Do you really need that master's degree?

Just like four years ago, for myself and fellow seniors, it is again the time to be incessantly asked what we are to do after graduation. This is, of course, an incredibly annoying question until you have arrived at a satisfying answer. This time, however, the response is not so clear cut: No longer is it as simple as offering the name of a college and receiving a judgment proportional to your questioner’s opinion of the institution. While we broadly could do any number of things next, it tends to boil down to one of two options: entering an applicable industry or continuing to go to school.

Until relatively recently, I was somewhat split on which path to take, but it was always a question of a job in industry or a doctorate. Several of my family members are in academia, which influenced my ideas on the topic, but it boils down to this: If you get paid to do a doctorate — albeit not that much — which is worth more than a master’s in the long run, why would you pay for a master’s? Attending Duke’s Graduate School costs over $60,000 a year in tuition, and, from my understanding, financial aid is not nearly as available as it is for undergraduate students.

When discussing with others throughout the past few years, they were often confused as to why I would choose between two vastly different options — essentially, a software engineering job or an English doctorate degree. Why don’t I just get a master’s — either in English or CS, my undergraduate majors — and see how I liked it? The sentiment is there, but our tendency to choose the middle course is a prime example of the Compromise Effect. When confronted with three options — for which two are extremely different and one exists in the middle ground — humans tend to compromise even when the middle option might not be what we really want.

I can understand why individuals with parents who are willing and able to fork out the extra cash for tuition and basic needs — as the amount of money a full-time student can make on the side tends to not be in the range that would cover all living costs at most graduate institutions — succumb to this marketing tactic. At this point, I will clarify that I am critiquing penultimate master’s degrees. I understand that, in some fields, a master’s is the highest degree an individual typically earns — and that select careers have a requirement of one — however, these tend not to be the most popular paths for Duke students.

I have nothing against going to grad school. Indeed, I think getting a doctorate can be an excellent option for some people. You should get a doctorate if you are highly passionate about your field of study and feel that deep research into some facet of it would make you happy. Here’s the thing: If you’re sincerely passionate about the subject, there’s no need to get a separate master’s degree — unless you win the Rhodes or Marshall or something — because you get one for free as you complete your doctorate. Now, don’t tell them I told you this, but if you enter a doctorate program and decide it’s not a good fit, you can usually leave amicably with a free master’s degree after a couple of years.

Otherwise, if you are more interested in applying what you’ve learned at Duke to a particular industry — or just want to be a consultant — if you’re using your time here semi-wisely, you should know enough about the field to succeed in it within your four years. Otherwise, the curriculum needs revision. I estimate I learned at least 70% of what I needed to know about Computer Science from school by the end of my freshman year, if I include my high school CS courses. Each subsequent year, I’ve gained bits and bobs of useful information from most of my major courses, but boy howdy have I reached the point of diminishing marginal returns. 

I am positive that if I, say, enrolled in the new 4+1 program in Computer Science here or did a separate master’s elsewhere, I would deepen my understanding. Yet, I can guarantee I will learn efficiently, whilst elevating my knowledge, by becoming a software engineer instead. After an internship in the field, I realized how little I knew and that while my Duke education has given me a lovely foundation, if I want to reach my full growth potential, I must apply my knowledge to real-world problems. Yes, people holding master’s degrees have higher earning potential, but that’s only once you graduate and make up for the tuition spent — if you don’t have wealthy and generous parents — and the salary not earned from not working. Plus, you won’t make as much money as people who get doctorate degrees and decide to work in industry — and may not be qualified for research-intensive roles in all cases.

Industry is a slightly more nebulous option because saying “I’m working in the industry” means different things to everyone. I’ll broadly think about this in terms of traditional industries that Duke students are wont to enter, like tech, business, finance, etc. Having a traditional 9-5 job means you’re probably getting paid big girl money, living in a new city and having free time for hobbies — though, forget that last one if you’re going into investment banking. Frankly, it’s more fun if you, like me, realized at some point in the past few years that you love learning but don’t enjoy being a student.

Plus, above all else, leaving academia is something different, and by that nature, you will grow in some way. We have been in the educational system all our lives; how much more can we gain from being a student for one to two more years? If you love the subject in an academic capacity, two years is surely not enough; if you’re more a fan of applied stuff or maybe even dislike your major in the first place, a master’s degree is long enough to be somewhat tortuous. A master’s is the choice most similar to the life we, as undergrads, currently lead. For any of these options — or if you choose a path less beaten — you need to know why you’re doing it and be able to articulate that to another person. What a master’s degree really buys you is a little more time — is that what you need, or would a handful of courage to make a riskier decision suffice?

Heidi Smith is a Trinity senior. Her column runs on alternate Mondays.


Share and discuss “Do you really need that master's degree?” on social media.