit cost. For example, Ashford University lists a per credit hour cost of $390.

3. Earning Potential: From a general perspective, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce report, utilizing 2009 statistics, Select Findings from What’s It Worth? The Economic Value of College Majors, determined that the average earnings for 15 fields of study had a 38.3% higher income with graduate degree. As an example, for a business degree the median earnings were $60,000 with a bachelor’s degree and $80,000 for a graduate degree. Career  also provides salary data and another example, for a degree in human resources management the average earnings with a bachelor's degree were $37,874 and a master’s degree was $56,094.

Students that choose a master’s degree are often focused on career development and online schools market these programs as being especially applicable for management and leadership positions. That’s the reason why I chose a Master’s in Business Administration (MBA) program – I had aspirations to start a small business and also advance my current career in business management. Another option that’s available once a master’s degree is completed is teaching – with a master’s degree you can often teach college courses at the undergraduate level. That’s how I began my teaching career – I started teaching as an adjunct at the local community college.

4. Academic Expectations: What you’ll find at the master’s level is a focus on specific subjects related to your degree specialization. It is a significant investment of time because the amount of work involved and the expectation for the quality of work increases when compared to undergraduate work. At this level you will be expected to provide well-written papers that are properly formatted and supported with scholarly research. You will be developing subject matter knowledge and the conclusion of a graduate level degree program often requires a thesis, culminating project, or final comprehensive exam.

Master’s to Doctoral Degree

If you decide to pursue a doctoral program you need to understand that this is going to be one of the most demanding, challenging, and ultimately rewarding degree programs possible. It is a rigorous program, one that requires a significant investment of time, because of the additional time required to meet the objectives of this advanced degree. You should also know that 50 to 60 percent of doctoral candidates never complete their programs, according to a report by the Council of Graduate Schools and the Educational Testing Service titled The Path Forward.

1. Overview: On an average, a doctoral program may require up to 120 credit hours; however, there is a possibility that some of the credit hours from your master’s degree program may transfer, so be sure to check with the admissions advisor to review your transcripts.

2. Program Costs: Many online schools will list tuition costs based upon a quarterly rate and/or an estimated overall total cost. Here are some examples:
•    University of Phoenix: the average cost (depending upon degree specialization) is $41,665 – $67,835.
•    Walden University: the cost is $4600 per quarter, up to three classes per quarter, with a total of 96 quarter credit hours required.
•    Capella University: the cost is $4566 per quarter.
•    Doctoral programs also have residency requirements (in-person seminars or classes) and there are additional fees involved.

3. Earning Potential: This is an aspect of doctoral degree programs that is difficult to measure because there isn’t a clearly defined career path for all academic disciplines. provides an average annual salary of $93,000, with possible jobs that include clinical statistician, academic writer, scientific director, and many others.

What is known is that a doctoral degree can help extend your career development potential, depending upon your field of study. For example, you may be interested in academic work – from teaching to researching and publishing. A doctorate in business may be advantageous for advanced leadership or consulting roles. It is important that you research your career options before beginning this type of program. I chose to pursue a Ph.D. with a personal and professional goal of teaching at the graduate level and I was interested in research and publishing, which are typical work expectations in academic settings.

4. Academic Expectations: If there are so many doctoral students that do not complete their degree, why do students stay in the doctoral program? The answer according to The Princeton Review: people stay in doctorate programs because they enjoy learning for learning's sake. They love intellectual stimulation, and they find academic work fun. I stayed in the program as I had a specific career goal in mind.

At the doctoral level schools often refer to you as a "scholar practitioner" and that is the most advanced form of thinking required for any degree program. Instead of just acquiring knowledge, as a graduate student you will also be involved in the process of contributing knowledge to your chosen field. You’ll begin the program with coursework and once that phase is completed you’ll have a comprehensive exam to complete – which is an opportunity for you to demonstrate your subject matter expertise.

Following the exam is a lengthy process of research necessary to complete your dissertation. Completing a doctoral degree is a very time consuming process that may require four or more years to complete. Also of importance, you are working through a very demanding online program and need to have a strong sense of self-motivation and determination.

Making the Decision

The most important point I can make is that earning a graduate degree does not automatically guarantee a higher income or a particular job. A 2010 report summarized in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Why Did 17 Million Students Go to College?, cites information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS): Over 317,000 waiters and waitresses have college degrees (over 8,000 of them have doctoral or professional degrees), along with over 80,000 bartenders, and over 18,000 parking lot attendants. All told, some 17,000,000 Americans with college degrees are doing jobs that the BLS says require less than the skill levels associated with a bachelor’s degree.

Before you decide to make an investment in an online graduate degree, clearly define your career goals, the personal motivators for earning another degree, and a comparison of the potential expenses measured against the potential earnings. Ask yourself if you are willing to devote the time and effort necessary to complete a master’s or doctoral degree and be certain to thoroughly explore the schools and career paths that you are interested in pursuing.

Why are you interested in a graduate degree? What factors are important to you? Share your feedback via Twitter @DrBruceJ.

By Dr. Bruce Johnson

Photo © Don Hammond/Design Pics/Corbis

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