Mastering the Job Market

In highly educated Northern Virginia, a master’s degree might turn out to be the new bachelor’s

In highly educated Northern Virginia, a master’s degree might turn out to be the new bachelor’s

By Chase Johnson

Despite preliminary signs indicating that the economy may finally be starting to turn around, anyone looking for work in today’s job market could attest that it’s nowhere near full health.

Unemployment in the United States is at its highest level in more than 30 years, and with so many job-seekers flooding job fairs and resume piles, many career-minded hunters are searching for any way possible to distinguish themselves. For many, the easiest way to do that is going back to school to earn a master’s degree.

As a region, Northern Virginia is lucky in that, because it is so close to Washington, D.C., its residents are able to compete for a wide variety of jobs with the federal government, government contractors and lobbying firms, among other places. But even though there are many possibilities, competition for these jobs is still very high.

The reason, for the most part, is that Northern Virginians are smart cookies. The region is one of the most educated in the country, boasting 60 percent of residents holding bachelor’s degrees, and 30 percent holding master’s degrees. Nationally, those numbers are drastically lower: Only 24 percent of Americans hold bachelor’s degrees, while 9 percent hold graduate degrees.

“Given the level of education we see in Northern Virginia, you almost have to have a master’s degree to be competitive,” says Emily Digiovanni, Virginia state vice president for the University of Phoenix.

At the same time, Northern Virginians are reaping monetary benefits. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s last American Community Survey in 2007, Northern Virginia boasts six of the country’s 15 most affluent counties. Loudoun County ranked first with a median income of $107,207, followed by second place Fairfax County at $105,241. Arlington, Stafford, Prince William and Fauquier round out the region’s impressive showing.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics found in 2008 that individuals holding a master’s degree made an average of $10,000 more annually than someone with a bachelor’s degree, although that number can vary depending on the field of study. For example, according to University of Mary Washington Business School director Dr. Alan Heffner, Master of Business Administration students often make an additional $10,400 to $15,600 per year.

It makes sense that more educated applicants demand higher salaries, and over the course of a lifetime, it really adds up—starting from hundreds of thousands of dollars and possibly more than $1 million more than someone holding just an undergraduate degree.

While additional income is welcome, one has to be hired before he or she can start earning a dime.

Therein lies the more immediate benefit of postgraduate education. Job applicants holding a master’s degree can claim a more specialized knowledge base and a better command of essential skills, a fact that often allows a candidate to distinguish himself from the pack.

“Often, one of the first cuts an employer will make when looking to hire a candidate from a large pool of applicants is based on education,” says Kathleen Burke, dean of the College of Professional Studies at George Washington University.

Which isn’t to say that candidates with just bachelor’s degrees are never considered for positions that do not require a master’s—but it does force them to find other ways to distinguish their candidacies.

The benefit of a master’s doesn’t stop there. According to Dr. Dan Driscoll, director of the University of Virginia’s Northern Virginia Center in Falls Church, people with master’s degrees are less likely to be laid off.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics supports Driscoll’s claim. Nationally, the unemployment rate of individuals with a master’s degree is slightly more than half of 1 percent lower than the overall unemployment rate.

University representatives do not seem to think the state of the economy has increased or decreased the value of a master’s.

“The value of a master’s degree is pretty clear, and I don’t think that’s going to change when the economy does bounce back,” Burke says.

Many do say, however, that the state of the economy has had an effect on the student bodies. For example, more students have decided to jump directly to graduate school fresh from earning their bachelor’s degrees in an effort to ride out the economic downturn. Previously, students pursuing master’s were in their early thirties, and spent a number of years in the workforce before applying to their programs.

Katherine Stahl, the director of the Career Center at American University, cautions against undergraduate students making rash decisions when taking their next step.

“I usually sit down with a lot of our undergraduate students to get a feel for their decision-making process,” she says. “If the student is passionate about a subject, they are sure this is the path they want to pursue, and they understand the costs and benefits, then I think graduate school is a good idea.

“But I don’t think students should go immediately simply to wait for the job market to improve. Many graduate schools like to see professional experience on a prospective student’s resume, and that experience can be crucial in helping the student determine what path they should take in their graduate studies,” Stahl adds.

“The cost of the degree remains the same whenever you earn it,” she adds. “Students shouldn’t rush into a program.”

At many schools, the economy has also affected the number of students who participated in the workforce for a number of years and found themselves unhappy with their career path and ready for an about-face.

