Written by: Thomas Broderick
Published: August 28, 2020
Many recent college graduates and nontraditional learners return to school to earn a master's degree. Unlike a typical undergraduate degree that requires general education courses, a master's degree conveys specialized knowledge and skills relating to one academic subject. Although a financial investment, a master's degree can qualify graduates for management-level positions.
The average master's degree takes full-time learners 1.5-2 years to complete. Part-time learners may need three or more years to earn a degree. Programs that include additional graduation requirements, such as action research or a thesis, may take longer than two years. Many of the best master's programs offer an accelerated option for learners who do not have other responsibilities.
One reason professionals earn a master's degree involves increased salary potential. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average worker with a master's degree earns approximately $250 more per week than a worker with a bachelor's degree. Professionals with a master's degree also enjoy a lower unemployment rate.
The most valuable master's degrees have become more popular over the past few years, especially with members of racial or cultural minorities. This popularity stems from the growth of online learning, which provides tremendous flexibility for working students.
Most Valuable Master's Degrees
The following list introduces the 15 best master's degrees. Each degree features a significant return on investment, as graduates can expect to earn a lucrative salary after gaining some experience. Most degrees relate to a career field that the BLS projects to grow significantly between 2018 and 2028. As a result, learners can expect a strong job market as they near graduation.
In addition to median salary and job outlook, the ranking also includes information about possible career paths. The BLS offers in-depth information about these careers, making it an excellent resource for job seekers.
Many of the following most valuable master's degrees include links that lead to further information about specific universities and tuition costs. Keep in mind that tuition rates and other details may have changed recently.
1. Information Systems
The best master's degrees in information systems feature a customizable curriculum that confers an MBA but emphasizes industry-leading business intelligence software. On the job, computer and information systems managers determine their employer's computer needs, ensure network security, and direct other IT professionals. They also work with technology vendors to attain the best price. Additionally, they stay current on the latest technology trends by performing original research and networking with peers.
Median Salary: $146,360
Job Outlook, 2018-28: 11%
Possible Jobs: Information Technology (IT) manager, software engineer, systems analyst
2. Petroleum Engineering
Petroleum engineers with one of the best master's degrees play a significant role in extracting oil and natural gas from deposits deep below the earth. Typical job duties include surveying drilling sites, creating plans for drilling operations, and ensuring other workers' safety. They also collaborate with geoscientists to discover potential drilling obstacles and solutions. These professionals often specialize. Drilling engineers oversee the drilling process and limit drilling's environmental impact, while production engineers run active wells.
Median Salary: $137,720
Job Outlook, 2018-28: 3%
Possible Jobs: Petroleum geologist, production engineer, reservoir engineer
The best master's programs in marketing prepare graduates for different career paths in the marketing field. Advertising, promotions, and marketing managers develop promotional campaigns, design website layouts, and work one-on-one with clients to provide marketing advice. These managers strive to attract customers for their clients' goods or services by leading teams and studying market trends. Promotion managers use a similar skill set to design effective physical and digital advertising.
Median Salary: $135,900
Job Outlook, 2018-28: 8%
Possible Jobs: Marketing manager, advertising/promotions manager, creative director
The best finance graduate degrees convey knowledge and skills that students need to succeed as finance directors, finance managers, or financial analysts. These professionals help their employers increase profits by researching financial performance, supervising employees' work, and analyzing financial trends. Other job responsibilities include giving reports to company executives and staying current on regulations and laws that affect their company's financial health. Additionally, financial professionals can specialize in risk management, insurance, or credit markets.
Median Salary: $129,890
Job Outlook, 2018-28: 16%
Possible Jobs: Finance director, finance manager, financial analyst
5. Political Science
Professionals with a master's degree in political science can select from career paths in politics, local government, and education. No matter their specific job title, they analyze political trends, make forecasts, and produce original research. Some political scientists start a career in academia, instructing students while writing scholarly articles and books. Others use their expertise to advise candidates running for a local, state, or federal office. Additionally, they can work for private companies and organizations that donate to political campaigns and interest groups.
Median Salary: $122,220
Job Outlook, 2018-28: 5%
Possible Jobs: City manager, lobbyist, postsecondary teacher
6. Nurse Anesthesia
Nurse anesthetists assist other medical professionals when patients undergo anesthesia during a surgery or other procedure. Before a procedure, they talk with patients and their families concerning medications, allergies, and other pertinent medical information. During the procedure, they administer anesthesia and closely monitor patients' vital signs. Doing so allows them to adjust the amount of anesthesia medication so that patients do not wake up or experience pain.
Median Salary: $115,800
Job Outlook, 2018-28: 26%
Possible Jobs: Nurse anesthetist
7. Physician Assistant Studies
The best master's degrees for aspiring physician assistants prepare professionals to work alongside physicians and provide medical care to underserved communities. Like nurse practitioners, they can diagnose illnesses and prescribe appropriate medications. Other duties include taking a patient's medical history, giving vaccinations, and keeping current with best practices by completing continuing education courses. Each state regulates physician assistants' specific duties and whether a physician must supervise them.
Median Salary: $112,260
Job Outlook, 2018-28: 31%
Possible Jobs: Physician assistant
8. Computer Science
One of the most valuable master's degrees, computer science trains learners for careers as computer and information research scientists or software developers. Research scientists solve computing problems, develop and modify coding languages, and perform experiments to test new software. Like academics, they publish their findings in professional journals. Software developers work with clients to create and update software. The job requires workers to collaborate with other developers to design new features and troubleshoot problems.
