The Best and Worst Master's Degrees for Finding a Job

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Image by Theresa Chiechi © The Balance 2019

Many people go to graduate school because they believe it will help them acquire the skills and credentials they need to get the job they want. However, some graduate degrees are more effective than others at setting students up for career success.

Here is a list of the top ten best and worst master's degrees for finding a job. The list includes the median annual pay for mid-career workers (workers with more than 10 years of experience) in each career field (calculated by Payscale.com) and the average projected growth for popular jobs held by people with each degree between 2016-2026 (calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics).

Of course, you should select a degree program that fits your interests and career goals, regardless of the program's ranking on this list. However, graduate school is often expensive, and it is important to think about the cost value of any program you consider.

Best Master's Degrees for Finding a Job

1. Physician Assistant

Physician assistants (PAs) practice medicine under the direction of physicians and surgeons. They can examine patients, diagnose illnesses and injuries, and give treatment. All PAs must complete a physician assistant program (this is typically a two-year program). This is one of the fastest-growing careers, with a projected growth of 37% by 2026.

2. Finance

Finance graduate programs teach students critical financial topics such as risk management, insurance, investments, and mergers and acquisitions. With a master's degree, graduates can work their way into high-paying upper-level management positions in which they manage the financial health of an organization.

  • Median annual pay: $125,208
  • Average growth: 15%
  • Popular job titles: Financial manager, financial analyst, personal financial advisor

3. Computer Science

Computer science programs prepare students for jobs in fields such as computer and information research, programming, and information security. Jobs in these fields are expected to increase over the next few years and offer high salaries to those with the proper skill sets.

  • Median annual pay: $115,730
  • Average growth: 18%
  • Popular job titles: Computer systems analyst, software developer, computer and information systems manager

4. Biomedical Engineering

A biomedical engineering master's program teaches students skills in both the biological and medical sciences. As biomedical engineers, students will put these skills together to develop medical equipment, computer systems, software, and other devices for various healthcare purposes. The average salary is high. However, the rate at which these jobs are expected to grow is no more than the national average (around 7%).

  • Median annual pay: (for a mid-career worker): $117,243
  • Average growth: (the mean projected growth of employment for the jobs listed below between 2016 and 2026): 7%
  • Popular job titles: Biomedical engineer

5. Information Systems

A master's degree in information systems trains students to manage information technology. As organizations apply technology in new ways, jobs in information management are becoming increasingly important. Many of these jobs offer high salaries. The number of jobs in this field is expected to increase faster than the national average over the next decade.

6. Statistics

Statistics master's programs are sometimes housed under broader mathematics departments. Statistics courses range from statistical computing to probability to applied statistics. With this degree, graduates typically become involved in applying their math skills to real-life scenarios. They might become actuaries, statisticians, or economists. These kinds of jobs are expected to grow much faster than the national average.

  • Median annual pay: $106,402
  • Average growth: 20%
  • Popular job titles: Statistician, actuary, economist

7. Nurse Practitioner

With a nurse practitioner degree, nurses can not only treat patients but also often prescribe medication. A master's degree in this field leads to a jump in salary. Nurse practitioner positions are expected to increase through 2026 by 31%, which is much faster than average.

  • Median annual pay: $94,269
  • Average growth: 31%
  • Popular job titles: Nurse practitioner, nurse midwife, nurse anesthetist

8. Civil Engineering

Civil engineers design and oversee construction projects, including the building of roads, skyscrapers, bridges, and systems for water supply and sewage treatment.

A master's degree in civil engineering gives civil engineers the opportunity to serve as managers of these projects. These jobs tend to offer good salaries.

9. Health Administration

Health care administration degrees teach students how to develop and oversee medical and health services. Those with a healthcare administration degree might manage an entire hospital or health services organization, or a specific department or clinical area. These jobs are in high demand and will continue to grow over the next decade.

  • Median annual pay: $88,675
  • Average growth: 20%
  • Popular job titles: Medical and health services manager, healthcare administrator

10. Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapists work with patients with injuries, disabilities, or illnesses to help them perform everyday activities. OTs may work in hospitals, clinical offices, schools, nursing homes, or home health services. Occupational therapists require a master's degree (as well as state licensure) to practice. Occupational therapy master's programs are well worth investing in – OT jobs are projected to grow by 24% by 2026.

