Is Grad School Worth It? Or is Credentialing the Answer?

One of my favorite “war” stories is about the first job offer I received after moving to Washington, DC. It went something like this:

  • HR Manager: Paul, we are excited to offer you the program assistant position. The starting salary is $22,000.
  • Me: This is great. Thank you so much. Is the salary negotiable? For example, I do have a Master’s degree.
  • HR Manager: Oh, right. Then we can offer you $23,000.

Needless to say, my heart sank when I heard this. Why did I spend 2 years in grad school for this? (I don’t tell prospective students this story…of course.)

Over the last 10-15 years, a disturbing employment trend seems to have grown: graduate degrees have become required for positions that, until recently, did not need an advance degree and pay the same regardless of education. However, the rising cost of education makes graduate school that much more difficult to swallow.

An even newer trend is credentialing: colleges, universities, associations, independent consultants, and many other groups, offer certificates, accreditation, training, and licenses for a multitude of disciplines, skills, and experiences. These programs are shorter and less expensive that a 2+ year graduate degree. However, are they seen as distinctive by would-be employers and are they truly professional development or just the equivalent of Boy/Girl Scout badges. (Badges are yet ANOTHER new trend, too.)

Given all the benefits and costs of advanced study, is it a good idea to get a graduate degree? Or is it better to pick up a few certifications here and there?

Before I jump into my thoughts on “To Grad School or Not to Grad School,” what are your thoughts on continued education? Did you get an advanced degree? Credential? Was it worth it?

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Terrence (Terry) Hill

I have both a Masters and credentials for my profession. Since I work for the government, these are not as valued as they are in the private sector. Many of my supervisors only have an undergraduate degree and no credentials. There is not a necessary correlation between degrees/credentials and grade. However, I don’t regret earning both. They instill confidence and serve as a source of pride and competence, whether that is valued by my organization or not.

Andrew Krzmarzick

I got a Masters in Theology which would have led me down a very specific career path…now it’s on my resume and counts in some situations for that “Masters required” – but it’s not really all that relevant to most positions I’ve held! I’d be much more apt to go back for a credential (as I did with the Masters Certificate in Project Management and PMP certification)…

Allison Primack

I am currently in a Master program, so I don’t know yet whether it is “worth” it or not. Being fresh out of undergrad, however, I realized that jobs in my field didn’t even want to look at me without a Masters Degree, so the choice seemed obvious. So far I feel like my Masters is worth it, because I am getting a background in quantitative skills that I did not receive as an undergrad!

Kanika Tolver

I have seen many people move up the GS scale without a Masters degree. But, I think it is good to get one if you really know what you want to do for the rest of your life or your can get a more generalized Master degree that you can utilize with any job. For instance, Project Management, MBA, etc.

Kanika Tolver

I dropped out of my Master program and I decided to Master finding my purpose in life. I am still a successful high ranked IT Project Manager.

Michelle (Koenig) Kosmicki

I earned my masters degree and got a whopping 0% raise for my efforts. Now many research/evaluation jobs require a PhD. I’m not going back to school, the expense will not outweigh my earning potential in State Govt. I’m very skilled at what I do, but then I’m the only one who does it.

Chris IRS Recruiter

Great post Paul. I can’t wait for your thoughts on To Grad School or Not to Grad School, that’s a question I’ve been asking myself for a while now.


In most states, individuals can’t be a CPA now without 150 credit hours. My MS in Accounting and Business Advisory Services lead me to be promoted and best qualify for many positions. I recommend graduate school anyone who wants to get a head in the government.


I think when you decide to do graduate school or certification you should start by looking at your goal.

I have a friend who is in the finance industry who dealt with this exact issue.

He found that most of the jobs he ideally wanted (either now or in 3-5 years) required a CFA so he spent 2 years passing Level 1, 2, 3 and completed his CFA certificate

Fast forward 5 years later and he is sitting in a great job. He is looking at most of the jobs he’d like to get in 5-10 years. For most of these roles, most of the candidates have a MBA from a top 10 school. So he’s decided to go back to school to get his MBA to set himself up.

So I think a big part is thinking through what do you want do in your career in 5-10 years and what do the backgrounds look like of the folks in those roles.

