Master's Degree Ideas for Making a Career Change

The Best Graduate Degree Paths & Careers by the Numbers

Pursuing a master's degree can be highly advantageous for working professionals looking to make a career change. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employees with a master's degree earned a median wage of $1,401 per week in 2017. The same year, the unemployment rate for master's degree holders was 2.2%. Comparatively, those with a bachelor's earned $1,173 per week and faced an unemployment rate of 2.5%.

U.S. News & World Report also notes that a master's degree is quickly replacing the bachelor's as the minimum educational requirement for entry-level workers in certain fields, such as higher education administration, public affairs, and social services. Many learners seeking a master's do not need a bachelor's in the same field to be admitted into top-rated programs. Read on to learn more about the value of a master's degree in today's job market and get expert advice if considering a career change.

7 Signs It's Time to Consider a Career Change

A recent BLS survey suggests the average employee holds 12 different jobs between the ages of 18 and 50, and roughly half of these jobs are held before the age of 25. Many factors can lead people to embrace a new role within their organization, or a different professional field altogether. Bachelor's degree holders may want to consider a career change if any of the following circumstances apply.

1. The employer offers to pay for school

Many companies provide tuition reimbursement and assistance to employees seeking an advanced degree. These programs enable employees to continue working and earning a paycheck while taking courses online, at night, or on the weekends. In some cases, tuition reimbursement and assistance is granted with the understanding the employee will continue working for the organization for at least two years after finishing school. This helps the organization ensure a small return on their investment in the employee's education.

2. The employee feels undervalued

Workplace dissatisfaction is common across all professional fields. Many employees feel overqualified -- and under-compensated -- for their current roles. Stagnant day-to-day duties and frequent lulls in work can also contribute to employees feeling undervalued. A master's degree can help workers advocate for more hours, higher salaries, and more advanced positions at their organization.

3. The employee faces underemployment

Many job seekers with bachelor's degrees struggle to enter the workforce after graduation. Underemployment often occurs when graduates apply for jobs in competitive fields, especially if their education did not include an internship or other elements with onsite workplace components. Poor interviewing skills may also be a factor. Those with a master's degree are well-positioned to compete for jobs and engage with recruiters.

4. A new field is taking off

Graduates are urged to follow job trends in order to determine which field will offer the most rewarding and lucrative opportunities. Jobs for occupations such as information security analysts, personal financial advisers, and market research analysts are all expected to grow at much faster-than-average rates in the years to come. As the BLS notes, candidates with a master's degree stand a much better chance of launching steady careers in these fields.

5. The employee's field is in decline

Below-average salary expectations and low projected job growth may indicate that a career field is in decline. Employees considering a career change may be able to find similar fields with a stronger outlook. For instance, jobs for computer programmers are expected to decrease by 7% through 2026. However, computer and technology occupations as a whole are projected for above-average growth during the same period. Pursuing a master's degree in a programming-related field that offers a more promising future -- such as software development or database administration -- can allow employees to remain in the same field without worrying about their salary or future employment opportunities.

6. Higher salary potential

Generally speaking, those with a master's degree outearn their bachelor's-holding counterparts in most professional fields. However, some master's degrees are associated with much higher earnings than others. A recent article from Monster.com noted that the most lucrative fields for those with master's degrees include advanced practice nursing, finance and economics, technology management, and several engineering fields.

7. Flexible programs available

Due to the increasing popularity of online education, colleges and universities across the country offer online master's programs that follow a self-paced schedule and do not carry any on-campus requirements. These flexible pathways are ideal for employees who want to pursue a graduate degree but cannot afford to quit their job or relocate to a different part of the country.

The Best Master's Degrees for a Career Change

A master's degree in any field will likely lead to a higher salary and more job opportunities. However, some master's fields often demand candidates with a bachelor's degree in a related subject, which can be limiting for career changers with differing undergraduate majors. Return-on-investment is another consideration, as some graduate degrees lead to careers with marginal wage growth and minimal potential for advancement.

Based on our research, the degrees below represent some of the most lucrative and promising graduate-level fields for career changers.

Master's Degree in Software Engineering

Is This Career Change Right for Me? A master's in software engineering prepares students for careers in the cutting-edge field of software development and design. This field is projected for substantial growth in the coming years. According to the BLS, jobs for software developers are expected to grow 24% by 2026, resulting in more than 300,000 new positions. Growth projections for software applications developers are particularly strong. The median annual salary for software developers is more than $100,000.

Some schools prefer to admit candidates with a bachelor's in information technology or computer science. However, U.S. News & World Report notes that software engineering master's programs may admit students with undergraduate degrees in other subjects as long as they can demonstrate technical skills. Online programs are also widely available, which can be convenient for working students. These include accelerated options that allow students to earn their degree in less than two years.

