Earning a master's degree can be a significant financial hurdle for just about anyone. After you've shelled out tuition dollars for your bachelor's degree, how can you commit to two or three years of graduate tuition? Should you take on more debt to get your master's?
According to U.S. News, graduate student loans make up a staggering 40% of the total federal student loans today. If you do some research on master's degrees and earning potential upfront, however, you may be able to secure a good-paying job and pay off loans sooner than later. If you have no student loans, then you can save more of what you make.
Financially speaking, it's a wise choice to pick a master's degree that typically leads to high-paying careers. Here's some valuable information on the best and worst master's degrees and which programs could lead to careers that pay off when you graduate.
Master’s Degrees That Don’t Pay Off -- And What Degree To Get Instead
Based on data provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), this list contains some of the best and worst master's degrees for prospective graduate students today. We evaluated these programs and careers based on the BLS's salary and growth projections.
1. Master’s in Early Childhood Education
If you're interested in pursuing a teaching career, specifically with younger student populations in K-3 classrooms, a master's in early childhood education might be a good choice for you. While these programs will help you develop specialized skills for the classroom, you probably won't see a good return on your costly investment when you reach the job market.
Career: Preschool Teacher
Many professionals with a master's in early childhood education choose to pursue careers as preschool teachers. While 2020-2030 projections show preschool teacher positions growing by 18%, the BLS reports a low average salary of about $31,930 per year.
What to study instead: Master of Education in Educational Administration
You might consider a master of education in educational administration instead of early childhood education instead. In these master's programs, you'll study areas such as education finance, strategic leadership, and education law.
With this training, you'll be a contender for leadership roles at public and private educational institutions. A master's of education in educational administration is one of the best master's degrees if you're looking for a good-paying job with potential for growth.
Many professionals with a master of education in educational administration pursue careers as school principles.
Even though the BLS projects only an increase of 8% in available positions by 2030, you'll stand to earn a much better salary than preschool teachers and other comparable roles. Elementary, middle, and high school principals make a median annual wage of $98,490, making the master of educational administration one of the best paying master's degrees in education out there.
2. Master’s in Professional Counseling
A master's in professional counseling will help develop the skills to help clients cope with emotional challenges, substance abuse, and psychological issues. While this is valuable work, it could be one of the worst master's degrees if you're looking for significant financial earnings in the long run.
Career: Mental Health Counselor
Many mental health counselors today possess a master's in professional counseling. Mental health counselors often work with specific populations to help them handle anxiety, depression, suicidal impulses, and beyond.
The BLS projects a 23% growth for mental health counselors by 2030. Unfortunately, this career doesn't always lead to a healthy salary. The BLS reports that the lowest 10% of earners in this area of the field make about $30,590 per year. The top 10% max out at about $78,700 per year.
What to study instead: Master’s in School Counseling
One of the best master's degrees to get instead is the master's in school counseling. You'll study counseling theories, best counseling practices, addiction counseling, family counseling, and trauma to help the student population handle the stresses of daily life. In addition to preparing you to provide a valuable service, you'll find that you qualify for good-paying jobs in growing areas of the counseling field.
Career: School and Career Counselor
From dealing with social and familial issues to cyberbullying and self-esteem problems, school counselors help PreK-12 students cope with a multitude of emotional challenges. You may also work as a career coach or college advisor to aid adults in locating fulfilling career paths while managing their personal and familial problems.
While the lowest 10% of earners in this area of the field earn about $35,620 per year, the top 10% earn more than $97,910 annually. Available jobs in this area are also projected to grow by 11%, which is higher than the average rate of all other occupations in the U.S.
3. Master’s in Art Therapy
Master's in art therapy programs help you explore foundational theories behind art therapy techniques, practical applications, and how these therapies can positively impact communities or individuals in clinical settings. Art therapy is certainly an enticing area of work for many creative students out there, but it might be one of the worst master's degrees if you're interested in a career with growth opportunities and a strong salary.
Career: Recreational therapist
Recreational therapy is a common career path for professionals with a master's in art therapy. They may work in a variety of settings, including hospitals and clinics, to provide recreation-based treatments for patients of all ages. While the BLS projects a 10% growth in available positions by 2029, recreational therapists make an annual mean wage of only $47,710.