Median Salary: $105,590
Job Outlook, 2018-28: 21%
Possible Jobs: Computer and information research scientist, software developer
Individuals with a top graduate degree in economics can pursue a career as an economist, data analyst, or financial analyst. These professionals use mathematics skills and original research to identify economic trends and make predictions. They work in both the private and public sectors, advising elected officials and top executives. Economists who specialize in a topic such as healthcare, business, or logistics can become operations research analysts. These analysts study a client's financial records and interview workers to make proposals for long-term growth.
Median Salary: $105,020
Job Outlook, 2018-28: 8%
Possible Jobs: Economist, data analyst, financial analyst
10. Healthcare Administration
Professionals who possess one of the best graduate degrees in healthcare administration can positively impact patient outcomes. They strive to improve efficiency, maintain safety standards, and train staff. Many managers have a background in medicine, allowing them to work with doctors, nurses, and other colleagues effectively. Their success depends on keeping current with the latest laws and regulations that affect the medical field.
Median Salary: $100,980
Job Outlook, 2018-28: 18%
Possible Jobs: Healthcare administrator, executive director, chief nursing officer
Mathematicians use their expertise to conduct research and instruct students and clients. Depending on their specific job title, they can create accurate surveys, advise top executives, and collaborate with experts in other industries to solve problems. Typical career fields for mathematicians include government, healthcare, and academia. The latter allows professionals to contribute to the mathematics field while instructing undergraduate and graduate students. Additionally, in the research and development field, mathematicians work alongside designers and engineers to make safer products.
Median Salary: $92,030
Job Outlook, 2018-28: 30%
Possible Jobs: Mathematician, software engineer, statistician
12. Physical Therapy
When people become ill or suffer a physical injury, they may need a physical therapist to regain mobility and independence. In a clinical or home setting, physical therapists review patients' medical history, create a personalized care plan, and lead patients in exercises they can later perform on their own or with the help of a family member. They collaborate with other medical professionals, such as patients' primary care physicians, to develop the best care plan.
Median Salary: $89,440
Job Outlook, 2018-28: 22%
Possible Jobs: Physical therapist
13. Occupational Therapy
Like physical therapists, occupational therapists help patients regain mobility and independence. However, the two professions differ in that occupational therapists focus on daily tasks that include feeding, dressing, and bathing. In addition to helping patients master these skills, occupational therapists visit patients' homes and workplaces to identify obstacles and suggest solutions that can increase patients' quality of life. Additionally, they can refer patients to other medical professionals who can offer additional services.
Median Salary: $84,950
Job Outlook, 2018-28: 18%
Possible Jobs: Occupational therapist
14. Civil Engineering
Construction projects of all types rely on civil engineers with a master's degree. These engineers develop construction plans that involve performing environmental surveys, attaining proper permits, and selecting appropriate construction materials. They also make proposals to local, state, and federal governments and take questions from elected officials and the public. Civil engineers can specialize in areas such as construction, transportation, and geotechnical. The latter refers to expertise concerning a build site's geological conditions.
Median Salary: $87,060
Job Outlook, 2018-28: 6%
Possible Jobs: Civil engineer, structural engineer, project manager
15. Educational Leadership/Educational Administration
The best master's degrees for educational leadership/educational administration instill in-demand skills that administrators need to manage a college or university. Postsecondary education administrators, a field that encompasses deans and admissions administrators, make decisions that impact their school's functioning. Depending on their job title, they may decide which applicants to admit, grant tenure to professors, and ensure that learners meet graduation requirements. Finally, many professionals in educational leadership/educational administration possess teaching experience at the postsecondary level.
Median Salary: $95,410
Job Outlook, 2018-28: 7%
Possible Jobs: Postsecondary education administrator, dean, admissions administrator
Financial Aid for Master's Degree Students
Students earning one of the most valuable master's degrees can avoid going into debt by pursuing university fellowships and grants. The first step involves submitting FAFSA results. The FAFSA asks multiple financial questions to determine how much students can afford to spend on tuition in the coming academic year. If tuition exceeds the FAFSA result, learners may qualify for federal grants. Students do not need to repay grants.
Many universities also award need-based grants to graduate students who submit FAFSA results. These grants may pose other application requirements, such as possessing a strong undergraduate GPA. Other university financial aid opportunities can include fellowships, which award funding to graduate students but do not ask them to teach undergraduates or participate in a professor's research project. Fellowship application requirements vary by university.
Graduate students who study part time or online may continue working while attending school. This allows them to avoid or reduce debt, improving their financial situation.
Scholarships for Master's Degree Students
The best master's degrees can cost tens of thousands of dollars. As a result, degree-seekers should research and apply for scholarships. The five awards below represent a mix of opportunities most learners can apply for and those that restrict applicants to students earning a specific degree. Use the embedded links to learn more about each scholarship and the latest information about its award amount and application requirements.
ACMPE National Scholarships
Who Can Apply: Medical Group Management Associate members earning an undergraduate or graduate degree in a healthcare subject can apply. Some scholarships also have residency and experience requirements. Awards do not renew.
Against the Grain Groundbreaker Leadership Scholarship
Who Can Apply: Undergraduate and graduate students with at least 25% Asian ancestry can apply. Applicants need a minimum 3.5 GPA and submit a brief video detailing their academic history.
AOTF Scholarship ProgramWho Can Apply: The AOTF Scholarship Program awards funding to graduate students preparing for a career in occupational therapy. Some scholarships have a residency requirement. Applicants must submit a 500-word essay and two recommendation letters.
Davis-Putter Scholarship Fund
Who Can Apply: U.S. undergraduate and graduate students who volunteer or work for an organization that promotes progressive social change may apply. Application materials include academic transcripts and two professional references.
Amount: Up to $5,000
Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans
Who Can Apply: Both naturalized Americans and their children ages 30 and younger can apply for this award. Applicants must also study full time at the graduate level.
Amount: Up to $90,000