In the August 31, 2010 Ask The Headhunter Newslettera reader asks:

I am making a career change to improve my life, and I plan to pursue a master’s degree. Any suggestions on how to proceed after I earn it? The U.S. News & World Report school rankings are out again, which reminds me that it seems to matter where your degree comes from. Do you have any tips on selecting the best grad programs for the best career payoff?

Here’s the short version of my reply. (You’ve got to subscribe to the weekly newsletter to get the whole story!)

Magazine school rankings make great birdcage liners. For every edition of a magazine that ranks schools there are several articles that criticize the methodology. Perhaps more important, serious questions have been raised about the cost of higher education. Take a look at a recent USA Today report: Where’s all that college tuition money going?

It’s not just unclear which schools are “best,” but it’s not clear whether your tuition money is well-spent. I don’t think it’s even clear that you need additional education because, if you think about it carefully, you may not be the best judge.

When you buy education, you are certainly the customer, but you’re not the only customer… So what about that “other” customer who’s ultimately paying for your education—with a salary, after he hires you? The question the employer tries to answer is, Does the advanced degree mean better performance on the job?

(In the newsletter, I also discuss what to ask your target employer before you invest in that new degree.)

College degrees. Advanced degrees. MBA’s. Executive MBA’s. What about them?

Let’s take the matter of more learning off the table for a minute. More learning is good. But the question here is about value.

  1. DiplomaDo more degrees pay off? Are we all brainwashed to believe that more college degrees mean better careers and higher salaries? Sometimes I think it’s all about marketing. Schools tout their position in the rankings published by U.S. News & World Report and other magazines.  They promote the “value” of their degrees, but none will guarantee you a higher-level job or higher salary once you spend tens of thousands of dollars on the degree.
    (How silly, Nick! Schools can’t do that! Well, then why do they advertise and promote the correlation between degrees and earnings?)
  2. Do you get what you pay for? A scathing new book by political science professor Andrew Hacker (Queens College, New York) and Claudia Dreifus (Columbia University) tears into exorbitant college tuitions and accuses schools of spending students’ money in all the wrong places — and least of all on delivering education. Higher education: How colleges are wasting our money and failing our kids contends that the price of your degree is wildly inflated because schools don’t apply the tuition dollars you pay them to educate you.

A special case of degrees is the MBA and the EMBA (Executive MBA). We discussed this in Should you get an MBA? I also covered the topic in a special edition of the Ask The Headhunter Newsletter: How executive MBA’s do it, where I suggested that a job candidate’s initiative might trump any degree. (I wrote the latter article after I gave the keynote presentation to the career center directors of 30 of the top MBA schools in the world. Many of them read this blog — and I’d love their comments especially!)

What’s your experience? If you’re a manager or a coach, what’s your advice? Do higher degrees pay off? Would you invest in another degree?


  1. For some firms, the MBA degree held by a candidate from a top 5 school is a bottom line issue. It goes to the question of branding.

    I once had a recruiter from ‘you know who’ global consulting firm tell me my background was “weak” because I didn’t have an MBA from one of the top 5 MBA schools. She said their clients demand this kind of education in the associates assigned to engagements.

    Is this just hot air or is it real? On the other side of the coin, I’ve managed some of these engagements from the client side. I demanded accountability, on time performance, and real answers, not text book answers. Sometimes I’ve gotten it and sometimes I think the executive who asked for their advice didn’t get value for the money paid.

    I once had to completely reorganized a slide deck from one of these firms reducing it from 50 slides to five. Senior executives are in a race to stop reading, not do more.

    The best conversation I ever had about MBAs was a job I turned down. A major technology company called to sound me out. I asked the recruiter how come he was talking to me given that I was 20 years older than the average MBA the firm was hiring like their were stacks of logs. He told me, “I’ve got rooms full of 27 year olds with MBAs. They don’t know anything. I need someone who knows how to get stuff done.”

    I think that is the real key for evaluating a candidate. What do they know how to get done and how have they done it? Does a graduate degree help? In a technical field, yes, but in general business management, like the man says, it depends . . .

  2. Colleges and universities are big business. Its job is to make money, so by making us believe earning a college degree means earning more earning power, of course we’re going to go for the hype. But Nick, you are right! No college or university will guarantee you a job upon completion of its program, but they’re quick to take tens of thousands of dollars from the “customer”. This isn’t right, some things need to change!

  3. I agree with Nia and Nick. No university or college degree guarantees you anything. I’ve decided against an advanced degree b/c it will not necesarily mean more money. Instead, I’m taking some on-line courses that provide solid training in my field of work and for a heck of a lot less than an advanced degree. These on-line training courses were created by people who work in the field and saw a need. It is unlikely this kind of real-world training would be taught in a traditional college class room.

  4. More education did NOT lead to a salary increase for me. In fact, the only person who ever paid me well was me. Working for myself as an arbitrager paid very well before my BS and after my MS. Working for others and institutions— they try to get people on the cheap. In this economy, many people will work for cheap even if they can command more in a better economy. Once things improve, they demand a pay increase or “jump ship.” That’s just economics.

    Education had little monetary value for me. Even as a MS-level scientist at the top of my career, working 50-60 hrs per week, being praised and making much money for my employer, I was out-earned by my husband, who barely graduated 8th grade and joined a construction union as a teenager. He is a very smart man in some ways, such as in knowing the ways of the world, but academically, no.

