The Masters degree has as many uses as there are students who decide to pursue it, but the three main purposes of the programme are career specialisation, career switch, and a career in academia.
With so many higher education programmes to choose from, it is often difficult to settle for one option. After all, an advanced degree following a Bachelor’s diploma sets one on a career course that will, in most cases, define a lifetime of professional commitment. In order to make the correct choice, it is crucial to understand what the Masters degree stands for, and what is unique about it.
The Masters degree is an effective way to bolster one’s career in a world where the proliferation of higher education has long since made the Bachelor’s degree the bare minimum for entry into the qualified workforce.
That is made possible by its most distinguishable trait – specialisation. The goal of a Bachelor’s programme is to introduce the student to a broad field of study, whereas the Masters degree aims to confer specialised skills and knowledge, often in just one or two subfields. Here is an example that illustrates this principle:
Let us assume that a student graduates with a Bachelor’s degree in Communication. Most curricula would have had some courses in Marketing Strategy, Advertising, and Public Relations. That would allow the graduate to start work as an all-round communication assistant or trainee almost anywhere. But only after completing a Masters degree in Public Relations would that person be eligible to work and grow as a PR specialist at an agency or as part of a wider in-house team at a large company or public institution.
This professional focus is achieved via a combination of introductory and specialised courses and exercises that are aimed at teaching the skills and knowledge specific to PR. On the broad side of the spectrum, students can expect to learn about corporate communications and media theory, and on the narrow end, they will learn to write press releases and debate publicly.
The ultimate intent of the Masters degree is to prepare the students for a profession that they can practise freely and confidently.
“A Masters degree will allow you to pursue a specialist area of interest that you developed during your previous studies or in your career,” reads the description of the postgraduate programme at Swansea University (UK). “As a result of the skills and experiences gained, you’re more likely to secure a job and attract a higher salary. That means you can be confident of getting a return on your investment in your postgraduate education.”
Masters programmes can be especially beneficial to those who want to change their career path. Nick Barniville, associate dean of the European School of Management and Technology (ESMT) (Germany), describes a common scenario: “There are many people who have studied something at Bachelor’s level and figured out that was not what they wanted to do - for example, coming from engineering just to realise that they are more interested in business administration. So if they take a non-consecutive Masters, the programme gives them an opportunity to switch to a professional field which they find truly appealing professionally.”
In a special article on the topic, the UK’s Guardian newspaper notes that “students at the Oxford Internet Institute [A multidisciplinary department of the University of Oxford, dedicated to the social science of the Internet –ed.] come from subjects as wide-ranging as communications, political science, law, computer science, engineering, languages and literature, history and philosophy.” The publication goes on to explain that the act of switching subject areas at the postgraduate level can be challenging, but the benefits “appear to outweigh the drawbacks” as evidenced by the story of Peter Stranney, 29, who developed an interest in the Irish language while studying computer science with distributed systems at Newcastle University (UK). He applied for a Master’s in Irish at Aberystwyth University (UK) and says that the transition for him was easy, because “Studying something I was passionate about was a treat.”
Renaud Henrion, head of Recruitment and Admissions for Masters Programmes at Emlyon Business School (France) highlights “Masters students are more mature and have a clear vision of their professional objectives, while during a Bachelor’s programme it is possible not to have any specific career plan. Masters programmes are for students who have clear objectives and professional plans.” A Masters programme, being very focused and quite intensive, is a great solution to gain the necessary proficiency and quickly return to the labour force to start exercising the newfound profession. It is worth noting that a Masters degree requires a higher level of commitment and time-management than the Bachelor’s degree. The latter is typically taught in three or four years, which allows plenty of leeway compared to the one or two-year Masters programme.
Depth versus width
Professionals aspiring to business leadership and management roles are often faced with the dilemma: “Should I switch career paths with a Masters or with a Master of Business Administration (MBA)?”
Indeed, a career switch is possible through either a Masters or an MBA degree. However, the MBA is a strictly focused on careers in management and business leadership, while the Masters allows for a much greater flexibility. Regardless of the function held prior to joining the MBA course, the outcome will always be the same – the graduate is now ready to embark on a career in business and management. With the Masters degree the combinations are endless, although the outcome will always be the acquisition of specialist knowledge in a given field: “The primary distinction between an MBA and a Master of Science (MSc) [one of the two most common types of Masters degrees, along with Master of Arts (MA) –ed.] is breadth versus depth,” says Gail Whitaker, DM, former dean of Business for Graduate and Doctoral Programmes at Colorado Technical University (US).
According to Ms Whitaker, “an MBA degree offers a broader view of business management. You can receive practical instruction across multiple business disciplines, making it a better choice if your aspirations are in the field of general management, executive leadership or entrepreneurship. On the other hand, an MSc degree homes in on a single specialty, such as accounting, human resources or information technology. An MSc degree programme helps you become a deep expert in one functional area, which is suitable for professionals who are clear about their career path.”
Path of the scholar
According to the latest statistics by the Financial Times (FT), 84% of graduates of the top 55 universities for MSc in Finance have secured a job, within three months of graduation, and a staggering 97% have started work as MSc degree holders in Management.
However, that is not to say that the remaining, albeit small, percentage of students are jobless. The Masters degree opens the way for the pursuit of the most advanced academic studies – the PhD degree.
In fact, it is close to inconceivable to begin a doctoral programme without a relevant Masters degree. In this case, the function and field of the Masters degree is fixed – it serves as a prerequisite if the student has studied in a corresponding area.
According to Graduate Prospects, a Manchester-based higher education consultancy, “the majority of institutions require PhD candidates to possess a Masters degree, in addition to a Bachelor’s degree,” adding that some universities will make an exception if the student only has the latter. However, the consultancy warns that if the university deems the student unprepared to start a PhD programme without the relevant Masters education, they “may be required to initially register for a one- or two-year Master of Philosophy (MPhil) or Master of Research (MRes) degree rather than a PhD.” This underlines the importance of a Masters degree in continued academic education and, further along, in the pursuit of an academic career.
In conclusion, the Masters degree is a vital stepping stone for three major groups of career-seekers – the specialist, the new-born professional, and the academic.
This article is original content produced by Advent Group and included in the 2017-2018 annual Access MBA, EMBA, and Masters Guide under the title “Masterful Trinity”. The latest online version of the Guide is available here.