What Is a Graduate Degree and Is It Worth It?

Whatever your motivation, earning a graduate degree can have tremendous value. You can become an expert in your field, take your career in a new direction, or move up the career ladder. Graduate education also leads to personal growth and provides an opportunity to meaningfully contribute to your field.

A graduate student takes notes while viewing an online lecture.

The popularity of graduate education is growing. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, between 2000 and 2018:

  • The number of people at least 25 years old whose highest degree was a master’s grew from 10.4 million to 21 million.
  • The number of people at least 25 years old who had a doctoral degree grew from 2 million to 4.5 million.

The flexibility of online degree programs has helped bring graduate degrees within reach for many individuals seeking advanced education. Exploring the types of available degrees and their associated benefits can help you decide whether attending graduate school is a good option for you.

What Is a Graduate Degree?

The first step in understanding graduate education is knowing what a graduate degree is. The U.S. Department of Education defines graduate degrees as follows:

  • Master’s degrees are awarded for completion of a program that generally takes one or two years of full-time, college-level study beyond a bachelor’s degree. Types of master’s degrees include the Master of Arts (MA) degree, the Master of Science (MS) degree, and master’s degrees in professionally oriented programs such as a master’s in business administration (MBA) degree.
  • Doctoral degrees are the highest award an individual can earn in graduate education. Doctoral degrees can include research/scholarship doctoral degrees such as a Doctor of Education (EdD) and professional practice degrees such as a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree.

With the growth in online learning, the length of time you spend in graduate school is often up to you. You may be able to devote the time to be a full-time student, or perhaps choose to take only one class at a time. In addition, programs such as Maryville University’s Early Access Program enable you to take graduate-level courses that count toward both your undergraduate and graduate degrees.

As you might expect, graduate education is more narrowly focused than undergraduate education, and courses are built entirely around a specific field of study. For example, if you loved your accounting courses during your undergraduate study but dreaded the required electives in English, you typically won’t encounter that challenge if you pursue a master’s in accounting. Another unique aspect of graduate school is that you may be able to conduct research and directly contribute to your field of study.

Benefits of a Graduate Degree

The specific benefits of a graduate degree vary depending on the person and the degree, but the potential advantages can be numerous.

Expand Your Knowledge

A desire to expand your knowledge can be a great reason to pursue graduate education. Say, for example, an individual has been working as a computer programmer and would like to expand their knowledge into software design or web development. Pursuing a master’s in software development could enable the programmer to acquire that knowledge and gain hands-on experience designing a web-based application.

Pursue a Passion

People who have a passion for something are great candidates for graduate school. That same computer programmer discussed above may have been programming data analytics software for years and, through that experience, developed a passion for data analysis. Earning a master’s in business data analytics would be a great way to pursue that passion and learn how to apply it to real-world business scenarios.

Enhance Your Resume

When considering what a graduate degree is worth, it’s important to remember that it can be a valuable supplement to the credentials on your resume. If the computer programmer we’ve discussed likes leading teams and heading up new initiatives, for example, earning a master’s in management and leadership could make their resume especially attractive to employers who are looking for both technical knowledge and leadership expertise.

Develop a Network of Colleagues and Mentors

Fellow graduate students and professors often remain valued colleagues and mentors long after you complete your graduate degree. Having that network can be invaluable in pursuing employment and staying up to date on trends in your line of work. While earning a graduate degree, our computer programmer will likely be able to spend time with and learn from other students and professors, which may lead to future career opportunities.

Develop Soft Skills

Earning a graduate degree is a rigorous process that leads students to not only develop quantitative hard skills, but valuable soft skills such as time management, communication, and critical thinking. For example, say our computer programmer pursues graduate education while still working full time. Succeeding in that situation requires sound time management skills. Working on projects with fellow students and professors in graduate school also provides the opportunity to enhance communication skills.

Is a Graduate Degree Worth It?

Is a graduate degree worth it? For many, earning a graduate degree can certainly pay off in ways that make it worth the time and effort.

  • Higher salaries: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 2020 median weekly wages were $1,885 for individuals with doctoral degrees, $1,545 for individuals with master’s degrees, and $1,305 for individuals with bachelor’s degrees.
  • Career advancement: Earning a graduate degree can help individuals on their path to career advancement, and in some cases it may be a requirement. For example, if you want to advance from a position as a registered nurse to become a nurse practitioner, you will need to earn an advanced degree.
  • Expanded career options: Combining your undergraduate degree with a graduate degree can open more career options. For example, if you have an undergraduate degree in business administration and you’d like to work in health administration, earning a master’s in health administration could pave the way to the career you’re seeking. Likewise, if you have an undergraduate degree in accounting and want to open your own accounting firm, you might consider earning an MBA.

Pursuing Graduate Education: A Worthwhile Endeavor

Just as every individual is unique, so are their motivations for pursuing graduate education. But everyone who pursues a graduate degree opens the door to personal and professional growth.

Exploring Maryville University’s online degree programs and the advantages of its Early Access Program is a great way to discover what a graduate degree is and start on the path to graduate education.

Be brave. Take the first step on that path today.

Recommended Readings

5 Questions to Ask Before Enrolling in an Online Program

Halfway to the Top: Career Advancement for Mid-level Employees

What to Do if You Don’t Get That Promotion


Harvard Business Review, “Should You Go to Graduate School?”

Inside Higher Ed, “Why You Should Pursue Passion Projects in Grad School”

National Association of Colleges and Employers, “The Difference a Master’s Degree Can Have on Starting Salary”

The Standard, “Why Should You Pursue a Master’s Degree”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Education Pays

U.S. Census Bureau, “About 13.1 Percent Have a Master’s, Professional Degree or Doctorate”

U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences, “The Condition of Education 2020”

U.S. News & World Report, “How Long Does It Take to Get a Master’s Degree?”

U.S. News & World Report, “What Is a Doctorate Degree?”

U.S. News & World Report, “What Is Graduate School and Should You Apply?”

Be Brave

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