10 Grad School Degrees Worth the Debt
More education typically leads to better job prospects and bigger paychecks.
More education typically leads to better job prospects and bigger paychecks. And we're not just talking about doctors and lawyers. While the average high school grad 25 years and older can expect to earn just $29,766 a year, median annual earnings climb to $50,281 for someone with a bachelor's degree and to $73,100 for advanced-degree holders.
But that higher income may not pay off if your extra money goes right to student loans—and especially if your job security is increasingly imperiled by an industry in decline. To help you ensure that a grad school degree is worth the debt, we calculated how long it would take the typical worker in various fields to repay the amount borrowed to obtain his advanced degree. We used the median mid-career salaries of workers with 98 popular advanced degrees, along with median student-loan debts for each degree type—$66,335 for a master of arts (MA), $59,300 for a doctor of philosophy (PhD) and $51,779 for a master of business administration (MBA). We also screened for fields with 10-year projected job growth faster than the 10.8% growth expected of all U.S. jobs between 2012 and 2022.
The following fields offer grad school alumni the quickest payoffs and the most promising careers. Take a look.
Methodology: Median annual salaries for mid-career employees (at least ten years of work experience) were supplied by compensation research firm PayScale. Median amounts borrowed are from the U.S. Department of Education's 2012 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study. Debt-payoff times were calculated using Bankrate.com's student-loan calculator. Though interest and repayment rates may vary, for our rankings we assumed that the grad-school debt would carry a 6.8% interest rate (the rate on subsidized Stafford loans disbursed between July 2006 and June 2012) and that 10% of median annual income would go to paying it off (the same percentage required for the Pay As You Earn repayment program). Projected job-growth rates from 2012 to 2022 and median annual salaries for specific occupations are from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
- Mid-career annual salary for an MA holder: $102,000Debt payoff time: 8 years, 8 months
- Mid-career annual salary for a PhD holder: $104,000Debt payoff time: 7 years, 3 months
- Related job and its projected growth rate (national average growth rate: 10.8%): civil engineer; 19.7%
Getting a sheepskin in civil engineering is already a smart move (it's one of our Best Majors for a Lucrative Career), but you can do even better with an advanced degree. Experienced workers with a B.A. in civil engineering sport mid-career unemployment rates of 4.0%, and the rate drops to 3.1% for those with advanced degrees, according to Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. A master's or doctorate in civil engineering will typically bump your pay up by more than $13,000 over a college grad's median mid-career annual salary.
More than 20% of civil engineers—who design and supervise large construction projects, including airports, sewer systems and bridges—have a master's degree, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
- Mid-career annual salary for an MBA holder: $88,400Debt payoff time: 7 years
- Mid-career annual salary for a PhD holder: $107,000Debt payoff time: 7 years, 6 months
- Related job and its projected growth rate: accountant or auditor; 13.1%
Accounting students know how to push their ledgers to the black. Even early in their careers, accounting majors typically clear the red faster than other advanced-degree holders. Inexperienced PhDs make a median of $93,000 a year.
More education will help you stand out in this competitive field. Even if you don't go as far as grad school, consider professional certifications to boost your job prospects. To become a certified public accountant, you'll need to pass the national exam and meet other state requirements, which typically include additional college coursework.
- Mid-career annual salary for an MA holder: $97,000Debt payoff time: 9 years, 4 months
- Mid-career annual salary for a PhD holder: $112,000Debt payoff time: 6 years, 7 months
- Related job and its projected growth rate: mathematician; 22.7%
While a college degree in math can lead to a lucrative career, further education in this field adds up to even better job prospects. In fact, you'll need a master's degree to land most jobs as a mathematician, who can work with governments, scientific research firms, colleges and elsewhere and earn an annual median salary of $102,440. To become a college math professor, and make a median annual salary of $65,930, you'll need a doctoral degree.
For advanced-degree holders who studied math, the unemployment rate is just 2.9% (versus 3.3% for all advanced-degree holders).
Human Resources Management
- Mid-career annual salary for an MBA holder: $74,400Debt payoff time: 9 years, 6 months
- Mid-career annual salary for a PhD holder: $113,000Debt payoff time: 6 years, 7 months
- Related job and its projected growth rate: human resources manager; 13.2%
Successful human resources managers must be innovative workplace strategists, starting with their own careers. Getting started in the H.R. game generally requires a bachelor's, but higher-level positions may call for advanced degrees, along with several years of work experience. Certification programs, offered by the Society for Human Resources Management and the International Foundation for Employee Benefits Plans, can also be helpful in climbing the corporate ladder.
The rewards for moving up can be great. While some lower-level HR positions are actually declining in number, opportunities for managers will grow faster than average by 2022, and they enjoy a median salary of $100,800 a year.