What to study instead: Master's in Genetic Counseling
The field of genetic counseling focuses on hereditary family histories and genetic conditions. You'll study how genetics can affect the decisions we make in terms of planning for pregnancies, raising children, and managing our health as young and older adults. Professionals with a master's degree in genetic counseling typically work directly with patients and clients or conduct genetics research. They typically specialize in a particular area such as cancer, cardiovascular health, neurogenetics, or pediatrics.
Career: Genetic Counselor
With this master's degree, you can secure employment in a good paying and growing area of the medical field as a genetic counselor. You'll conduct DNA testing and examine lab results to help patients and clients make informed decisions about their futures.
The BLS projects a bright outlook for genetic counselors, with a 26% growth in available positions by 2029. Additionally, the median annual wage for genetic counselors is $87,400. The top 10% of earners make more than $126,350 per year, making the master's in genetic counseling one of the best paying master's degrees.
4. Master’s in Secondary Education - Mathematics
A master's degree in secondary education mathematics prepares you with specialized skills to teach at the middle school and high school levels. It may also position you for more senior positions within the education system, such as a department chairperson or supervising teacher.
Unfortunately, a graduate degree in secondary education with a concentration in mathematics is among the worst master's degrees for those expecting to get a big return on their investment. Additionally, there are a limited number of careers you can pursue with this education.
Career: High School Math Teacher
Professionals with a master's in secondary education in mathematics often pursue careers as high school teachers. These professionals may secure employment teaching students in grades 9-12 in either public or private high schools. The BLS projects only an 8% expected growth by 2030, on par with the national average. Moreover, high school math teachers only make a median annual wage of $62,870.
What to study instead: Master’s in Theoretical or Applied Math
You can still study mathematics while positioning yourself for more lucrative career opportunities. A master's in theoretical or applied math is a two-year degree that helps learners explore mathematical aspects of science and engineering.
Upon completion of this type of master's program, you'll be a competitive candidate for positions at technology and software companies, large corporations, businesses, and research institutions. For many graduates, this has proven to be one of the best paying master's degrees out there.
Career: Mathematician and Statistician
Graduates with this degree often pursue work as mathematicians and statisticians. Depending on the position, these professionals analyze data and use statistical software to help make business or financial decisions, contribute to research endeavors, and more. The median annual wage for these workers is $93,290. The BLS also projects a 33% growth in available positions by 2030, which is much faster than most occupations in the U.S.
5. Master’s in Journalism
Master's programs in journalism help students focus on developing their reporting, writing, and communication skills for a variety of careers. These programs are typically a good fit for curious students who love conducting investigative research, enjoy interviewing subjects, and are strong public speakers.
While this degree can lead you toward careers that contribute to the public good, it happens to be one of the worst master's degrees for those looking to earn a high return on their educational investment. Additionally, the master's of journalism leads to many careers where the number of available positions is decreasing over time.
Many journalism master's degree-holders pursue work as reporters, correspondents, and broadcast news analysts. Often referred to as journalists, they may work for print or television news sources by conducting interviews, writing articles or news stories, and keeping up with the latest developments in local, regional, or national news.
The job outlook, however, for professional journalists does not look positive. The BLS projects that available positions in this area will rise by just 6% by 2030. Additionally, the median annual wage for reporters, correspondents, and broadcast news analysts is only $49,300.
What to study instead: Master’s in Public Relations and Advertising
With a master's in public relations and advertising, you'll get the chance to hone your communication skills and writing. You study how to create effective content for a variety of media formats, project management, marketing, and brand promotion.
With this diverse training, you will qualify for a greater number of high-paying jobs than journalism degree-holders. Based on the information provided by the BLS, a graduate degree in public relations and advertising could be one of the best paying master's degrees today.
With a master's in public relations and advertising, you can pursue a growing and high-paying career as an advertising, promotions, and marketing manager. The BLS projects a 10% growth rate by 2030. Additionally, the median annual wage for these professionals is $141,490. Earners in the top 10% of the field make more than $208,000 per year.
Choosing the Best Master’s Degree For You
Bear in mind that no particular degree level or program will guarantee you a job. Make sure you pursue a master's degree that will meet your personal needs and future career goals. To do this, you may need to spend some time conducting your own research on employment trends, job requirements, and salaries. Use the information above as a springboard to explore the best paying master's degrees in your areas of interest.