    There are few ways to make lots of money working for others, unless you are part of senior management or close to it. (It depends on how one defines “lots of money.”)

    I am glad I studied hard as far as a richness of life. I have been all over the world and pick up languages, and understand culture, history, and art, as well as what I majored in. This is now very important, as I am prepared to retire in 5 yrs.

  5. I am still trying to figure out what job I can get with an MA in German outside of teaching. I decided against a PhD in my field, because I had enough of going to school. In public school teachers with MA’s were not hired because they cost more. My problem in teaching is that I can teach the subject, but cannot always deal with unruly students.

  6. I agree with Nick’s comments that businesses are only interested in a college degree if it advances their agenda. If you plan on obtaining an advanced degree to teach, be aware that most colleges/universities require faculty to have a ‘terminal’ degree (i.e. the highest possible). As a personal example, while I have an MA in theater, my resume is not even considered despite many years experience in the field. An MFA or PhD is, I have discovered a necessary prerequisite.

  7. If you want to be a hospital social worker, you will have to get an MSW. If you want to be a neurosurgeon, you have to get your MD or DO. Most of the rest of us don’t need more formal education. For many it’s just one more thing to leave off a resume.

    But it’s not only the colleges and universities we need be wary of. We advise our clients to do careful research before pursuing any education or training. One recent client spent good money to get a welding certification in mid 2009, but every job posting wants at least 3 years of experience. Given the current state of the labor market, there are plenty of candidates with plenty of experience. Needless to say, he hasn’t gotten a welding job, and all he gets from the placement department at his school is a big shoulder shrug.

  8. In my case the MS paid off, but that was because I was changing careers, like the OP.

    My original BS was in psychology, but I had been an electronic hobbyist for years. I decided to get a degree in electrical engineering, and thought I needed a bachelors in EE to get the jobs I wanted.

    It took a look of looking to find a college that would let me get a second BS in EE, because these programs were all full of new high school grads and transfers, so I ended up moving 1000 miles to Albuquerque! In my first class I start talking to the guy next to me, and I find out he is in the graduate program, but his BA was in journalism. I had not even considered a graduate degree, thinking I would need to many basic theory courses. I was wrong.

    By the end of the year, I had transferred back to California, to the school I originally wanted to go to, but was now seeking an advanced degree. It was hard, because you entered every class behind everyone else, but was great if you are a fast learner, and have a passion for the subjects!

    Some things I learned – If there was a graduate course and an undergraduate course in the same subject, choose the graduate course. It would be easier, deal with more practical applications, and skip a lot of the ‘basic’ theory that was covered only to justify some of the assumptions in the specialty. Also, the grading was easier and less cutthroat. Schools actively try to ‘weed’ out undergrads in their programs. They have no such silly agendas in graduate programs!

  9. Even with a degree, employers want experience. How do you get experience without doing the job? Most colleges do not provide the kind of training employers want. You get, hopefully, a solid foundation of learning that allows you to go into the work place and apply your knowledge. I know many who run into the problem of getting degrees (me included), have no experience in that particular field, and then find they cannot get a job in that field. That is why I’ve chosen on-line training that will help (I hope) with the “no experience” issue I have been facing.

  10. There is, as stated in your column, a correlation between degrees and earnings. But a correlation does not mean a cause. Perhaps many of the qualities that make for success in college or graduate school are the same as those factors which lead to success in a job, for example, taking direction and getting the work done. On the other hand, I agree that a B.A. degree in a liberal arts field is a plus, compared to no degree.

  11. Thank you for the comments to may email. I had work experience as a graduate student as a graduate assistant. Before that I had teaching experience. I also lived in Germany for 20 years(from 1965-1985) where I took classes at the University of Tuebingen and traveled in about 20 different countries. I have 20+ years of teaching including substitute teaching for many different subjects and grade levels. I am retired so at this point I have no desire to teach full time in public school, so I let my teaching license lapse. It would have cost me $200 to renew it. As far as teaching in college I could teach as an instructor or lecturer. I am also looking into translating.

  12. What universities spend all that tuition money on: new buildings, more administrators, upgraded dorms, fancier cafeteria food, and things that get them higher ratings in USNews.

    What universities skimp on: salaries and support for the people who teach undergraduate courses.

    Do your own research in the job market about the value of a degree. Do NOT ask the universities who are more than happy to award any degree that makes them a profit.

  13. I have always found it interesting that for our highest elected office in the U.S., you don’t need a college degree. Members of Congress don’t need a degree to run for office. You also don’t need any specific experience for either job role.

    Isn’t it intriguing that we have such rigid educational requirements and experience demands for virtually every other job? If you don’t need a specific degree or years of experience to become President of the United States, why do you need those things to perform less-rigorous jobs?

  14. My employer paid for part of my degrees through tuition reimbursement – Bachelor’s and Master’s. I’d worked in the field (IT) for a long time and had the relevant certifications, but saw my upward mobility limited. I ended up with a Master of Science in Management & Leadership – an actual management science degree. That differentiates me from the horde of MBA’s out there.

    I start a new job in two weeks. My current employer couldn’t (really couldn’t, not wouldn’t) fast-track me to the level of job I needed to be at (and in fact that’s what my manager told me, that he knew I’d leave, but that he’d hoped it would have been longer, because he knew I was overqualified for what they could offer me), so I took a position at another company. I’ll be making TWICE what I was here, and I’ll have the responsibility I should have had.

