Grad School Math: Which Degrees Are Worth the Debt

Math degrees are worth the timeWith unemployment high and wages stagnant, now's a rough time to be entering the job market.

Historically, when an unwelcoming economy awaits, graduating college students tend to run for grad school. But the monetary value of an advanced degree varies greatly depending on major, school, and how much debt you take on to get it.

A forthcoming article in the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics outlines the dangers of starting a career during an economic downturn. According to the study's authors, it can take up to 10 years for high-level workers entering the job market in a recession to narrow the wage gap between themselves and their peers who entered in better times. As for less-skilled workers, their earnings "can be permanently affected by cyclical downgrading" -- in other words, a weak start on wages can lead to a lifelong disadvantage.

For most people, the best move is to delay entry into the job market until the economy is stronger and workers are in higher demand. And when it comes to orchestrating that delay, few methods are better than graduate school: Not only does an advanced degree improve employability, but it can also have a huge effect on earnings. In fact, the median salary for someone with an advanced degree is $73,738 -- over $13,000 more than the average salary for someone with only a bachelor's degree.

But not all degrees are created equal. Based on an analysis of Census data, Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce determined that the payoff from a graduate degree can vary wildly, from a 1% salary bump to a 190% wage explosion. And the degrees that deliver most bang for the education buck may surprise you.

On the low end of the scale, the worst graduate major for salary improvement is meteorology, which only improved wage prospects by 1%. Only marginally better were studio arts (3%), petroleum engineering (7%), oceanography (11%), mass media (11%), advertising/public relations (12%), pharmaceutical sciences (13%), forestry (15%), computer engineering (16%), and miscellaneous education (16%). The reasons for the low salary bumps varied: In some majors, such as petroleum engineering and computer engineering, workers with bachelor's degrees already earn high salaries, which aren't much improved with higher degrees. In others, such as studio arts and mass media, the job market is weak regardless of how much education one has.

Degrees That Are Worth the Money (and How to Tell)

On the happier end of the spectrum, some graduate degrees can vastly improve your earnings. The big winners are health and medical preparatory programs, from which graduate or professional degrees can increase salary by 190%. Similarly, social sciences (134%), zoology (123%), molecular biology (115%), public policy (107%), biology (106%), biochemical sciences (101%), chemistry (93%), pre-law (81%) and physiology (78%) majors can all expect to get a major dividend from pursuing graduate or professional degrees.

The differences are hardly academic: The average undergrad leaves school with more than $25,000 in student loan debt, and graduate students routinely finish with $30,000 or more added on to that tab. Degrees that increase salary by 10% or less can take a long time to start paying off.

When it comes to determining how much a degree is worth, the "starting-year salary" guideline is a good rule of thumb. Basically, prospective grad students should calculate what their expected salary at graduation, then borrow no more than that amount. According to the Student Loan Network, most federal student loans follow a 10-year repayment schedule, which means that students who limit borrowing to a year of salary can expect to dedicate about 10% of their paychecks to paying off their educational debts -- a manageable percentage. By contrast, they note, students who borrow 15% or more stand a much greater likelihood of defaulting.

For some students, such as those in MBA programs, this isn't much of a problem: Average income for MBAs after graduation hovers around $91,000, while the average cost of a two-year program is about $80,000. By comparison, law students face a tougher road: According to one survey, almost 90% graduate with $80,000 in loans, only to land in a glutted job market that pays an average starting salary of $62,000.

For many people, graduate school is a chance to follow their passions and study what they love. But when the biggest dream is finding a job, it pays to choose a degree that the market will reward.

Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.

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I just took my SAT's and I got a 1670 on it. And Princeton's average SAT score is like 1400 to 1500! I have a 3.5 gpa so Im definitely getting in!!

January 10 2012 at 9:13 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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January 10 2012 at 11:24 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
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January 07 2012 at 4:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It is very hard to lump all graduate degrees together when looking at whether attending a graduate program is worthwhile. With some professions not having a PhD will limit you and what you can do in a given position. For instance if you are a chemist a lack of a PhD will limit what you can do in an industrial position for a pharmaceutical company. Those companies are always looking to hire new PhDs into jobs, so there is a job market for newly minted chemistry PhDs just as there is for new BS degree holders. In the case of a chemistry PhD degree there is not cost to the graduate student. All tuition is covered either through a Teaching Assistantship or a Research Assistantship in addition those positions provide a stipend on the order of $20,000 - $25,000 a year. When students are admitted to a program they are often guaranteed five years of funding at the beginning of the program. If students choose to take out additional loans to support living expenses beyond the stipend that is their decision. It can easily be obtained without taking on additional loans. When a student graduates and moves into an industrial job it is considerably higher paying than with just a BS degree.

January 06 2012 at 1:08 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Veterinary school leaves us $140,000-200,000+ in debt after 4 years, average starting salary between 60-80K.

January 05 2012 at 4:49 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Gee, how things have changed. I graduated in 1964, and that pretty much guaranteed that I would earn a lifetime of good earnings. Back in late 1970 a professor predicted that in the next 40 years there would be fewer jobs with fewer people earning bigger dollars. His thoughts centered on the concept that the auto makers will be crushed by foreign car makers and the rise in technology would cut jobs. Add in "outsourcing" and that professor was a seer. Lucky guess? Let's face it the "world economy" has put a pretty big hurt on capitalism. What does the next 40 years hold??

January 05 2012 at 6:50 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Graduate school is kind of a broad term and students can get a Masters, a PhD, or one of many other degrees out of a graduate program and not all are created equal. On the bright side, a PhD in the sciences (biology, chemistry, physics, etc.) is generally funded. My tuition, fees and health insurance are paid for and I get a moderate stipend to live on so I don't have to work or borrow money.

January 04 2012 at 9:58 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Let the buyer beware.

The colleges need your money to pay professors that teach 4 courses that are 3 hours per week. They have grad students grade the papers.

That way the professors can spend time thinking the world is impressed with them.

Be good citizens and borrow all you can, wreck your future because you don't count they do.

January 03 2012 at 11:45 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

What is that "pre-law" graduate degree??? As a grad student you are either in law school or you or not. There are no prerequistes for law school other than a decent showing in ANY undergraduate degree program and good LSAT scores.

January 03 2012 at 11:26 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to wynhyzer's comment

That's not entirley true. You can earn a bachelor degree in Criminal Justice or Sociology and work on a pre-law Masters in the same field. After completing the Masters, you only have 1 year of law school. In contrast, I can go straight to law school for 3 years and not earn a Masters.

January 05 2012 at 11:00 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Todd Robertson

Glad Charles did well with his math degree. I know a bunch who got no advantage in the rat race getting a math degree. I consider it to be a time waster and disadvantage. I saw one guy on youtube who burned his "useless math degree". I rarely put my Masters down on my resume because it kills my opportunity to get the job.

January 02 2012 at 7:21 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply