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Is the Master's Degree Enough?

The New "Basic Education" Standard and the Lure of the PhD

Photo by Laura Kapfer on Unsplash

I have an undergraduate education, and it is not enough.

I started my master's degree chasing environmentalism, environmental resource management, and environmental planning. In each of the programs I was in, I saw more and more people return to school in search of a way to move up the corporate ladders and pay levels. I now have a master's degree in another field. I don't regret moving subject areas, and more importantly, I don't regret leaving a course-based master's for a thesis-based program. Here are some of the reasons why.

The master's degree is widely talked about as the new entry level education. You leave undergrad, spend a year, or two, or three, pursuing more education just to be average enough to get a job. Disclaimer: Not every industry is like this, some students get jobs straight from a co-op, but today's options for education make having a master's degree just that much more desirable. Online, in-class, fast-tracked, self-paced, six-months or less—the options are endless.

Now, here lies a problem for those who have already completed a thesis-based master's program. They spent what might have been years, researching, writing, collecting data, all for someone to come along and say, "you can get the same degree by doing courses now." They spent years defending their interests. They faced stressful times worrying about keeping up with standards, peers, and other academics, contributing something important to the literature—and now, it can all be avoided in exchange for the same results. Many programs award the same degree to students who are doing half the work, a little unfair some would (do) say. If you are taking this master's out into the real world, it doesn't matter. Not going into academia? Great! Get your degree, get a higher pay grade, and get out, you're probably set unless you are pursuing a research or data analysis career. Those who choose jobs in the sciences, jobs with certification programs (which many now require a master's degree), and those who want to move into directorships or higher leadership positions, need that second degree. The education system caught on, monopolized the money they can make in course-based programs. They don't offer you funding, they take your money because you need them to make money—so much for learning for higher enlightenment, eh?

So here lies the new popular: Stay in school even longer, four maybe five more years, and get a PhD. Set yourself aside from the crowds of people who achieved a master's degree in a year or less and say, "I know my shit, I am an expert, you need me." Are you an academic, forever student, research lover? The PhD is a provocative lure for you. Maybe you can teach, head a research program, or be a data analysis expert. Sure, you might be able to do these things with a master's, but even colleges, who once didn't require more than basic education and experience, now prefer candidates who not only have a master's, but also have a PhD, ones who dove deep into research, the literature, and the writing, who then will only get to teach masses of courses and not research, potentially, ever again.

Does a PhD get you an even higher pay grade in the real world? Do you need a PhD if you are a business guru, high finance investor, or interior designer, the Jack of all trades? Probably not, but the fact of the matter is, almost anyone can get a master’s degree of something these days, just like once upon a time everyone could a bachelor’s degree in something. It all raises the profile, lure, and elitism of the PhD.

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