    What the degree did for me was put into perspective the experience I’d had so that now I can look back and understand in terms of what I’ve learned how and why certain situations evolved – good and bad – to the endpoints they did. I’m much more ready to actually understand what to expect from decisions I’ll make as a manager, and how to evaluate the effectiveness of those decisions.

    For me, the degree changed me… and that changed how I market me and the brand image I have for myself… and that led to more success.

  15. I went back to school fulltime in my mid-40s and for me, a masters degree absolutely made a difference. Earning a college degree was a lifelong dream and it enabled me to do the kind of work I’ve always wanted to do.

    But when you consider the expense and the effort, I could have started a small business and been just as happy.

    There are hidden costs related to going back to school. It isn’t just tuition, the time you spend in school takes you away from other gainful employment opportunites. Although I continued to earn money, my contributions to Social Security and other retirement funds were minimal. I went without saving and I put off buying a home and car because I lived hand to mouth.

    As far as chosing the best graduate programs, it depends on the degree. If I had more resources available to me, I would have opted for a more prestigious school. But only because of the connections, I can’t believe they do a better job of educating.

  16. I graduated 25 years ago with a BS in computer science from one of the top 10 CS schools in the country. I learned a lot and I still am grateful for the knowledge I have. I went and got my MS in Computer Science about 20 years ago and it did increase my salary right away.

    My IQ is pretty high too.

    But ironies of ironies, I see job descriptions that say they want smart people who graduated only from the best CS schools in the country. I am either expressly not considered by these companies because my degrees are too old and from the wrong schools. When I get the interview, I love it. I enjoy the interviews I get because I find that the children can’t actually define the jobs they want done and so substitute a degree program they graduated from for experience to actually get the job done.

  17. Bob wrote: “I enjoy the interviews I get because I find that the children can’t actually define the jobs they want done and so substitute a degree program they graduated from for experience to actually get the job done.”

    But the children are sitting on the hiring side of the table and you aren’t. ;-)

    Jokes aside, I believe that any educational experience, formal or informal, enriches us. Too much emphasis, as Bob noted, is placed on the “right degree from the right school.”

  18. @Steve Amoia
    I agree.

  19. @Steve Amoia: It’s an important point. Employers use degrees as chits that they think represent something desirable. The underlying problem is that employers have no idea how to select new hires. So they turn to “objective measures and indicators.” Degrees. “Experience.” Worst of all: “keywords.”

    Keywords are the best, because software can find those and deliver the best candidates for interviews.

    What a silly process. What silly criteria.

    A reader just sent me a note. I hope he posts it here. He told of a manager at a company who was up for a coveted top-level executive promotion in the home office. He had the skills, the experience. Instead, they offered him a job “out in the field” – his last promotion. Why not the top inside job? Because all the other home-office managers had Harvard degrees. He did not.

    And anyone wonders why American businesses have a hard time competing? A hard time attracting top talent?

    Many companies long ago forgot what top talent really is. They hire stand-ins instead.

  20. @Mike Reed: Kudos! You got a degree that distinguishes you in a useful way, and what you learned has paid off and made you a better manager. My guess is that it pays off for your company, too. Great choice! Interesting situation: you stand apart from all the MBA’s out there. Wonder how they feel about that. I’d love to know what your employer thinks about that!

  21. I attended since childhood private and public schools, and both very good public colleges and private universities (formal degree graduating from the latter.) Does the school matter? I am not so sure for the vast amount of money involved at most colleges. I have to say I know many a failure to come out many a private university. I completed my BS degree as a mid-career adult student so I got a lot of out of it …because I put a lot into it (the key to any learning situation.) However it is a situation one should not rush into. @Nia Golden I hope many re-read what you have stated. You nailed everything I was going to post. Thank you.

  22. I found this article about the relative usefulness of criteria for selecting employees, which might be relevant to what we are discussing. Years of education seems to be fairly well down the list.

    It occurs to me that when people go out looking for a company to do something for them, the formal qualifications and education of the people involved are usually fairly well down the list of considerations. I know that when I choose an electrical contractor or plumber, I want to know how well they do the job and how well they communicate with customers. So do most people who ask for the name of a good tradesperson.

    Even with jobs that need formal qualifications, such as in the medical field, the general principle still seems to hold. I don’t think anyone has ever asked me for the name of a doctor who has a degree from X med school. I’m in New Zealand, so maybe that makes a difference.

    So I suppose I’m asking, why the fixation on qualifications only when it comes to hiring employees? But then, I think Nick may have answered that one.

  23. To Jane A

    Thank you for that marvelous link!

    Now I can compare 85 years of science with my 40 years of art in selecting people.

    I’m degreeless, but devour books. Thanks for a new pile!

  24. In the mid 1960, IBM was growing from about 125,000 to about 250,000. They pretty much required a BA or BS but it didn’t matter what the subject was. To them, sticking thru 4 years indicated some smarts and discipline and meant you were teachable. I’m not sure a degree means that any more – I know a lot of grads without enough sense to tie their shoes.
    I’ve been considering Project Management, but think Six Sigma is over-rated as well as too expensive. PMP would also be expensive. Could get CAPM but nor sure it would be worth it.

    I’ve hired based on instinct about people rather than strict requirements: degrees, certifications, classes, etc. Never been wrong on any of the folks I hired.