  • Median annual pay: $71,087
  • Average growth: 24%
  • Popular job titles: Occupational therapist

Worst Master's Degrees for Finding a Job

1. Counseling

Counseling master's programs train students to serve as counselors in a variety of counseling fields, ranging from mental health to marriage and drug abuse. Counseling jobs are on the rise, but the salaries on average remain under $60,000.

  • Median annual pay: $55,451
  • Average growth: 18%
  • Popular job titles: Mental health counselor, rehabilitation counselor, community service manager, human services assistant

2. Social Work

Social work master's programs teach students the skills they need to become either direct, indirect, or clinical social workers. Clinical social workers help people cope with various issues and diagnose and treat emotional, behavioral, and medical issues. Direct social workers connect people in need with services that can help them. Indirect social workers work on an institutional or government level, helping individuals through larger policies.

While social work jobs are expected to increase over the next few years, the starting salary is not always very high, so students may be paying off loans for quite a while.

  • Median annual pay: $59,270
  • Average growth: 21%
  • Popular job titles: Social worker, mental health counselor, substance abuse counselor

3. Music

A master's degree in music prepares students to become conductors, composers, and performers. The degree is often a minimum requirement for those who want to teach at a university or conservatory. Jobs outside of schools (such as a musician or composer, for example) are more difficult to come by and do not always guarantee stable salaries.

  • Median annual pay: $60,931
  • Average growth: 6%
  • Popular job titles: Music director, composer, musician

4. Education

Education programs prepare students for careers not only in teaching, but also curriculum development, counseling, and administration. Salaries vary greatly based on the specific job – for example, school principals earn an average of $92,510, while elementary teachers earn an average of $55,490 (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics). Education jobs, in general, continue to grow at a rate equal to the national average.

  • Median annual pay: $62,017
  • Average growth: 8%
  • Popular job titles: School principal, elementary school teacher, middle school teacher, secondary school teacher, special education teacher

5. Library and Information Science

Library and information science programs prepare students for professional careers in schools, public libraries, museums, and other institutions within the information industry. Many of these jobs are expected to see slightly above-average growth over the next decade or so.

  • Median annual pay: $62,035
  • Average growth: 9%
  • Popular job titles: Librarian, library technician, archivist

6. History

History master's programs often prepare students to either teach history or become historians themselves. Depending on their specific jobs, history masters’ might work in schools, government agencies, libraries, or museums.

  • Median annual pay: $67,641
  • Average growth: 9%
  • Popular job titles: Archivist, historian, secondary school teacher

7. Fine Arts

A master's degree in fine arts is a creative degree that allows students to specialize in design, jewelry making, photography, and other related fields. The salaries for jobs in this field vary – for example, art directors earn an average of $89,820 while graphic designers earn an average of $47,640 (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics). However, most of the jobs in this field are not expected to see much growth in the next decade or so.

  • Median annual pay: $68,001
  • Average growth: 6%
  • Popular job titles: Art director, craft and fine artists, fashion designer, graphic designer, artist

8. Biology

Biology master's students can focus on a wide variety of subfields, ranging from biotechnology to environmental biology. Based on their focus, students can go into a number of fields, including teaching and research. Some fields have more promising job outlooks than others, but the projected average growth for all biology jobs is just a little above the projected national growth in jobs.

  • Median annual pay: $73,262
  • Average growth: 9%
  • Popular job titles: Biologist, environmental scientist, wildlife biologist, biological technician, natural sciences manager, high school teacher

9. Architecture

Architecture programs teach students how to plan and design buildings and other structures. To get a job as an architect, you need a degree, experience through an architectural internship, and you need to pass the Architect Registration Exam. Jobs in architecture are expected to grow more slowly than the national average over the next few years.

  • Median annual pay: $75,045
  • Average growth: 4%
  • Popular job titles: Design architect, project architect

10. Human Resources Management

Human resources (HR) managers plan and coordinate the administrative functions of a company. They manage the recruiting, interviewing, and hiring of new employees, and act as a liaison between the company’s employers and employees. They might also handle issues related to salary and benefits. While experience is important for an HR manager, most positions also require a master's degree. Human resource management jobs are expected to grow about as fast as the national average over the next few years.