- Mid-career annual salary for an MA holder: $105,000Debt payoff time: 8 years, 4 months
- Mid-career annual salary for a PhD holder: $118,000Debt payoff time: 6 years, 2 months
- Related job and its projected growth rate: information systems manager; 15.3%
Technology training on any level is likely to upgrade your future. A mere bachelor's degree in information systems—a field which focuses on the implementation of technology within an organization—will earn you a median starting annual salary of $50,900 that climbs to $86,700 by mid career, making it one of our Best Majors for a Lucrative Career.
Hanging out in the computer lab a little longer and sticking it out through grad school likely will push your paycheck even higher. Starting annual salaries for workers with master's and doctoral degrees in information systems typically come in at $62,900 and $77,800, respectively.
As a college grad with five or more years of work experience, you can become an information systems manager—the highest paid of all computer jobs, earning a median of $123,950 a year. But many companies may require you to have a graduate degree to snag this lucrative position.
- Mid-career annual salary for an MBA holder: $104,000Debt payoff time: 6 years, 2 months
- Mid-career annual salary for a PhD holder: $118,000Debt payoff time: 6 years, 2 months
- Related job and its projected growth rate: business operations specialist; 13.0%
Talk about a savvy business move: Put in a few more years of education for an advanced degree in this field, and get back significantly higher paychecks. Workers with bachelor's degrees in business administration can expect to earn just $41,400 a year to start. Those with master's degrees, however, start out making $57,500 a year, and PhDs stand to earn the highest incomes, more than double the salary of a mere sheepskin-holder with $83,000 to start. Their mid-career salaries go up from there.
Plus, studying business administration can help prepare you for myriad jobs. Management occupations can offer fatter paychecks, with a median salary of $95,600 a year. Sales managers, for instance, earn a median salary of $108,540. Business and financial-operations jobs earn only $63,800. But they make up for the lower pay with a better-than-average 12.5% growth rate. Management analysts or consultants typically make $79,870 a year and will experience job growth of 18.6% by 2022.
- Mid-career annual salary for an MA holder: $115,300Debt payoff time: 7 years, 4 months
- Mid-career annual salary for a PhD holder: $129,000Debt payoff time: 5 years, 7 months
- Related job and its projected growth rate: economist; 13.9%
- A master's or doctoral degree in economics will likely lead to six figures by mid career, and workers with the latter can boast the second-highest mid-career income on this list.
Most jobs in the dismal science, especially in higher-level positions, require you to have an advanced degree. Currently, the majority of these workers can be found in federal, state and local government offices. But private companies, including those that might provide consulting services to the feds, are likely to need more economists in the next several years. Credit that growing demand to an increasingly complex global economy and financial landscape that's just begging to be analyzed—and reap the benefits of being on the supply side of that equation.
- Mid-career annual salary for an MA holder: $117,000Debt payoff time: 7 years, 3 months
- Mid-career annual salary for a PhD holder: $130,000Debt payoff time: 5 years, 6 months
- Related job and its projected growth rate: computer scientist; 15.3%
- Opportunities for computer-related occupations overall are expected to grow 17.7% by 2022. The fast-growing role of computer scientists, who create new technology and innovate with existing tech, requires an advanced degree. It also offers the second-highest median salary of all computer-related jobs, $106,290 a year.
Computers may enrich all of our futures, but those who learn to master them will do especially well. College grads who major in computer science can expect to earn a median $100,000 a year just a few years into their career. But PhD holders can expect to earn annual paychecks that are six figures long from the very start, making them the highest salaries for both entry-level and experienced workers on this list.
- Mid-career annual salary for an MBA holder: $119,000Debt payoff time: 5 years, 3 months
- Mid-career annual salary for a PhD holder: N/ADebt payoff time: N/A
- Related job and its projected growth rate: marketing manager; 12.7%
Marketing is all about attracting dollars. Small wonder the people studying this field know how to do the same for themselves. Marketing management MBAs enjoy the second-fastest loan payoff time on this list, so they're free to pocket their full, typically six-figure, mid-career salaries sooner.
Market research analysts can get started with a bachelor's degree, and they'll benefit from a job growth rate of 31.6%. But the top positions often call for a master's degree. Marketing managers can rake in $123,220 a year.
- Mid-career annual salary for an MBA holder: $118,000Debt payoff time: 6 years, 2 months
- Mid-career annual salary for a PhD holder: $120,000Debt payoff time: 5 years, 2 months
- Related job and its projected growth rate: financial analyst; 15.5%
The numbers add up well for finance scholars. MBA holders in finance are typically able to pay off their student-loan debts quicker than all the other workers on this list, and they face a low 4% unemployment rate.
Job opportunities in this field will continue to multiply at a faster-than-average pace. Personal financial advisors will experience the greatest growth among financial specialists, adding positions at a rate of 27.0% by 2022. Median pay is $75,320 a year. You can start this job with a bachelor's degree, but a master's or certified financial planner (CFP) certification can help you move up the ranks and expand your client base. Financial analysts typically make a bit more, at $78,380 annually, and financial managers do even better, at $112,700 a year.