  25. From my vantage point, advanced degrees matter most (in terms of pay, promotions) when they are from a highly regarded school (Harvard, Yale, etc.) for that field. Harvard seems to be where most of the top industrial executives come from. The connections such schools give, both direct and indirect, are apparently very important.
    Of course, the other requirement is that you must be able to do the work. The school affiliation will carry you only so far. Yet, without the Harvard connection, you can find your career sidetracked. One exceptional individual I know (not myself) had been fast-tracked at the corporate giant for which he worked. He moved every few years, advancing steadily up the corporate ladder. He successfully tackled a variety of accounting, engineering, and management positions of increasing responsibility, finally being brought to the home office where he worked for several years.
    When his next promotion was likely a corporate vice-presidency, he was told he could choose any job in the company he wanted, just not one in the home office. His college education, including his graduate degree, were from Midwestern universities. At that time, all of upper management was from Harvard. There’s no way to know the process management went through to make him the final offer of his career. Judging from the composition of the corporate hierarchy, having one or more degrees from Harvard would not shut any doors for a candidate.

  26. Hi, ALL

    Hi, ALL

    I have M.S. in rehab. counseling, and yes it paid off. I have fair salary, good insurance, good working conditions. However, this is a specialty degree in human services required by RSA to work in State/Federal Rehab program, Federal mandated criteria. But I had friends graduate, no job still plugging along in mediocre jobs. I moved 1500 miles to do internship and was hired afterwards. The right dynamics can result in a job, but it takes guts and street savvy to move away from all supports into a “foreign land”. A degree does not make the person; the person applies the degree to the job market, etc. A degree can be a lot of crapola too that you never use on the job. I brought a lot of common sense and life experience to the job, not educational expertise. I studied with Jim Taylor at OU, and futurism and thinking out of the box has been one asset that has made my work produce results. I graduated with several blithering idiots too. Colleges are money-making businesses, not all students are intelligent even with a master’s degree. Also, some professors are nut cases too. A few of them were just obnoxious baffoons full of hot air, but tenure goes a long way in the college rhelm. Some professors were great!

    Just my educated opinions. LOL. :)

    Linda Fox, M.S., CRC

  27. @Nia Golden – oy, don’t get me started on that topic! I did a short internship in state government looking at workforce issues from several angles including higher education.

    The American public would be shocked to learn how poorly our educational system is linked to industry needs. At one interview, we asked a high-ranking university official why a nursing program was cut when there is such a high demand. Without blinking he told us that he could “produce 10 historians for the price of one nurse”

  28. I fully realize that “your mileage may vary”, but I had a very positive experience with my graduate degree. When I started at the position I went to after obtaining the degree, the hiring manager told me, “I hired you because you had the incentive to go back to school and get your Master’s.” The hiring manager in the next position after that told me the same thing.

    I didn’t change careers, so that makes a big difference. I had several colleagues who attempted to change careers through a graduate degree and found it didn’t work. Guess they should have read Nic’s column first…

    A couple observations. First of all, I got my employer to pay for my graduate degree. My only out-of-pocket was textbooks. That makes it a lot easier to deal with if your degree doesn’t get you results. As far as schools go, I got my degree at one of the top five schools in the country in my field. It has opened doors ever since, but only for that area. Apply for a job on the other coast, and it carries little weight. I think that goes back to the thread that the hiring managers have no idea what they are doing (in many cases) and are hiring degrees or (even worse) acronyms. And trendy acronyms, at that.

    All of the comments have been great, and they mirror the experiences I’ve had slugging it out in the trenches for over thirty years. Thought-provoking insights, and correct spelling and grammar even!

  29. Most colleges typically have some very good academic programs and some dead-end programs. One must beware of the pseudo academic institutions (small business schools who sell costly programs to poor dummies that watch TV adds to become a massage therapist or other current job-market hype). I had one customer who actually got a lucrative job as Massage Therapist. He had the charisma to market himself along with the never give up attitude. He is working in a SPA/Resort in the POCONO MT. area and making big, big bucks! So, with an unusual and out-side-of-the-typical career choice, a person with technical training is cleaning up while poor smucks with degrees are still waiting for the big break. I am happy for him and the cost was only about $9000. He has been to Hawaii to explore some new massage techniques… his employer paid for the trip and training. However, I am not paying $500 for weekend at the SPA to get a sample of his new massage modality. I am very happy for him!

    LINDA who authorized and the VR program funded for the original training.

  30. Besides the obvious education needed for a job like MD, DDS, etc. when it comes down to it, after several years of being employed, does it really matter? Many people in business, I feel, get as educated through experience as those that spend the big bucks for an MBA. I had an interview once where the person made comment on where I got my college education. It seemed more important to him where I went to school 10+ years ago than my 10+ years experience needed for the job.

  31. Nick,

    Your column regarding the value of graduate degrees was perfect.

    Over the past decade, I have taught at five local colleges/universities on
    the undergraduate level. Three of those also included teaching MBA
    students. Without a doubt, in a hiring situation, I would lean towards
    hiring the well-rounded liberal arts bachelors holder than the MBA with the
    highest GPA. American business and society have far too many adults who
    cannot communicate clearly, nor think themselves out of a paper bag, and I
    partially blame career-focused higher education for this problem. There are far too many instances where solutions exist in other fields to allow us the luxury of hiring those who think only IT, or marketing, or whatever.

