When do you need a graduate degree?

By Lisa Gardner

Over the past 20 years, Canadians have increasingly looked to post-secondary education as a means to compete in the job market. According to Statistics Canada, the number of individuals who pursued and earned a bachelor's degree rose 52 percent from 1,585,775 in 1991 to 2,411,475 in 2001. Those who graduated from accredited universities found themselves 10 percent more likely to gain employment as compared to those with only a high school education.

"We place a great emphasis on education when hiring. Being a professional services firm, we tend to only hire university graduates," says Sherrie Lin of Deloitte & Touche.

But when it comes to graduate studies, the numbers are just beginning to grow - six percent over the past decade, according to the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies (CAGS) - and as such, the benefits of attaining an advanced degree are not as blatant.

"A master's degree would provide an edge, depending on the service line and the degree. I would say a master's in fine arts would probably not be the most useful master's degree in an accounting firm whereas a master's in tax would be very useful in the tax department. Each individual situation is different," says Sherrie Lin of Deloitte & Touche.

Traditionally, occupations within the science discipline (including psychology, kinesiology, occupational therapy and social work) and post-secondary teaching and professions (such as business analysts, engineers and lawyers) have required graduate degrees. Currently, CAGS's statistics show that a master's in business management and public administration is the most popular graduate degrees, followed by social studies, engineering, physical and life sciences and education.

"It is difficult to identify a career where it is an absolute obligation but (a graduate degree) is a very good thing to have," says Jean Pierre Gaboury, Executive Director of CAGS. He further states that earning a master's degree is always beneficial and graduate school offers more specialized programs. Gaboury says master's programs provide individuals with rigorous training in research methods, applicable not only to the field they're studying, but to many other fields as well.

But many grad school information Web sites discourage applicants who are unsure of their goals and emphasize the correlation between some careers and advanced degree programs.

At the University of Victoria's Web site, for example, they write, "a graduate degree is no guarantee of a job." In addition, the graduate school handbook Web site at www.gradschools.com reads, "deciding to go to graduate school because you do not know what else to do, and spending years and thousands of dollars, is not a good idea. It is too much work and too hard to keep going if you are not really interested. If you don't have a clear idea, wait until you do."

Many universities refer to the importance of understanding the educational requirements of their chosen profession. University of Victoria's Web site refers specifically to careers that one would require a license or registration: "For professions such as law, medicine, or psychology, the degree does not mean you belong to that profession and are ready to be hired. There are licensing and registration issues to be dealt with after graduation. Lawyers, for example, must be admitted to the bar, which may involve exams and interviews. Psychologists must obtain licensing, registration and insurance before they are considered a psychologist.

Trent Anderson, Vice President of Graduate Programs at Kaplan, recently told USA Today "a graduate degree should be a means to (a professional) end." He believes that it is better to realize graduate school is necessary following a couple of years in the workforce rather than finding out it was not required and that you now lack work experience.

John McNain, who has his MBA and over 10 years of experience working in telecommunications, strategy consulting and financial services, says that when he is hiring, he places a high significance on the institution an individual has graduated from.

"A master's degree is definitely a plus on an individual's résumé, however, the specific degree and institution are even more important in my estimate," he says. "In my hiring experience, a top tier undergraduate school is a better sign than a master's degree from a school with a lower quality reputation."

According to Lin, this is the case at Deloitte & Touche as well. "(We) hire from the University of Waterloo's Master's of Taxation program as they tend to give people the skills that are required in those departments."

It is difficult to assess at this time whether a graduate degree will become a necessity for more professions in the future. The numbers are growing and according to CAGS they will likely continue to rise as company's become more specialized and technology evolves.

Modified on April 23, 2009