Must I Obtain a Master’s Degree?

master's degreeLest we be accused of ‘playing the flute while Rome burns’ it is pertinent that we take a swipe at this topic and attempt to kindle light  through the maze.  A lot of fresh graduates and mid to senior level professionals are either asking themselves this question or are making this decision every day.

The decision about whether one needs to obtain a Master’s degree or not is an ongoing, unresolved, debate and the earlier we devise a customizable template the better for a lot of people. Likewise the decision about which Master’s degree to choose and the best time to undertake the program are additional considerations that further complicate this decision making process. May this few lines aid your efforts to bring meaning and fulfillment to your life and career.

The Absolutes

Let’s deal with the absolutes first.

  • Everybody must CONSIDER obtaining a Master’s degree and if you decide not to it must be a deliberate and proactive choice for which you have found an alternate path towards your envisioned future. And by the way there are always alternate paths in life – God made sure of that.

  • You must not pursue a particular Master’s program just because it is the easiest for you to obtain.  The easiest path sometimes leads to a dead end.

  • You don’t have to pursue a Master’s in the course you studied in school. There is a non-negotiable law: your Master’s degree must be tied to your envisioned future and not enshrined in your past…except if there is a unity between your past, present and future.

  • You are free to obtain a Master’s degree in an area of life for which you only have an interest, like a hobby, even if you don’t necessarily want to cut a career in that field.

  • Your choice of Master’s must be relevant to your world and the direction of the times. There is no need to spend time, money and emotional resources to earn a Master’s that your part of the world isn’t interested in. So this means MSc Nuclear Weapons is out!

The bad, the ugly and the absurd

In the course of my work I have encountered many people whose experience can only be categorized under the bad, the ugly and the absurd. There is the case of the lady who has a BSc in Environmental & Resource Management and went ahead right after NYSC to obtain an MSc Environmental Toxicology & Pollution Management. And there is nothing wrong with any of this except that she was or is looking for a customer care, or administration role.

Before you say, “So what’s wrong with that”? I must say to you that in the Mastering Interviews 101, the first thing any self-respecting career counselor would tell you is that never assume your interviewers are fools. Hence they have uncanny ability to see when a person is looking for just any job and it pisses off most. I always advocate that even if you need any job so desperately, never let it show. No one wants to employ a liability.

Another guy obtained a degree in Geology, worked in a commercial bank for a few years, goes overseas to obtain an MSc in a field related to Geology and then attempts to rejoin the bank! I immediately told them that this person shouldn’t be hired, that he would only use the bank as a stepping stone to wherever he was actually going to eg. an Oil and Gas firm. Guess what? I was proven right a few months after he was hired because he resigned.

Or the story of the person whose age wasn’t exactly on her side but goes overseas to pick an MSc in Management Information Systems only to return and discover that organisations around here haven’t (even till date) found a place for this course. For us around here you are either in Information Technology or you aren’t – no middle ground.

I took the liberty of seeking comments from other professionals, particularly people who have gone on to pick a Master’s …especially from foreign lands.

Ngozi Adebiyi, MBA Mercer University – Stetson School of Business and Economics; Human Resource Director (Central Africa), Reckitt Benckiser

“To be, when to be or not to be” is the summary of the question. I’m all for excelling, gaining knowledge and expanding your knowledge base however its key how timing plays a big role in ensuring you make the most of a given opportunity or situation. There seems to be an upsurge of young graduates wanting to pursue a master’s program – nothing wrong with it being in the mid to long term plans but definitely not immediately after graduation.

As tempting as it is as an option especially when a job is not in sight after a few months of graduation or being caught up in the “let’s-get-it-out-of-the-way-before- marriage” syndrome, timing for a master’s program makes all the difference in the value and leverage it gives your career. There is such a big role that work experience plays that enables the knowledge gained to be put into better perspective.

Some clear benefits: one is able to connect with useful experience on case studies and projects being worked on in graduate school; would have useful experience that would make getting an internship a lot easier; be able to command a premium on salary upon graduation, working in or outside the country. On the subject of which Master’s program to pursue, simple advice is “when in doubt, go for an MBA” – it helps give a flavour of different courses that provide a foundation to build and make a career decision from afterwards. When clear as to the career path you want to pursue, specialising in an MSc, MPhil or taking it all the way to PhD level is worthwhile”.

Osaretin Osarenren, Sainsbury Fellow and Master of Public Administration in Development Practice Candidate 2012, School of International & Public Affairs, Columbia University 

“One should only pursue a master if one believes that obtaining a master’s degree would contribute to one’s personal and professional goals. For example a personal reason why i chose to pursue a master’s program was to enrich my worldview by living and schooling in another country, though professional reasons such as learning skills relevant to my career aspirations and learning from some of the world’s renowned experts in my field of interest were other important considerations.