    On a related topic, I also notice a major quality difference in favor of
    students at non-profit liberal arts colleges, over students at for-profit
    institutions. (full disclosure – my five “teaching colleges” have been a community college, two private liberal arts institutions, one private business university, and one for-profit university). Those with a liberal arts bent seem to be able to write more clearly, debate more substantially, and have a more far-reaching perspective of the results their actions will have. Have you also noticed this, or had it been mentioned by any other reader?

    Keep up the great work.

    Neil Brown

  32. I suspect that employed people who get any sort of further education have an advantage with their employer, who already knows them and is apt to value them more. If I walked into an interview with 20 years of experience and a brand new degree/certification, I’m not sure anything but the experience would matter, although the certification might be what got me in the door in the first place. That’s the only reason I’m considering getting some sort of Project Management certification. If I can get to the hiring manager, I can get the job.

  33. @Ray Saunders: One of the sterotypes of older workers (my clientele) is that they can’t/won’t/don’t learn anything new. Any continuing education, degree focused or not, tends to dispel this.

  34. cant go worng with an engineering degree from a top school and most of those schools are state universities… Also, any darn good school has recruiting days where companies come to recruit for internships, co-ops or full time… these days at my sons’s school bring in 350 companies.
    already has done 2 incredible internships and has offers already for next summer you are good, you are hired… No excuses

  35. Interesting points all. I’m all for learning your whole life from whatever avenue works for you. In terms of ROI for investing in a degree (s) of any level it’s well worth it IF it’s linked to personal satisfaction, or you believe some content within has real value to you. It certainly does no harm and you can make it pay off.
    But do you need higher degrees?. To the point above, I believe they do if you personally relate to it, as one person pointed out. It gave him new insights and those insights rolled into his attitude, confidence and those into his marketability. Also you can be sure that setting out to acquire and to achieve a degree with a decade or more of hard experience behind it, is way differnt then coming out of high school. Adults usually know why they want one and can have pretty specific goals.
    Most input seems to be from the view of the job hunter, or one’s career. Let me pony up some views from the Corporate perspective and that of HR & the hiring manager.
    I’m degreed, just one. I like to point out it took me 19 calendar years to get it. Cut me some slack as there were a lot of gaps when I didn’t work the program. I rec’d during night schook whilst working in a high stress time demanding hi tech environment as a line manager. Why did I get one? Because I HAD to. The higher authority to whom I was married made the final push…on the GI Bill in CA with a couple of kids I could make money. Yet even these noble reasons wavered when someone droned Economics at you at 9PM.
    This leads to Corporate behavior on the topic. I worked in the IT industry, major computer companies. The “Why” appeared in the form of a boss who told me I’d better get my degree (non degreed was I) because if I tried to get my own job today I wouldn’t stand a chance. In each of these 3 companies when I started, degrees were nice but not necessary. Within 10 years they were a must. So pragmatically I did need to get one and with the “encouragement” of my wife I finalized a pile of courses into two degrees a AA & a BA. Why do companies evolve to MUST HAVE? Basically HR pushes for it believing it improves the quality of the personnel. To that I add some negative observations; an HR belief that it minimizes hiring risk (NOT!) (after all one’s teachable) and my view that it’s a form of slothful micromanagement. Less work for mother to figure out who’s qualified. This flies in the face of in a couple of cases of stunning technological success by the (horrors!) uneducated and lesser educated who made major contributions to the success of these companies & industries. Ever hear of Bill Gates and Larry Ellision? (non degreed).
    In all the companies I worked for they had a deep belief in paying for performance and practiced it. Hold that thought.
    I was a manager. So you reach a point when in your view, where HR blissfully espouses hands off in deciding best fit and horrors, never tell you who you should hire…but have no problem throwing a boundary around you, identifying who you CANNOT hire. Hence the micro management. You are less empowered and no one likes to lose their decision making power.
    Which leads us to how managers think and address degrees in these environments. To someone’s point we don’t care about degrees, we care about experience and not really about that, but what experience infers, the ability to do the job and produce stellar results. Even from degreed management, when your feet are being held to the fire, the value of a degree in saving your bacon falls into the old saw BS, More s..t, Piled real high. We don’t really care. The powers to be do
    So you learn to live with it. What very often happens is coincidentally you find people who happen to be degreed. When you don’t and you are really really adamant, you compromise with HR. The easy deal is just that the candidate have a degree in anything…basket weaving will do just fine. Or the candidate can demonstrate they are actively seeking a degree…in anything.
    As to higher degrees? nice but not necessary. It will get you a bump in starting salary, and may get you a bump if you are an employee who gets it. But the bump will not win honors in a ROI analysis.
    In our world of over 30 years mgmt I never saw a requirement for Phds. nor a masters for that matter. All things being equal, they may get you an edge & if you recruit well things aren’t equal that often.
    What counts is performance. And once you’re in the mix in a pay for performance system, the lesser educated can blow by you so fast it will make your head spin. Once aboard, your degree is history. It’s performance, performance, performance. They aren’t the yellow brick road.
    So if you’re primary driver for getting an advanced degree is you think it gets you an edge, save your money or apply it cherry picking relevant courses or professional certifications which often carry much more weight.
    The question was given as if the degree made a somewhat short term impact. Hopefully above will show you not as much as you’d like to think. But the long term is differnt. You can carve out a great career inside a company by performing well. It’s when you hit the street as a non degreed or have only a 4 year degree that the pettiness really hits home.