“People are a little hesitant to give up their jobs right now,” Digiovanni says. “They’re not sure that there will be one waiting for them when they finish their degree.”

While this fact has dissuaded some, most universities have placement programs to help their graduates find work to which they can apply their skill sets and educations.

Placement programs at area schools vary in formality. Some of the larger universities attract scouts representing corporations, government agencies or contractors; others, like U.Va.’s Northern Virginia Center and University of Phoenix, rely more on helping students develop close-knit relationships with professors and fellow students.

Even at the larger colleges and universities, bonding with mentors is highly encouraged, as in many cases the professors with whom students work most closely will often be able to provide the best contacts and references once students begin their job search.

Meanwhile, though numbers have dropped slightly among those pursuing a completely new career path, many area universities have seen an uptick in professionals who have come back to earn a master’s in order to solidify their current career, either in hopes of earning a promotion or even to make sure they are keeping up with the current crop of job applicants.

“We have a very large population of students who work during the day and then take courses on weekday evenings,” George Mason University associate provost for graduate education Michelle Marks says. “Some of them are here earning a master’s degree; others are taking courses toward a certificate program.”

In fact, certificate programs are one of the fastest-growing trends in postgraduate education, according to Burke.

“In the next 10 years, one of the biggest trends we’re going to see is a lot more people earning certificates,” she says. “They’re highly specific, so companies often send employees to get additional training in a given area, but they’re also stackable, which means that someone who earns a certificate from GW can come back later if they are accepted into a master’s program and apply any applicable certificate credits toward their master’s.”

Most schools in the area employ similar practices with their certificate programs.

Driscoll also suggests that certificate programs are a good place to start for people who have been giving thought to returning to school, but are unsure if they can handle the workload or if they are truly interested in pursuing an area of study.

“I think people can get a very good idea of the expectations that we have for our students by enrolling in a certificate program,” he says. “I think most people understand that it will be challenging, but it can also be very fulfilling, and once they realize that, they become more comfortable with the idea of getting the full degree.”

As more and more high school graduates make the transition to two-year and four-year college educations, the emphasis on graduate degrees also seems to be increasing.

“In the 1970s, having a bachelor’s degree was a big deal,” Driscoll says. “Nowadays, it’s become much more the norm to go to college out of high school.”

It is an encouraging trend, and one that is motivating many to return to school. Meanwhile, universities are racing to meet the new levels of demand. Many have developed online course programs, or “distance learning” programs.

Some schools, like University of Phoenix, offer degree programs that are taught fully online, and can be taken synchronously, meaning that students follow with a professor in real time, or asynchronously, meaning lectures and course materials are uploaded and students can schedule them in when it is most convenient for them.

GW offers online courses that require minimal face-to-face interaction, which can usually be satisfied in one or two trips to campus over the course of the program.

Still others, such as Mary Washington, offer online courses. But, students cannot earn an entire degree online—they still require substantial in-class instruction.

As time goes by, that is likely to change.

“We’d certainly like to progress further in that area,” Heffner says. “We’re definitely working on it.”

The effort to increase universities’ online presence is perpetual—professors are constantly developing new online courses or adapting their in-class courses for online. As more and more individuals become interested in earning their master’s, the ability of universities to accommodate more students will be at a premium.

Online courses also allow students interested in less popular areas of study more leeway to choose from which university they’d like to earn their degree.

For example, if a student in California were interested in a well-respected program at one of the Metro-D.C. area’s many universities, offering that program online allows that student to matriculate without having to relocate cross-country, which in the past could have been too cost-prohibitive.

The online trend seems to have boundless potential—more and more programs will continue to launch until the demand is met.

Complementing that unlimited potential are the as-of-yet-undefined areas of study that students are creating every year with the help of university mentors.

“We can’t possibly imagine all the new places that tomorrow’s students will take us,” William and Mary vice provost for research and graduate professional studies Dennis Manos says.

William and Mary is currently in the midst of constructing a massive new Integrated Science Center to house state-of-the-art laboratories. Manos says he hopes it will attract curious students who have ideas about how to combine elements of different fields of study in order to trailblaze new paths.

“Not that long ago,” Manos says, “neuroscience didn’t really exist. But scientists took elements of biology, chemistry, psychology and put them together to better understand how our brain works. That’s the sort of thing that we encourage our students to do. You never know what the next breakthrough will be.”