With regards to timing, i strongly recommend the timing of a master’s should be after obtaining some work experience (at least 2 years) as this gives one the ability to contextualize the knowledge obtained and also provides a lens through which one may sift information for relevance and applicability to one’s national economic and business reality. A good time to pursue a master’s is also when one feels that higher competencies are necessary for the next phase one’s career which could be obtaining senior responsibilities, changing industries or starting a business”.

Gbenga Olatunji, MBA, London Business School; Marketing Manager, Johnson & Johnson Medical United Kingdom

“I think the correct question is: what are my medium/long term goals and what developmental steps/skills/knowledge do I need to get there? If you can figure out some of the answers to this question, it can help you start building a picture of whether you require an advanced degree, what type of degree, where etc which will in turn answer questions like whether you need experience first etc.

A couple of examples – if you currently work in a technical role (like IT) in a bank but want to long term work in commercial/general management in a major international tech company (e.g. Google), then you should plan to have (in addition to solid technical experience), a major international MBA (Google will normally only target the major schools) with a 2 year program (so you can have enough time for career change and internships etc).

 If you are a recent graduate and want to very quickly get into the international investment banking market, then you can get into either a Masters in Management/Masters in Finance in an Ivy league school. These will normally not require experience in advance. The school is again important, as that’s where the companies recruit, and where they have alumni that will be a valuable network. If your main goal is to be more competitive in your current job at (e.g.) Shell in Nigeria, or you are looking for self-actualisation for its own sake; then you can look at a range of self-development programs which may include an MSc or other more basic skills training like short courses at Lagos Business School”.

Damilola Ashaolu, MBA Candidate 2013, Mason School of Business, The College of William and Mary, United States

“In choosing a Master’s program, it is important to determine what one’s career goals are. If it is to be able to succeed in an increasingly dynamic and diverse global workplace , then a  Masters, especially one in a different country than your country of origin is an absolute must. Many people do succeed without a Masters but it does give one an edge in today’s environment.

Depending on what kind of Masters one is seeking to pursue, the level of experience one has will play a big role in how useful the Masters is. Work experience makes it easier for the student to participate and interact with other students who will bring varied backgrounds and experiences to class”.

Femi Olowoyeye, MSc, Human Resources, University of Bedfordshire, United Kingdom; former Head Human Capital Management, Wema Bank

“It is commonly accepted norm that a Masters is a further proof of interest and accomplishment in a particular field. Whilst not been the only route to getting ahead of the field in one’s profession, it enhances and promotes the individual and establishes some form of credibility. Usually, a person should pursue a master’s in the field of one’s chosen career. Such pursuit should normally be after putting in some years of experience, this depends on a lot of factors. Career goal or vision is critical in choosing a master’s programme to pursue.

However, doing a Masters immediately after a Bachelor’s degree is viewed by most professionals as two of the same thing. It appears to be just adding knowledge to knowledge and no practical experience to back it up. In post graduate schools, there is usually a preference for students with some experience to those without because they bring some perspective to the field of knowledge beyond just what the book says.

If interested in pursuing a career, it is advised an individual should have at least 3-5years experience or more before doing a master’s. The more the years, the more valuable the master’s become. The acquisition of the master’s now becomes a validator of some sort of one’s experience profile and fills in the gap in areas where the individual may have deficiencies. However, getting a Masters doesn’t preclude or diminish the place of professional certification or recognition and personal effort at self-development”.

Conclusion – my strong personal views

If you were to run into me and ask me if you should obtain a Master’s my default answer would be an unequivocal “Yes”! I may even say you should make it two (MBA and MSc) and a PHd if you will. The level of work and interaction and the connectedness of the whole world places more demands on us than in daddy’s time. Too many people now have 1-2 additional degrees in larger numbers than it was a few years ago.

It therefore means that the absence of a master’s degree would ring out louder than before. You have to avoid them asking you the rhetorical question, “So what have you been doing all these years?” Increasingly more sectors and even regulators are requiring that people moving into more senior roles have advanced degrees that show that they have the intellectual resources necessary at those levels.

The workplace is also requiring more collaboration across functions, across industries, and across nations. The requirement is for people who though are specialists in one field but are very comfortable in others. We grew up being told to ‘know a little about a lot’ but this day the cliché should be ‘know a lot about a lot’. The consensus is that you derive more benefit from an advanced degree when you have some experience.

However, you can pick up an MSc or an MA (not MBA) as part of a short-term strategy, while the MBA would be on a long-term after some years of experience. Eg. say you want to be in the commercial and business sector  as a career choice then you can toy with a Masters in Finance, or Economics or Marketing etc. An engineering master’s if that is your calling or a human resources masters as it applies to you. From the above shouldn’t you rather plan to obtain a Master’s?




  1. Ayokunle Olatunbosun says:

    So one has to just get busy, rather than being idle. Nice article.

  2. Vincent omokayode says:

    Thanks for the article gave another perspective, and it has helped in some thought going on in my mind. Thanks