  36. As far as comparing colleges goes, unlike undergrad schools which department you get your advanced degree in counts far more than which school you get it in. The US News ranking doesn’t count, but when I was involved in recruiting CS and Engineering PhDs the school mattered a great deal, with the company having a list of preferred schools. They figured that in general the best people taught by the best professors will come from those schools. They didn’t refuse people from other schools, but they didn’t actively recruit there either.
    You need to want to do the jobs you get qualified for with an advanced degree. I’ve never regretted getting my PhD, and I use the skills I learned while getting it (not stuff you can read in a book) all the time. Plus, it gets me entry into the network of people doing stuff I want to do. I got a free ride, but the delay in earning was a real cost, but one that has been paid back multiple times since. But the increase in my career satisfaction is far more important.

  37. This entire thread is going into lunacy, and frankly against everything Nick teaches. It has boiled into one school over another (I do not understand how holding bias towards one school over another is even legal if both are accredited. What the hell happened to a person’s individual record?) You aren’t hiring the school you are hiring the person (and I can tell you straight out I have a number of close personal friends who graduated from Ivy League schools who cannot even wipe their own asses.)

    What I see taking place in these idiotic HR departments, especially during this economy, is the finding of every excuse under the sun NOT to interview someone. What is really going on? I question during these times if some have put aside qualified candidates to push their friends and family who may be out of work. The entire scenario is sheer insanity.

    The questions that fly around today. Do I get a Masters? Do I not get a Masters? Is it worth it? What do I do? These are not the questions of true top executives. Frankly, from a hiring point of view, any one person, who needs another to tell them what they should get, or should not get is NOT qualified for a high level position. Moreover, anyone qualifying someone based on a perceived notion of an institution, and not the individual record would themselves certainly NOT be hired by me.

  38. @ Chris Walker
    “…older workers… can’t/won’t/don’t learn anything new.”

    I’ve been learning new stuff continuously over the last 47 years. In 2000, a new job required learning a lot. In a matter months I had the system running smoothly and had free time on my hands.

    Suggested they have me do some programming on new systems, but they declined, figured they’re hire folks right out of school, then send them off for training. These kids took 6-12 months (and thousands of $) to come up to speed and start being productive. If they’d given the work to me, I’d have needed a lot less training and been productive in a couple of months.

    The truth of the situation is not important. What matters is management’s perception of reality. But then, that’s the advantage of being a boss or an umpire – you don’t have to make the right calls.

  39. “In looking for someone to hire, you look for three things: integrity, intelligence, and energy. But the most important is integrity, because if they don’t have that the other qualities, intelligence and energy, are going to kill you.”

    “It’s hard to teach a young dog new tricks.”

    Warren Buffett as quoted in “The Tao of Warren Buffett.”

  40. I probably sit in the “too many degrees category”. BS, MS, and PhD in Engineering, and most recently an MBA. But you know what, I wouldn’t change a thing. I didn’t get any of these degrees because of a thought that I would make more money because I got the degrees. I got the degrees because there was something I wanted to learn. Have they caused me to make more money? Probably not. However, at the end of the day this has put me in a good place career-wise both for now and (I think) for the future. Is it ideal? Of course not. There are no completely ideal places. It’s all about pluses and minuses. For me, the pluses created by my education outweigh the minuses.

    Similarly on career opportunities, I never looked at them as another way to move up the proverbial ladder. I wanted interesting, varied experiences. Sometimes I sought them out. Sometimes they sought me out. Often, I rejected them even when they could have caused me to “move-up” more quickly. At the end of the day, having good experiences won out for me. At the end of the day, it also won out career-wise.

    There have been several comments in this thread on getting degrees from the “right” school. You know, if anyone told me that they only hire/promote people from a particular set of schools, that would pretty much tell me it was a place I didn’t want to be. Even if it was from my school. All of my degrees are from very good schools, but none are considered the top elite schools. Could I have gone to a top elite school? Yes. Would I go back and change my decisions? Absolutely not. Everywhere I went, I pulled everything I could out of the experience.

    There is no one answer as far as whether more degrees are worthwhile or not. It is a decision that differs from individual to individual. Focusing too much on the pure $ misses the point and it isn’t my metric for success. For me, it is about two things. Am I happy and am I making a difference.

    Could I have made more money if I had not gotten all of those degrees? Probably.

  41. I guess job seekers really need to talk to the HR departments and see what kind of experience and degrees the people currently doing the job they are seeking have. If someone can figure out who will be involved in hiring that is not in the HR dept it would be wise to contact them and find out what they think. I know this may be impossible.

    If a person is changing careers a Masters degree may be necessary; either that or another BS degree… I believe in many fields the Masters is easier to get and can be done more quickly.

    But will someone make more money with the Masters? Evidently there is no set answer to that. It depends partly on what field you are in and the university involved. Also this seems to vary quite a bit from one location in the US compared to another location.

    Some corps have career ladders set up for various job titles… so if those are available they should offer some help.

    But back to my previous though… someone with a BS and a few years experience in the field the career changer is seeking… may make more money. Part of this relates to the career changers previous jobs and experience. Are they valued or not?

    It may be hard to gauge the prestige level of a degree from a top level university.(Harvard) Maybe these people start out making more money but other people may catch up with them eventually. The people who catch up may take risks… job duties… and relocations to undesirable locations the Harvard grads don’t need to.

    Many people do make more money with a MS but these are people in medical/scientific/IT careers.

