Master's degrees don't mean more job offers

An expert's advice on when to stop at a bachelor's

Queen's University (Jessica Darmanin)

If you think the letters M.A. will help your resumé get picked out of the pile when applying for your first post-university job, you may be mistaken.

Newly-released data from the National Household Survey (the replacement for the Census) show that Canadians aged 25 to 44 with master’s degrees had higher unemployment in 2011, at 5.7 per cent, than those with only bachelor’s degrees (4.8 per cent). Meanwhile, a recent report by the Certified General Accountants Association of Canada showed a gap as high as four points in unemployment rates between those with bachelor’s degrees and those with graduate degrees.

As counter-intuitive as it may seem that those with more schooling have higher unemployment, it’s unsurprising to Lauren Friese. The founder of Talent Egg, a company that helps students and graduates launch their careers, has long suspected that most master’s programs (particularly arts and social sciences) not only fail to improve job prospects, but may indeed hurt them.

Still, the message isn’t getting through. A 2012 survey of 15,000 Canadian students in their final year of bachelor’s degrees showed 49 per cent planned on more schooling.

Friese says the problem is a disconnect between the student’s perspective and the employer’s.

Students who earn master’s degrees feel that, because they’ve invested more time in education, they should be rewarded with higher starting salaries and more challenging work.

“The problem,” she says, “is that employers see those with master’s degrees as no more qualified, because they usually have no work experience.” The big bank or consultancy, she says, won’t be any more likely to hire an M.A. in English than a Bachelor of Arts in English for an entry-level job.

In fact, there may even be a stigma against the master’s graduate among employers who don’t want to deal with the master’s graduate’s bloated expectations about pay and responsibilities.

That’s not to say master’s degrees aren’t worthwhile. Friese has an M.A. in economic history from the London School of Economics, a university she chose partly for the brand name. She also had modest expectations. “I never thought that I was going to be an economic historian,” she says. On top of that, she worked in finance during her degree, so she had job experience at graduation.

For those considering a master’s degree, Friese has advice. “Be realistic about whether you’re going into a program to build specific skills for a career or if you’re going in for a learning experience,” she says. “If you’re looking for a learning experience and can afford just a learning experience, there’s nothing wrong with that.” If you’re on the fence, she says, take a job and start building a career. “A master’s degree can be rewarding,” she adds, “but it’s not career prep.”

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.