William Klein’s story may sound familiar to his fellow graduates. After earning his bachelor’s in history from the College at Brockport, he found himself living in his parents’ Buffalo home, working the same $7.25-an-hour waiter job he had in high school.
It wasn’t that there weren’t other jobs out there. It’s that they all seemed to want more education. Even tutoring at a for-profit learning center or leading tours at a historic site required a master’s. “It’s pretty apparent that with the degree I have right now, there are not too many jobs I would want to commit to,” Mr. Klein says.
So this fall, he will sharpen his marketability at Rutgers’ new master’s program in Jewish studies (think teaching, museums and fund-raising in the Jewish community). Jewish studies may not be the first thing that comes to mind as being the road to career advancement, and Mr. Klein is not sure exactly where the degree will lead him (he’d like to work for the Central Intelligence Agency in the Middle East). But he is sure of this: he needs a master’s. Browse professional job listings and it’s “bachelor’s required, master’s preferred.”
Call it credential inflation. Once derided as the consolation prize for failing to finish a Ph.D. or just a way to kill time waiting out economic downturns, the master’s is now the fastest-growing degree. The number awarded, about 657,000 in 2009, has more than doubled since the 1980s, and the rate of increase has quickened substantially in the last couple of years, says Debra W. Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools. Nearly 2 in 25 people age 25 and over have a master’s, about the same proportion that had a bachelor’s or higher in 1960.
“Several years ago it became very clear to us that master’s education was moving very rapidly to become the entry degree in many professions,” Dr. Stewart says. The sheen has come, in part, because the degrees are newly specific and utilitarian. These are not your general master’s in policy or administration. Even the M.B.A., observed one business school dean, “is kind of too broad in the current environment.” Now, you have the M.S. in supply chain management, and in managing mission-driven organizations. There’s an M.S. in skeletal and dental bioarchaeology, and an M.A. in learning and thinking.
The degree of the moment is the professional science master’s, or P.S.M., combining job-specific training with business skills. Where only a handful of programs existed a few years ago, there are now 239, with scores in development. Florida’s university system, for example, plans 28 by 2013, clustered in areas integral to the state’s economy, including simulation (yes, like Disney, but applied to fields like medicine and defense). And there could be many more, says Patricia J. Bishop, vice provost and dean of graduate studies at the University of Central Florida. “Who knows when we’ll be done?”
While many new master’s are in so-called STEM areas — science, technology, engineering and math — humanities departments, once allergic to applied degrees, are recognizing that not everyone is ivory tower-bound and are drafting credentials for résumé boosting.
“There is a trend toward thinking about professionalizing degrees,” acknowledges Carol B. Lynch, director of professional master’s programs at the Council of Graduate Schools. “At some point you need to get out of the library and out into the real world. If you are not giving people the skills to do that, we are not doing our job.”
This, she says, has led to master’s in public history (for work at a historical society or museum), in art (for managing galleries) and in music (for choir directors or the business side of music). Language departments are tweaking master’s degrees so graduates, with a portfolio of cultural knowledge and language skills, can land jobs with multinational companies.
Laura Pappano is author of “Inside School Turnarounds: Urgent Hopes, Unfolding Stories.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: July 28, 2011
An earlier version of this article misidentified the university that is revamping its master’s in public history. It is the University of Central Florida, not the University of South Florida.