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4 signs it might be time for a master’s degree

PostgradAustralia

Moving into any kind of postgraduate study can be a daunting decision. There are a couple things to look out for that might make the decision easier.

We talk relentlessly about all the benefits of postgraduate study, be it a PhD, master’s, graduate certificates or diplomas. Each afford different and numerous advantages. What isn’t always obvious is knowing whether or not they’re something you’d like to take up, regardless of the advantages. This can vary substantially between circumstances and lifestyles. In this article, we’ll focus on the two major types of master’s degrees (research and coursework) and some signs to look out for when deciding if it’s suitable for you.

1. You can’t enter your desired field

This refers to mandatory qualifications, as opposed to ones that merely afford advantages. Good examples of this include master-level psychology courses, which the Australian Psychology Society deems mandatory for progression. Not every field has such requirements, but enough to warrant consideration. Although for instance a bachelor of psychology is enough to find work in roles that may benefit from an understanding of psychology, such as marketing or communications, becoming a psychologist if that is your goal won’t happen by sheer weight of experience alone. That pivot requires a master’s. 

2. You’re struggling to progress in your current field

Just staying on an undergraduate psychology degree can be comparatively debilitating, as evidenced by recent QILT graduate survey results. Not to rag on psychology too much, but let’s say you’ve got your bachelor of psychological sciences and are happy looking for roles outside of ‘psychologist’. Psychology undergraduates saw some of the lowest rates of full-time employment immediately following graduation at 51.3% with median annual salary for full-time employees at $53,700 (p6). Three years post-graduation, this became 83.3% and $68,500, which although an improvement, falls short of most other disciplines within a similar timeframe. There will always be outliers of course, but the stats are worth considering. Doing a master’s in psychology, or another master’s degree for that matter, can be a way of substantially raising those outcomes, both short term and long. 

Go8 universities by median full-time starting salary in AUD pa (with three years after graduation in brackets) (QILT 2018, p14-15,48-49

University Undergraduate salaries (and three years on) Postgraduate salaries (and three years on)
ANU $58,500 ($72,000) $70,000 ($90,000)
USYD $56,000 ($70,000) $80,000 ($94,000)
University of Melbourne $55,000 ($64,300) $68,000 ($86,400)
UWA $62,000 ($73,100) $99,000 ($90,000*)
University of Adelaide $58,000 ($66,000) $71,000 ($85,000)
UNSW $60,000 ($76,500) $100,000 ($114,800)
Monash University $55,000 ($69,000) $75,000 ($90,000)
UQ $57,500 ($71,000)

$77,000 ($91,300)

* = due to an abnormally large gender pay gap ($79,100 for women vs $100,900 for men)

 

For a more extensive breakdown of undergraduate versus postgraduate outcomes, check out our article on the subject here.

Many master’s programs operate under the assumption students know nothing of the course material, making them ideal entry points into completely different or entirely similar careers, depending on the student’s ambitions. If you’re in that communications role for instance, not only would a master’s in psychology help, but perhaps a bespoke degree in communications too. The choices are boundless. If you’re going to return for further study after all, why not focus your interests toward advancing your career?

3. You feel like you’re missing something

Plenty of people leave university feeling they’ve only scraped the tip of the iceberg. This is normal. Both master’s by coursework and research degrees provide the opportunity to “fill the gaps” in different ways. 

A coursework master’s will let you gain a more comprehensive understanding of your subject area, provided you choose one suited to your current education, as some master’s by coursework degrees serve entirely different audiences. A good example of this dichotomy can be found in law. Prospective students have two options: the Master of Laws (LLM) or Juris Doctor (JD). Both are technically “master-level” courses according to the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF level 9) and both focus on coursework. Yet, the former is strictly for Bachelor of Laws (LLB) holders wishing to deepen an existing subject knowledge, allowing participants to specialise. The JD on the other hand is for those from entirely different disciplines who wish to become lawyers, serving a near-identical purpose to the LLB. The “something” you may feel as though you’re missing therefore comes down to both the aforementioned points, as well as personal interest or engagement with the subject matter when it comes to coursework degrees. Following through the example, if you came from elsewhere but want to be a lawyer, a JD will help. If you’re an existing lawyer but feel inadequately prepared for your particular field of law, an LLM can help.

So what about the research master’s? Well, if you feel you’ve got insufficient knowledge in an under-served area, a research master’s will allow you to fill that gap. It’s a different experience to the previous degrees, but potentially one worth having if you crave knowledge for its own sake. If you feel like the world is missing something, not just you, a master’s by research could be a sound choice and perhaps even a path to further research in the form of a PhD. 

4. You’re finding it difficult to find a full-time job

Again, totally normal. We know it’s rough out there. So long as your choice is intelligent, a master’s degree can make that search far easier and provide you with more time to make connections, complete internships and work placements. All of these things are invaluable for really making that resume stand out. The degree itself, naturally, has all manner of intrinsic benefits as we’ve outlined above, not least the intrinsic value of knowledge. What doesn’t hurt is the reason why all those tertiary activities matter so much to employers. A solid set of internships shows you’ve got the chops to do full-time work in that field, or at the very least shows your enthusiasm. Building those connections allows you to keep your ear to the tracks and hear about any research positions or industry opportunities that may be rising in your area or abroad. One thing many people find is it avoids an awkward gap in your resume. If you’re a fresh grad down on your luck, taking up a master’s shows you’re still at it, determined to improve yourself and the world around you. 

So what does an intelligent choice of master’s degree look like then? It’s a matter of asking some hard questions, the answers to which will help elucidate the solution. 

  1. Am I doing this for the love of the subject, career prospects, or some combination of both? 

  2. Do I have a measurable or well-defined notion of where I want to end up?

  3. Have I weighed all my options before committing to one master’s? For instance, 

    1. Would my goals be better suited to research or coursework? 

    2. Pivot to a new field or stay in my current one?

  4. Do I have a good understanding of what the course entails and if I’m up for the challenge?

    1. Do I meet the entry requirements? If not, can I rise to meet them?

    2. Will I need to do preparation beforehand?

You should now have a better idea of some determining factors that make a master’s degree appealing. It’s still going to be a complicated decision regardless, with these considerations by no means making up the full extent of it. What they accomplish is provoking the right questions and sub-questions. If you’re experiencing any of the circumstances mentioned, we hope this article illustrated some of the benefits attainable through the completion of a master’s program. Whether or not you choose to pursue one, know these options are available. With some lateral thinking, any number of goals and interests can come within reach. 

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