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Posted on 20 Dec '18

What’s a Masters Degree Actually Worth?

It's going to cost you around £7,000 (or more), you'll spend at least another year at university and you may need to take out another student loan. So will you earn more at the end of it all? Put simply, is a Masters 'worth it'?

It’s a reasonable enough question, but a tricky one to answer properly (spoilers: we're going to try).

The thing is, there’s actually loads of information out there on graduate salaries; we can even look up earnings for individual postgraduate subjects or check how much difference a Masters makes versus a Bachelors. And we will, in a moment.

But we have to do all of this sensibly. I'm not sat here writing a post about how a Masters degree is magically guaranteed to boost your earnings by 1,000% and I wouldn't expect you to read it if I did. You know better than that.

I will show you what earnings can look like with a Masters in different subject, but first I need to do ‘the boring bit’. You can skip it if you just want to look at the tables, but I suggest you don’t. It’s really quite important.

The lion, the caveats and the calculator

So, we’re going to be looking at something published by the government called the Longitudinal Education Outcomes dataset. We’ll call it LEO, like everyone else. Incidentally, when I think of LEO, I think of a clever lion. With a really big calculator.

LEO knows what university graduates have earned based on their student loan records, how much tax they’ve paid and any benefits they’ve claimed. It can show us what graduates with a Masters in Engineering have gone on to make, whether it was more or less than those a Masters in Computer Science, and so on.

This is interesting information if you’re thinking about the value of another degree (or if you want to play a weird game of Top Trumps, but that’s a topic for another blog).

There are two things we absolutely have to bear in mind about it though:

#1 This is historical data

There’s a reason I used the past tense so much above. LEO can tell you what people who studied a Masters in History in the past have gone on to earn in the present. It can’t tell you what you will earn with a Masters in History in the future. (The same is true for other subjects, obviously.)

#2 What someone earns with a Masters doesn’t just reflect the value of their degree

Other factors could include a candidate’s personal qualities or even their background (especially for people who graduated before postgraduate loans made Masters study more affordable).

On the other hand, the value of a degree isn’t just reflected in the salary you earn later. It’s also in the job you actually do (and how much that means to you) as well as the skills you gain and – dare I say it – the experiences you have specialising in a subject you care about.

So, that's the caveats out of the way. Now, on to those charts.

Postgraduate salaries, by subject

So, what have people actually gone on to earn with a Masters degree? (Yes, we're sticking with the past tense caveat).

Well, let's (finally) take a look.

The table below gives median* earnings for UK Masters graduates in different subjects one year after graduation alongside the same figures for Bachelors graduates:

*Median values are those in the middle of a range - other values have an equal chance of falling above or below them. So it's a sort of mid-range representative value (Maths Ed).

Masters Degree Earnings
Subject Undergraduate salary Masters degree salary
Agriculture £16,500 £22,900
Architecture, Building & Planning £23,200 £30,100
Biological Sciences £16,200 £22,800
Business & Administrative Studies £23,400 £32,900
Computer Science £21,200 £30,900
Creative Arts & Design £14,300 £16,800
Economics £24,500 £31,400
Education £18,300 £34,000
Engineering & Technology £29,500 £34,000
English Studies £16,300 £21,300
Historical & Philosophical Studies £17,400 £20,800
Languages £19,300 £21,900
Law £17,200 £24,100
Mass Communications £15,900 £22,000
Mathematical Sciences £22,500 £31,100
Medicine & Dentistry £36,000 £37,200
Nursing £25,500 £29,500
Physical Sciences £19,600 £25,500
Psychology £16,300 £22,800
Social Studies £18,000 £27,100
Veterinary Science £28,300 £29,700
* Data gives median earnings after one year for UK-domiciled graduates with an undergraduate degree or Masters degree based on the UK Government's Longitudinal Educational Outcomes dataset for the 2015/16 tax year..

So, what does all this tell us?

You might not be too surprised by what you see here. The ‘usual suspects’ do fairly well when it comes to earnings for both graduates and postgraduates, whilst very professional subjects also tend to match with strong earnings.

But is it worth studying a Masters in any of them? Let's quickly take a closer look.

A Masters is worth something

The simple answer to the above question is: 'Yes. Probably.'

Postgraduates do at least slightly better than graduates in every single subject area. That’s pretty impressive (remember that these numbers are just one year after graduation).

Of course, it may not just be the Masters that’s making this difference. These postgraduates are also going to be more experienced workers (they might have gained some professional experience before studying their Masters). They’re also, by definition, the kind of people with the ability and drive to take on a more advanced degree. But then, that’s you too, right?

Postgraduate qualifications make a bigger difference in some subjects

This is probably the most interesting detail, if I’m honest. You’ll often read that a Masters could help you earn £x% more, but these kinds of average aren’t that meaningful for individuals.

It’s a lot more useful to be able to look at the chart above and see that people with postgraduate qualifications earn quite a bit more in, say, Psychology, but that the difference isn’t anywhere near as big for, say, Veterinary Science.

(This makes sense, incidentally: a) If you’re qualified to be a vet, you’re qualified to be a vet. b) No number of university degrees are going to persuade my cat to sit any more still when you’re coming at him with a needle.)

There’s nothing wrong with studying what you want

Really. There just isn’t. A Masters is usually around a year. If you can afford it and you’re interested in it and it’s what you want to do, do it. Looking at the above, you’ll probably benefit in the long run.

And if the subject you want to study is one of those that will also boost your earnings by quite a bit, well, more power to you!

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