Master's Degree in Information Systems Security

Is This Career Change Right for Me? A worldwide emphasis on cybersecurity has led to impressive job growth for professions related to this field. For instance, jobs for information security analysts are expected to increase 28% through 2026. These professionals earn a median annual salary that exceeds $95,000. Computer and information systems managers also have above-average projected job growth, and the median salary for these professionals is nearly $140,000 per year. Although a bachelor's degree is usually sufficient for either occupation, a master's in information systems security can help job candidates stand out from their competitors.

An online information systems security master's program is optimal for working students. Full-time learners typically complete their degree requirements within 12 to 18 months, allowing them to begin their career transition in as little as two years. Programs may admit candidates with a bachelor's regardless of their undergraduate major, and some do not require GRE or GMAT scores.

Master's Degree in Social Work

Is This Career Change Right for Me? Social work can be a very rewarding career field. Social workers assist people with various needs, including job counseling, childcare services, or mental health and substance abuse counseling. Those who earn a master's degree in social work are qualified to become clinical social workers who diagnose and treat mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders. The BLS notes that the job growth outlook for clinical social workers is particularly strong, and social workers employed in clinical and medical settings earn the highest median annual salaries.

A master's in social work is ideal for those seeking a complete departure from their current occupation. Most social work master's programs do not require a bachelor's in social work for admission, and most undergraduate fields are acceptable -- particularly those grounded in the social sciences. To become licensed, students must complete two years of supervised clinical training after graduation. This period can help them adapt to the demands and challenges of their new profession before obtaining a license, and help them decide whether the clinical or non-clinical pathway is their best option.

Master's Degree in Occupational Therapy

Is This Career Change Right for Me? Occupational therapists assist people whose lives have been disrupted by illness, injury, or disability. They help patients create long-term treatment plans that incorporate therapeutic exercises and activities into their daily routines. Occupational therapists play a valuable role in the lives of people with Alzheimer's disease, cerebral palsy, and other common conditions. As a result, these occupations are in exceptionally high demand. The BLS estimates that jobs for occupational therapists will rise 24% through 2026, resulting in roughly 31,000 new positions. The median salary for occupational therapists is more than $83,000 per year.

To become a licensed occupational therapist, candidates must first complete an accredited master's program. Programs may not require a bachelor's in occupational therapy, but coursework or work experience in fields such as biology and physiology can increase one's odds of admission. Additional postgraduate fieldwork is necessary for occupational therapy licensure, which is required in all 50 states.

Master's Degree in Nutrition

Is This Career Change Right for Me? Dietitians and nutritionists are niche occupational roles within the health education and promotion field. These professionals meet with patients to discuss the importance of a healthy, balanced diet and food-based methods for achieving health and fitness goals. Most dietitians and nutritionists have a bachelor's degree, but a growing number are entering the workforce with graduate credentials, and a master's can help candidates compete for desirable jobs. Jobs for dietitians and nutritionists are expected to climb by 15% through 2026. This above-average demand is due, in part, to a nationwide emphasis on obesity prevention.

According to U.S. News & World Report, most master's in nutrition programs admit applicants with a bachelor's degree regardless of their undergraduate major, provided they have taken courses in areas such as chemistry and human anatomy. Some schools allow master's in nutrition students to complete prerequisite courses while working toward their graduate degree, which allows them to graduate more quickly. Licensing requirements for dietitians and nutritionists vary by state, but many employers prefer candidates with the registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) credential in addition to an educational background.

Master's Degree in Marketing

Is This Career Change Right for Me? The field of marketing includes some high-paying occupations with strong projected job growth. Marketing managers earn median salaries of more than $132,000 per year, according to the BLS, and the job outlook for marketing and advertising managers -- particularly those with digital expertise -- is faster than average. Careers in market research analysis, on the other hand, are expected to grow 23% through 2026. Most entry-level jobs in marketing do not require a master's, but candidates with a graduate degree are often considered for advanced leadership or research positions.

Master's in marketing degrees typically require a bachelor's for admission, but many programs accept applicants with non-related undergraduate majors. Online marketing master's programs are generally flexible, allowing most students to complete their required courses in one to two years. As noted by U.S. News & World Report, the marketing master's online is also less expensive compared to many online MBA pathways.

Master's Degree in Project Management

Is This Career Change Right for Me? Project management has become a popular field of study in recent years. With positions available across a range of industries, project managers are responsible for planning, budgeting, and delegating responsibilities for short- and long-term projects. According to U.S. News & World Report, some of the most common career fields for project managers include construction, pharmaceuticals, information technology, and engineering. A 2017 salary survey from the Project Management Institute notes that the United States boasts the second-highest median salary for project managers in the world at $112,000 per year.