Dorothy Ramienski Amatucci

I’m currently in grad school myself … but I went back part-time so I could also get internships in fields other than what I majored in as an undergrad. I worked for about 6 years in between getting my undergrad and going back for a Master’s, during which time I also got certifications at the community college up the street. The most important thing, I think, is research. If you don’t know WHY you are going back to school, you probably shouldn’t spend thousands of dollars. In this day and age, I think diverse job experience can be just as valuable as an advanced degree in some fields.

David Dejewski

Like good baked goods, education can balance and enhance our lives. In excess or when we become dependent on it, it can be unhealthy.

Corey McCarren

When I first graduated undergrad, my thought process was “I need to go to graduate school right away and get a degree”. I have a friend who has the same graduate degree I’m looking at from George Washington University, and he’s pretty much on the same level as me career-wise. I think a Masters helps you move up the ladder, definitely, but except for certain careers I don’t think it’s anything to jump into. My only concern is if I have a full time job and I have to move to part-time because I’m pursuing a degree, not sure if an employer would necessarily like that. Has anyone found this to be a problem?

Corey McCarren

Also that’s not to say that I don’t still fully intend to enter graduate school, I just question whether it will help me at this exact time in my life or if it would be better a few years from now. I would imagine that credentials can also play a role in moving up in a company, but I think it would be key that they are related to what you are doing.

Natia Johnson

I have a MBA and a Bachelor’s degree. My educational background has helped me negotiate $10k to $25k more than what most jobs advertise as the starting salary.

To Grad School or Not to Grad School? I would say it depends on the career field. For my field, I do not feel that a degree is needed to learn the job. However, OPM requires it… and it did help increase my pay.

Paul Binkley

Thank you all for your comments.

I tend to agree with most of what was written, especially those who focus on what is more appropriate for long-term career and personal satisfaction. Check out my next blog that expands on this more.

James Mathieson

I agree with folks who have said that it depends on your long-term goals and what you need to achieve them. Sometimes a grad degree may be necessary to have in order to qualify for the job, but sometimes your experience is enough to demonstrate your expertise.

In my case, for the majority of my career in web operations / online communications (since back in the dinosaur days of the 1990’s), there really wasn’t an educational path (except doing computer science), though now there are various programs geared to the online world. I’m actually in grad school now completing an MS in interactive media program that basically will “match the paper to the experience”. I feel that in the long run this will help formalize my experience and value for the higher leadership positions, so to me it’s worth the time and expense.

Faye Newsham

I was talking to my dad about this just yesterday. He noted that he had been FORCED to attain a degree to keep his job at one point, one he had performed with high skill for decades. A highly skilled coworker was forced out of his job after decades because a PhD was suddenly a requirement of that job/pay grade… The Fed is seeing many positions require Masters now that never did before and is pushing out highly skilled and knowledgble folks out into retirement or early retirement for almost no reason. The degree my dad took to keep his job? Pre-law… it is what he had the most credits in. It neither applied to nor benefited his job.

I’ve decided to get my masters because I want to. I don’t expect to see any financial benefit from it. I’m doing it for me. Your career field may be different and have different expectations. I may actually be qualified for fewer jobs once I attain my degree…because hiring managers see that degree as something that costs them (even if negligible).

What does anyone get out of education that can’t be learned on the job? I can think of a few things but they aren’t necessarily going to be the difference between a good employee and a poor one. It MIGHT be the difference between a good employee and a great one.

I’m all for the education – I love it – but requiring too much or making assumptions about people who do or do not have degrees or advanced degrees isn’t the answer either.


Michael Sponhour

I do think the reality is that the graduate degree is the most important credential that a typical job candidate can have. The majority of the jobs in my profession either require or “prefer” one. The key is for people to recalibrate their goals and strategies – instead of an elaborate and expensive undergraduate degrees (complete with the latest craze for “study abroad” programs) it makes more sense to get the best undergraduate education you can WITHOUT going into debt and then focus your finances and energy on a strong graduate degree. Many families are making huge sacrifices based on the notion that a BA/BS from a top school is the definitive credential – however I do not believe this is based on reality anymore.