    Also the size of the businesses people work at is a key factor. Some large corps are inflexible about degree requirements…. even if other employees doing the job don’t all have MS degrees. In a certain year all new hires are required to have a Masters.

    Some interviewers care if you have a Masters others don’t. I do believe that the training and experience a person has typically is more important than that. But if everyone applying for the job you want has a MS and you don’t will you even be interviewed? The answer seems elusive too.

    It depends on many factors as mentioned above… also if the person doing the interviewing/hiring is 10 to 15 years or more younger than the job seeker that impacts the whole process. From what I have read many of these younger people are guilty of age discrimination… (but I am not talking about anything that involves taking legal action)

    The recent Supreme Court decision about a pattern of age discrimination is not good. AARP and other groups are trying to find a way to change this.

  42. @rkc: Getting education to learn. Taking joobs to do interesting work. Choosing who and what you want to be associated with. Not worrying too much about the money.

    You sound like one very happy person. My highest compliments.

  43. One of the reasons I fell into clinical depression after losing my job of 30 years was the shift to a degree requirement for mid-management positions. Even though I had completed 3 years of college and was headed toward the “basket weaving degree” (it was called Media Arts back then), I was working for a company more concerned with doing the work than degrees trailing behind a name.

    Looking more important than the work was something the company called “playing presidents”.

    In the course of those 30 years, I would from time to time test the job waters, getting good job offers without a degree. Never once did my self esteem waiver for lack of a degree.

    For some bizarre reason, after being responsible for a 60,000 sq ft distribution center employing a couple of dozen people and pushing $50 million a year, I didn’t feel capable to slap two pieces of bread together without a college degree.

    It took months of medication and therapy to regain basic confidence, and nearly a year before I could approach positions on my level again. But it was only about 48 hours after this posting that I was finally able to lay the degree demon to rest.

    I’m not a talkative guy, so I attend a weekly networking class to work on that. This week’s session went into overtime, and the class spilled out into the hallway as the next class started rolling into the room. I found myself talking with a guy whom I had developed a rapport with over the weeks.

    What he told me while we were talking was beyond belief, but makes sense in the PCMS (Prevailing Corporate Mind Set) of today’s world.

    One of his friends had received her MBA totally at her corporation’s expense–every penny.

    Did they hesitate to cut her loose? Of course not!

    Now I’m not the sharpest tool in the box, but if I’m going to spend 100K to educate someone, I’d rather try to keep them around. They might come in handy for, say, when you need brainpower.

    Once I had this insight into the corporate mind, I knew that my lack of a degree was inconsequential for my work search. Some websites might kick me out, but I just eliminate those companies from my serious search.

    I am still very much in recovery mode from my depression, and still have many minor demons to slay, but the biggest one–the Degree Demon–just instantly evaporated with that story.

    I still love learning, read incessantly, and respect many institutions of higher learning.

    But when a prospective employer asks why I don’t have a degree, I just reply that I’ve been too busy creating a new school of thought.

    Be seeing you.

  44. As long as employers use degrees as hiring criteria (however silly or irrelevant), workers will strive to meet that requirement. Especially now where machines instead of people screen applicants. Even if you get in front of a hiring manager by other means, company policies can still interfere. I’ve actually been kicked out of interviews that otherwise seemed to be going well after it became known I had no degree.

    As Don Harkness noted, even in the relatively liberal tech field, degrees have gone from being optional to pretty much mandatory. So I went back to get my BS mid-career, in the field I was already working in. And for the same reason I’m working on an MS, again in the same field. Yes, I do expect it to give me an advantage in hiring, although not careerwise within any particular company. I view it as career insurance.

    For as Don also noted, once beyond entry level, your goodwill within a company should outweigh your education. But that goodwill won’t transfer to another company. Absent a guarantee you won’t ever have to change companies, that credential could be the kicker needed to get you into another, as Don’s last sentence clearly implies.

  45. @Bewildered: Isn’t it interesting that the “good will” (translation: credibility) you build up in one company doesn’t transfer to another company? And yet, the second company will undoubtedly request your salary from the first company, so that it may limit your job offer to the salary you “built up” at the old company. One factor doesn’t carry over; another does. It’s called being taken advantage of.

  46. Nick C. said: “Isn’t it interesting that the “good will” (translation: credibility) you build up in one company doesn’t transfer to another company? And yet, the second company will undoubtedly request your salary from the first company, so that it may limit your job offer to the salary you “built up” at the old company.”

    True, and it’s like being asked to pay for dinner based upon the cost of your last meal. “I went to McDonald’s for lunch. They had a dollar menu. Must be my lucky day.” ;-)

    But Nick, in professional sports, it’s a different ballgame. Pun intended. There, you can be a mercenary, free agent, freelancer or whatever one wishes to call it. Athletes take the goodwill you discussed from one club and transfer it to another. Seamlessly in most cases. They usually negotiate a generous pay raise. Nobody calls them disloyal or job hoppers. Few care what school they went to or if they even finished college. Salary history? Did the Washington Nationals (American baseball team) figure out what to pay Steven Strasburg (pitcher/bowler) based upon his non-existent salary history coming out of college?

    We don’t take the common sense used in sports and translate it to other work environments.