Project manager roles generally require a bachelor's degree, but a master's may be preferable due to stiff competition in the job market. Master's in project management programs will usually admit applicants with a bachelor's degree in any field, and most do not have any previous work requirements. Additionally, some schools will waive GRE and GMAT score requirements for candidates with a high undergraduate GPA.

Master's Degree in Public Health

Is This Career Change Right for Me? The master's in public health, or MPH, is one of the most versatile graduate degrees available. Those who enter the workforce with an MPH can choose from fields such as epidemiology, where a master's degree is the minimum requirement. In many other occupations in this field, such as health education or environmental science, holding a graduate degree often leads to career advancement. As federal, state, and local governments continue to prioritize health promotion and medical research, demand for these and other related professions is predicted to remain steady in the coming years.

U.S. News & World Report notes that MPH programs typically offer multiple specializations, allowing students to concentrate on specific areas of the field related to their future career plans. Many schools offer online, accelerated MPH programs that can be completed in as little as 14 to 18 months, making them ideal for working students. In most cases, any bachelor's degree from an accredited institution is sufficient for admission into an MPH program.

Master's Degree in Public Relations

Is This Career Change Right for Me? Public relations, or PR, is a suitable field for career changers with writing, editing, and social media skills. Many entry-level PR roles are available to candidates with a bachelor's degree, but managerial positions are often awarded to those with a master's. Public relations managers oversee the creation and publication of materials that generate a favorable public image for their firm's clients. These important roles are considered in high demand. As such, public relations managers earn a median salary of more than $110,000 per year, and the job growth outlook for this profession is strong.

According to U.S. News & World Report, students can usually earn a master's in public relations within one to two years of full-time study. Most schools admit applicants with a bachelor's degree regardless of their undergraduate major, and previous work experience is normally not required. Online PR master's programs may be most suitable for students who plan to continue working while they earn their degree. Online PR pathways are also relatively inexpensive, with most programs priced at less than $30,000.

Master's Degree in Finance

Is This Career Change Right for Me? Finance is an excellent potential field for career changers. Median annual salaries are high, projected job growth is strong, and those who earn a master's degree are well-positioned for advanced positions. U.S. News & World Report notes that most master's in finance programs will admit applicants with a bachelor's degree in any field, though candidates with previous coursework in related subjects may receive preference. Full-time students usually earn their finance master's within one to two years.

Graduates with their master's degree in finance can choose from a wide range of careers in the field. Personal financial advisers meet with individual clients to discuss topics such as investments, taxes, retirement, and estate planning. Other occupations, such as financial analysts and financial examiners, involve extensive research of market activities, laws, and trends. The master's in finance is also suitable for aspiring financial managers, as many employers prefer candidates with a graduate degree for these roles. According to the BLS, all of these professions are associated with above-average earnings and high job growth in the coming years.



Career Change FAQ: Expert Answers for Common Roadblocks

The reasons behind a career change can differ from person to person, but job data and trends suggest many career transitions -- into to a new role, organization, or career field -- share some common characteristics. Below, two expert career advisors weigh in with answers to some of the most common questions regarding career change obstacles and challenges for those seeking a master's degree.

Stacie Jeffirs has provided leadership to the Career Crossings Office at Saint Mary's College and career counseling to the students and alumnae of Saint Mary’s for over ten years. She has over fifteen years of experience in career development in higher education. She is a certified global career development facilitator and certified career services provider.

Suzanne Rohan Jones serves as an adjunct professor in the Psychology Department at Maryville University, and has spent more than 20 years in higher education. Her areas of expertise include career counseling, academic advising and talent acquisition, in addition to being an instructor and program facilitator.

When Is the Best Time to Consider Making a Career Change?

According to a recent article from Inc., the best time to make a career change is now. The U.S. unemployment rate is at a record low and many employers have eased education and work experience requirements for entry-level workers. As a result, companies are hiring more people with fewer qualifications compared to a period when the unemployment rate was higher. However, the Society of Human Resources Management notes that the right time to change careers depends on several factors, such as:

    The Employer's Budget Cycle. Most organizations finalize hiring budgets in the early fall and begin posting job vacancies in December and January. Job seekers typically find the most opportunities between January and April, although companies with quarterly hiring quotas usually recruit new employees throughout the year.

    Your Availability. A career change requires a large amount of legwork. Job seekers must customize their resume to appeal to employers in their new prospective field, adopt new keywords when searching for open positions, and refine their interviewing skills. Once they have finished these steps, they will be ready to apply for jobs.

