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Master's Degree: Do you want the piece of paper or are you after the knowledge?

Updated: Jan 11, 2021

How many of you feel like the inevitable next step in your career is a Master’s Degree? Many times when someone on my team brings me that topic for discussion, it seems it’s framed in the same manner: Minimal context, no vision and questionable motives. Most often, they’re the highly-motivated employees who love a challenge and are looking for the next hurdle. Some people, though, see that many leaders in their career path may have a Master’s Degree and have been told "it's just good to have”. In either case, I always ask a follow-up question: "Do you want the piece of paper or are you after the knowledge?"

Full disclosure, I did go back and get my Master of Business Administration degree, so I know first hand to complete a Master’s program while working full-time typically takes three years of online and/or night classes. Weekdays are packed with work, nights with class, and weekends with homework, studying, and projects. At the end of that three years, you will graduate with your Master’s Degree, and that’s a huge accomplishment. There’s a good chance, however, that in those three years, you won’t have as much free time raise your hand for many new opportunities at work. So there are trade offs. Which is more beneficial to your career? The Master’s Degree or the workplace opportunities? That answer is different for everyone.

Depending on the program, and what career your looking for, a Master's Degree may only fractionally prepare you for that career. So, what if instead of spending three years taking curated coursework, you spent the next three years deliberately building your skills for the career you want? I'm talking about the same amount of effort and work. Learning at night, studying content, and doing projects on the weekend with one caveat: 100% of your time was spent preparing you for your future career. What if you spent two to three months thoroughly researching the position or career path you want to obtain and created your own three-year education plan? In preparing, you could:

  • Meet with industry professionals you believe are doing the career you would like, and better understanding what they do and how they got where they are.

  • Research applicable industry qualifications or certificates that would help you excel in that career and what it would take to obtain them.

  • Search job postings for the position or career you're looking to take on (even if you intend to stay within your company) to see what qualifications, skills or abilities the job market is looking for in that career.

  • Speak with your manager about learning new skills at the company through volunteering your time on projects or tasks that are outside (and in some cases above) your current skillset.

  • Create a list of the best literature you could read to prepare you for your career.

Once you've obtained all of this knowledge, put together a projected schedule that could last the same amount of time as the Master's Degree. The same number of long nights and weekends, the same amount of reading and studying, and see where you end up.

Then put the Master's curriculum side-by-side with your custom approach to self-development. Maybe even meet with a mentor or two to get their take. Be ready to explain why you want to take the path less-travelled, why you don’t want to prescribe to the pre-determined curriculum a Master’s Degree offers – or the opposite. Explain why you’re more interested in a standardized approach and why you believe that will help your career.

If you're on the fence about going back to school for your Masters Degree, here are two things I feel you should do:

  1. Find the right program! Don’t limit yourself to local schools, or the programs everyone is taking. Almost every school in the world has online versions of their programs, some even allow you to modify the entire curriculum to your liking. So, do your homework!

  2. Do your best to assess unique approaches! Take the time. This will not be a weekend endeavor. It will take at least month to do correctly. The goal is go from a blank piece of paper, to a fully-built-out, self-curated curriculum. I'm not saying don't take classes, by all means take classes, get certificates, go to conferences, create a program that makes every moment of your three year "self-building program" applicable to your future career!

At the end of this, compare your two options and decide what is best for you and your career. Is it the traditional route? Or is it not? Is it the piece of paper? Or the knowledge?

Note: All of the opinions expressed in this article are my own, and are not a reflection of the viewpoint of my employer.

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