  47. To Depressed in Midwest:

    I can sympathize with your situation… worked 21 years, 9 months and some days in a glass factory. Moved up to good pay, 5 weeks paid vacation. Rotated in/out of in-the AC job in office, to floor job inspecting product, trouble-shooting line. Then, company got taken over on stock market and a good fortune 500 co went to the highest bidder…and the plant was closed after 75 years in production. I went back to get MS and happily have a new, more satisfying career in vocational rehabilitation (required a MS;MA). Sometimes, we just have to let go and do what it takes to move on and life will go on. However, it is very, very difficult to see the light at end of the tunnel, but as a wise professor told me, “it is not the outcome but the process of life that makes or breaks us, enjoy the trip” and I am enjoying the trip despite the pain.


  48. I’m going to shift direction back toward the original question relative to the value of degrees, particularly advanced degrees. Do they open doors or help you progress? Hopefully all the comments herein haven’t distressed those who have invested in degrees. It shouldn’t because the message to me has been if YOU want one, If YOU gain something you want, go for it. But it can help you open a door to a company or new company too, if you understand and leverage how large companies recruit grads. I’m sure you’re thinking, sure via career days. Right, that’s the predominant route, but you need to understand the context behind that.
    The hiring coin of exchange inside structured companies is a hiring requisition, a “req”. These are backed up by your budget, part of which supports salaries, but more relevant headcount. No budgeted headcount, no hiring. And that’s not totally absolute either via networking. Think of this routine as an operational budget, i.e. a bucket of money.
    However file this under nice to know, in major corporations they sustain College Recruitment Programs, funded by a separate corporate budget and bucket of money. It’s managed by HR, like other recruitment, but by a person(s) who’s sole interest in bringing new grads into the corporation per plans. The degree & detail to which college recruiting is managed varies. In some scenarios units are required to commit to a certain #, in some places it’s more loosely managed.
    This can work to your advantage as it’s strictly aimed at new grads. The advantage is when your resume hits the desk of a hiring manager who has committed to hire X grads, (or it can be so forceful as they MUST hire X grads)that a freshly minted MS of someone who got their advanced degree after 10 years experience is still a “new grad” by all the rules of engagement. Now the hiring manager has a choice of someone who’s got great grades with almost no experience vs someone who’s a new grad with 10 years experience. It’s beyond a no brainer, it’s a golden gift. Because it has no effect on your budgeted headcount, the headcount is covered by a different budget & has no meaningful impact on the one watched like a hawk, your operational budget. Free funny money
    Nick noted that a grad needs to research the company. One thing the writer would want to find out is about their college recruitment program and WHO runs it. If you missed that companies visit on career day, or they didn’t show up, too bad, but not unrecoverable. Again, that HR person’s mission in life is to bring X # of new grads aboard, meaning get the hiring managers to get with the program. Experienced people returning for advanced education are a gift, an easy sell. All you have to do is get into that stream. And they’ll work at your behest.
    As a manager I viewed these grads as golden, because they had almost no learning curve.
    so again it all comes back to research, and related networking. Of course, an obvious alternative to networking with the HR point person is hiring managers, but the former is better, they will help you sell yourself to all of the managers.

  49. According to the Wall Street Journal, “U.S. companies largely favor graduates of big state universities over Ivy League and other elite liberal-arts schools when hiring to fill entry-level jobs, a Wall Street Journal survey found.

    In the study—which surveyed 479 of the largest public and private companies, nonprofits and government agencies—Pennsylvania State University, Texas A&M University and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign ranked as top picks for graduates best prepared and most able to succeed.

    Of the top 25 schools as rated by these employers, 19 were public, one was Ivy League (Cornell University) and the rest were private, including Carnegie Mellon and University of Notre Dame.”

    Full link:

  50. @Steve Amoia: maybe companies don’t want folks that are too smart for their own good (swelled head syndrome)? Or perhaps too smart for the company!

  51. to Linda Fox

    I’m more than a day late and a dollar short, but thank you for the encouragement.

    As of September 20, I’m employed entry-level while I figure out what I want to be when I grow up. After being out of work for a year and a half, the hands-on skills in nearly four decades of warehousing are coming back to me.

    It’s a rough and tumble world for a guy pushing sixty, but I’m starting to feel useful again.

    As I go through my piles of papers in my home office, I’m amazed at what I was paying attention to in the early 70’s. Somewhere in this town, someone needs those skills, degree or not.

    Take care, and thanks again.

  52. to Unemployed & Clinically etc

    As I mentioned before at pushing 60 you’re just a kid with a lot of gratifying work life ahead of you. Just think of it as hitting the reset button, as you said figuring out what you want to be when you grow up and work you’re way to where you get satisfaction.
    In my travels after my last layoff from hi tech America and unemployment benefits, I did a stint as a cashier at Home Depot. This was from 6 figure base to 8.90 cents per hour, part time at 1st.
    the money wasn’t an issue of course. But the sheer good vibes of doing something ,having somewhere to go, being challenged was a good attitude and confidence boost.
    From that I sustained a renewed job search with the underlying feeling..hey I’m working so I have the luxury of assessing the potential employer and presenting myself as I wanted …old but with knowhow, if you don’t want to buy, no problem, but likewise I may not want to buy you.
    You’ll get there and perhaps change that name to re-energized in the mid west. Don

  53. Thank you very much, Don.

    Last week, I did start hitting my stride again.

    And yes, I do understand the value of being able to assess future employers a little more carefully now that some funds are rolling in.

    Take care.

    UCD, soon to be REM

  54. For most people doing a masters makes a difference in their carriers but it depends a lot on who you work for and how much your employer values you as part of the team.