Jeffers' Pro Tip: Assess your situation. Understand and carefully examine your motivations to pursue grad school. How will a graduate degree help you advance in your career? Will the credential help you leverage more opportunities? Is grad school right for you right now?

What Age Is Realistic for a Career Change?

Career changes are tenable at any age. However, the most effective methods and strategies for career changers often depend on their specific age bracket.

    Career Change in Your 30's - According to a recent article from CNN Money, the average millennial who graduated college between 2006 and 2010 will hold four different jobs by the time they turn 32. As a result, job-hopping under the age of 35 carries less stigma among recruiters and many millennials are highly adept at transitioning to different roles. Those with a master's degree and some background experience in their new field are especially well positioned for the job market.

    Career Changes After 40 - This stage can be a bit trickier. In a recent Forbes post, writer Philippe Gaud describes his transition from HR to teaching in his mid-50s. Comfort level is one main challenge for those shifting careers over 40, since many have reached advanced or senior roles at their organization by that time. Retirement savings and financial stability for the employee's family are other major considerations. However, those who encounter stagnating salaries, toxic workplace environments, and other red flags may find that a career change is the best option.

    Career Changes After 50 - Inc. contributor J.T. O'Donnell notes that personal branding is key for career changers over 50. Many older job seekers struggle to engage with recruiters and employers because they have been in their previous role for so long. Those with limited experience in their new field can circumvent this by appealing directly to the needs of hiring officials by articulating their skills and providing tangible examples of their past successes.

    Lastly, career changers are urged to research job fields where older candidates commonly find work. The fastest-growing occupations among job seekers over 50 include primary, secondary, and special education teachers, registered nurses, and home health aides.

    Learn More: The Complete Guide to Career Change After 50

Can I Get a Master's Degree If My Bachelor's Degree Is in Another Unrelated Field?

Some master's programs only admit candidates who have earned a bachelor's degree in the same field or a closely related one. These include occupations that require licensure or certification, such as advanced practice registered nurses or school counselors. However, many master's pathways are not as choosy and often admit candidates with bachelor's degrees in unrelated fields. Here are some examples:

    Social Work - The BLS notes that a bachelor's degree in social work is not required for graduate-level programs in the same field. Many colleges and universities admit candidates with undergraduate degrees in fields such as psychology, sociology, economics, or political science.

    Occupational Therapy - Many master's in occupational therapy programs admit candidates who have taken specific courses in fields such as biology and physiology, and may not require a bachelor's degree in that specific field to qualify for acceptance.

Rohan Jones' Pro Tip: Talking to people employed in careers of interest allows those contemplating a career change to learn the pros and cons of occupations and employers that may not be noted in online career information. Using contacts from family, friends, neighbors, LinkedIn, or professional organizations, individuals should reach out to those already employed in careers of interest to conduct informational interviews, asking questions...such as:

    What has been your career path?

    What are the pros and cons of this particular career field?

    What education and training do I need to enter this field? With this organization?

    Can you tell me what a typical day is like working in this career?

    Are there opportunities for growth and professional development in this field? With this employer?

    Can you tell me about this organization’s structure and your role within it?

    What else should I know as I contemplate a career change?

Learning this information allows individuals considering a career change to make the most informed decisions, continuing to pursue occupations or organizations of interest through job shadowing while eliminating those that do not sound like a good fit or do not offer growth, challenge, and other benefits.

How Can I Make Earning a Master's Degree for a Career Change More Affordable?

Many graduate students rely on financial aid to cover tuition, fees, and other master's degree expenses. The federal government offers two student loan options for master's seekers:

    Direct Unsubsidized Loans are available to graduate students regardless of their financial need. The recipient's school determines the loan amount based on their cost of attendance and their additional financial aid sources.

    PLUS Loans are offered to master's students attending eligible schools who do not have adverse credit histories. Both loans carry fixed interest rates and do not need to be repaid until the recipient graduates or leaves school. These factors make them preferable to student loans from private lenders, many of which carry variable interest rates and need to be repaid sooner.

To qualify for federal student loans, candidates must complete and submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA asks for personal and family income, tax history, and other financial details. Based on the applicant's responses, the federal government will determine how much aid he or she should receive. To supplement loan payments, students can also apply for scholarships and grants. Unlike loans, these forms of financial aid do not need to be repaid. Scholarships and grants are widely available through different providers, such as private companies, nonprofit organizations, and community foundations. Most colleges and universities offer institutional awards for currently enrolled students, as well.

In addition to financial aid, career changers pursuing a master's degree can manage tuition costs in other ways.

Learn More: Tuition Reimbursement, Waivers and Additional Assistance

Take the next step towards your future with online learning.

Discover schools with the programs and courses you’re interested in, and start learning today.

Man working at desk