Of course, not everyone will finish a master’s degree having created a new field of the magnitude of neuroscience. But Manos stresses that knowledge is cumulative, meaning that big discoveries don’t happen without lots of little discoveries before it; new theories aren’t developed without scores of predecessors’ observations.

No two university or master’s programs are alike. Some schools will stick to more traditional methods while others seek to be more cutting-edge.

Burke echoes the enthusiasm for the increasing popularity of postgraduate education.

“It’s exciting see the growth that we have,” she says. “I only hope it continues.”

Advice for Career Change

Know What You Want
Have a good idea of why you want to pursue additional education, whether it be to advance in your current workplace or to change your career path altogether. Don’t feel as though you need to have a specific job lined up for when you finish your degree, but it’s good to have an idea of where you want to go after you finish.

Do Your Research
One of the first things any person seeking a postgraduate degree should consider is the cost. Unless you are able to earn a scholarship to cover part or all of the cost, be prepared to address the finances of paying for graduate school in addition to other living expenses. Student loans can help ease the burden at first, but many leave school with their degree and a mountain of debt.

One should also have an understanding of the job market specific to their field of study. Some schools have placement programs to help their alumni find employment following graduation. Almost all have formal or informal networking systems set up to allow students to make contact with individuals in their field who can give advice and write recommendations.

Don’t Be Afraid
For many people, pursuing a master’s degree means taking a risk, both professionally and financially. Don’t let that dissuade you. Discuss your concerns with a representative of a university; they are surprisingly frank and objective sources and can help you hone your plans and recognize the risks and benefits.

Consider Certificate Programs
An up-and-coming trend of which potential postgraduate students should be aware. Certificate programs are typically a bundle of credits that falls short of a master’s degree, but is highly specific in its scope.

More and more, certificate programs are being utilized as starter programs, giving a student an idea of the workload associated with a graduate-level course. Because the credits earned in a certificate program can also be counted to a master’s degree later on, many universities recommend certificate programs for individuals who are unsure if they can handle the workload of a master’s degree.

Scheduling Your Master’s Classes

Across the board, graduate course scheduling varies depending on the school and the field in question. By and large, most courses occur in the evening on weeknights, as many master’s students pursue their degrees while working full-time.

Schools with many students just finishing an undergraduate degree may offer classes in a traditional weekday schedule. Education programs often begin classes after the students have left their posts as teachers and teachers’ aides.

Other programs offer classes on weekends to accommodate those who work nights or are otherwise unavailable.

And finally, there are some programs that offer immersion courses that meet from 9 to 5 every day for a week or two. These courses are rare, though, and are often initiated by a company to provide specific training for a group of its employees.

There is a growing number of universities offering programs completely online. The work is still vigorous, but online courses provide the flexibility of working courses into your schedule and eliminating transit. At some schools, online courses do cost slightly more than their classroom counterparts, due to online fees, software and the fact that professors must develop courses for an online format. Additionally, schools like University of Phoenix and Strayer University, both of which have several campuses in Northern Virginia, are accredited, affordable institutions that direct their focus at a primarily adult student body.

Degree Trends
Many of the fastest-growing fields of postgraduate studies are in the sciences, largely because a large portion of master’s students in the sciences are forging their own paths. William and Mary vice provost for research and graduate professional studies Dennis Manos says students are encouraged to create their own areas of study, which often borrow from many different disciplines. “So much of how science has grown is from people studying things that have never been studied before,” Manos says.

Engineering programs remain popular, as do law and medical degrees. Masters of business administration (MBAs) remain one of the most popular degrees available, and most universities boast business schools. An emerging trend is the Executive MBA, a set of courses aimed at grooming business professionals for upper-level management.

American University Career Center director Katherine Stahl notes the continued popularity of American’s public policy and public administration programs as they specifically apply to the greater Metro-D.C. area. “A lot of people in this area want to work for the government or work on election campaigns, and that’s something that is popular within our region,” she says.

However, the same representatives are less willing to list fields that are becoming less relevant. Instead, they maintain that although some fields do see fewer students, master’s degrees in said fields still carry great value. For example, there are far fewer students pursuing master’s degrees in the humanities, and many of the university representatives attribute that to the lack of a clear career path following the degrees’ completion.

But they are quick to say that the humanities are far from dead. “We’ll help you find a way to utilize your degree. If you’re passionate about a subject, you should pursue it,” Stahl says.

(April 2010)