What Your Masters Degree Is Really Worth
Updated: May 15
This question came in from a recent graduate:
Why do students with Masters degrees still start at entry-level in environmental consulting? Does thesis experience handling individual projects qualify as work experience?
These are valid questions. The honest truth that Universities fail to share is this: Employers value experience over education every single day.
My recommendation to students set on earning a Masters degree, is this -- do as many or as long of relevant internships as possible, get into a full time job with an employer that supports higher education, and then earn your masters degree while working full time.
So does my Masters degree make any difference at all?
The short answer is - yes, but likely not just starting out.
Graduate work in engineering or science does little to prepare you for the business world. It can, however, provide certain technical knowledge or expertise that can be beneficial for a business and, therefore, your career.
Let's use a current hot topic as an example: PFAS.
PFAS contamination is everywhere in the environment. In the water world, states have begun to regulate the contaminant. Public and private sector alike have found themselves in the position of having to remove it from water or industrial waste streams. This is one area where such entities might turn to engineering consultants.
What could this mean for a young engineer?
Suppose you are a recent engineering graduate and your entire research and thesis for your masters degree was on treating water for removal of PFAS... The key word I want you to pickup on is apply. Having a degree alone, regardless of whether it's a bachelors or masters degree, does not prove that you will be an effective, contributing part of the team.
But in our example, if you can walk in the door to work at a consultancy with relevant PFAS knowledge that you can apply toward solving meaningful problems... In our example here that means solving a client's PFAS contamination problem by contributing directly to analysis and design - then your education can pay off in a "direct" way. This is because you have relevant knowledge that can be more directly tied to the results the consultancy is working to achieve and therefore the bottom line.
All people coming out of engineering education require years of training.
We must all learn and understand the results the business or organization is fundamentally working to create to understand where our contributions as an employee really make a difference. In the case of engineering consulting, the result we are often going for is the design of a system to meet the client's functional needs while balancing logistical and financial constraints.
Employers must provide a fairly substantial amount of training and time with experienced engineers (years) before we are able to directly work on a project without supervision. This is true whether we have earned a Bachelors or a Masters degree in engineering.
What else should I know?
Let's suppose that for some reason, you know your graduate work won't directly help you in your engineering career -- maybe the contaminant you studied in graduate school isn't ultimately regulated after all, or you are sick of the topic you researched and don't want to touch it again... Then what?
In this case - and I'm speaking for the Environmental, Water, Civil world now - you might still be able to give your career a slight edge. Some states allow a Masters degree in engineering to count as 1 year of work towards earning your Professional Engineer license. You will need to check with your state's Board of Professional Engineers and NCEES to find the details.
Earning your PE (again, for the Environmental, Water, Civil world) should give you some bump in pay or promotion, so the faster you can earn that, the better for your technical trajectory.
In the employer's eyes, action and results are always more powerful than effort.
Knowledge and experience that allows you to directly contribute to solving meaningful problems (and I don't mean hypothetical problems like in school) is really what an employer is going to pay us for.
Can you solve their problems? Can you alleviate pain of the team by filling a gap?
Or are you just a warm body with a degree?
Think about the results and the outcomes you've created in your work. Those are the things to emphasize on resumes and in interviews.
Results > Effort