The ROI of an MA or a PhD

What is the real benefit of upskilling?

If I told you I was about to wrap up a Master’s degree program, what do you think your first question would be?

My guess is something like “oh cool. What type of job are you going after?”

OK, in all honesty, it’s not a total guess. That was my experience when I actually was about to finish my Master’s degree program. It seemed like everybody wanted to know, what was I now qualified to do? What job was I applying to next?

The answer? I hadn’t really thought about it. And that was because I didn’t pursue a Master’s degree to get a promotion. I pursued it because I had always had in the back of my head that I would like to earn a Master’s degree. I was working full time, I was a parent, I had household responsibilities. But it was an important goal to me. So I made it a priority.

In short, the motivation was more intrinsic than extrinsic.

Age doesn’t matter

This is a conversation I’ve had with dozens of parents over the years. You can force your kid to a program, but you can’t make them succeed at it. The desire to learn, to work toward a particular career, has to come from them or it won’t have nearly the impact you want it to.

It’s the same when we look at our own careers. When was the last time you did something just because someone told you to and it turned out to be awesome? That’s a rare phenomenon, isn’t it? A phrase I hear a lot from my 20-something clients is “I think maybe I just need to go back to school to get a Master’s degree” (or an MBA). It feels to them like that’s the only way to transition to that really amazing career they haven’t quite found yet.

My questions are always something along these lines: what happens if you put in the time, energy and money (oh, the money!) and you still don’t land in the job you expect to? Will you think it was worth it? Will you feel like a giant failure? Can you value the experience with or without a tangible reward?

What if, instead, you got that Master’s degree because you want to learn? Because you want to better yourself? Because you’re excited about discussing ideas with people who are also excited about discussing ideas? If that’s your motivator, you can’t go wrong.

Dr. Devo

The year the Toronto Blue Jays won the World Series (the first time), I was well into my career as a recreational fast pitch player. My coaches that year nicknamed me “Devo” after the incredible Devon White, Toronto’s renowned centre fielder. (Sidebar: our names are the only commonality. I never had an outfield-worthy arm, and I can’t sprint worth crap.)

Since leaving my undergraduate program many (!) years ago, I’ve often joked about wanting to get a PhD someday so I can make people call me “Dr. Devo.” Now that I do have a Master’s degree, the door is open to PhD programs, and I have my eye on a few. What started as a joke may in fact become reality, because you can be damn sure that if I put in the work and the money, I’m at least getting that out of it.

On the surface, it seems like a flimsy reason to get a PhD. But my Master’s experience tells me that it’s a better motivator than thinking I’m going to set myself up for some amazing academic career at a distinguished university. More and more in recent years, research has demonstrated that the ROI on a PhD, if you’re purely looking at academic career opportunities, is terrible. This article is the latest of many that I’ve read over the years that attest to that fact. If you go in with only one desirable outcome, you will miss out on so many other opportunities.

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