Burn Rate

Masters Degrees: When Are They Worth It?

I’ve met more than a few people who have decided to pursue a masters degree, whether in the 5 years bachelors masters program or separately. And sometimes they’re worth it. And sometimes they’re not.

I’d like to preface this post with a disclaimer that this is a little outside my normal area of knowledge—I am not a masters student nor do I plan on getting a masters. However I have taken masters courses and chatted with both masters students and professors about masters students. Nonetheless take what I say with a grain of salt, if you don’t already. Also I don’t mean any disrespect to current or previous masters students. Anybody willingly pursuing more education has my respect.


I’d say that the main reasons you should get a masters degree are:

  • You have a bachelors in a different field and want a CS degree
  • You received your bachelors in a different country and want a degree in the US for job/visa reasons
  • You want to do research and/or prepare for a PhD
  • Your employer is paying for it.

If you’ve already gotten your bachelors in a different subject, anything from French Literature to Civil Engineering, then a masters may be a good idea. You’ll get the necessary credentials to apply for jobs and the background knowledge to match. Depending on your existing skills, you may have to enroll in a program such as Bridge to Tandon (not to be confused with Bridge To Terabithia). These programs provide the necessary knowledge you may require for a masters program if you don’t have a technical background.

However you don’t need a masters to transition into a CS career. You can certainly transition from fields such as math or physics to CS without a masters. This transition may not be easy, as you’ll need to teach yourself programming and start building side projects, but you can definitely do it.

Likweise if you’re a foreign national who would like to come live and work in the United States, a degree from an American university will help with that process. Not to mention it’ll get you a student visa which means you can get a year or two to network, travel, etc.

If you want to do research, a masters degree can be a good stepping stone for this goal. I say stepping stone because a masters degree generally is not enough to do real, truly novel research. If you want to be one of those high paid ML/AI researchers, you’ll need a PhD. Masters degrees are great for giving you access to a university’s faculty, research labs and libraries, which can all be used to build up your CV should you choose to apply for a PhD.

Not that you need a masters to pursue a research career. You can definitely jump from a bachelors to a PhD program without doing a masters. Heck most PhD programs will toss you a masters halfway through.

If you just want some specialized knowledge but not necessarily research, a masters could definitely be a good idea. Want to take a deep dive into databases but not so far that you’re attempting to write a paper formally proving serializability? A masters might be up your alley.

Finally, you could be in the lucky position where your employer is paying for the masters degree. Often times they’ll give you a raise upon receiving the degree. This is definitely a solid option. However this usually means you have to do a masters on top of your day job, which can be stressful and also take a lot longer. Plus you’re already employed at a company which is willing to buy you a masters. Do you really need it at that point?

Why Not?

For one, you have to pay for a masters. Even if it’s a 5 year program, that’s still another year of tuition. For a full fledged program that’s a 1.5-2 years of tuition. This is an important distinction versus a PhD which is financed by grants. You almost never have to pay tuition for a PhD.

This distinction translates also into people’s perception of masters programs. The unfortunate truth is that some people, professors and others as well, may perceive masters students as revenue streams for the university and PhD students as potential researchers/mentees. This is not always true; professors can certainly mentor masters students. But it’s worth keeping in mind.

Masters courses can also be hit or miss; some of them are more advanced than undergrad while others are arguably less rigorous. This is because masters programs have to cater towards students with a larger variance in terms of knowledge. Students may come in with a top notch CS background and students may come in with little to no background.

Likewise you’re not going to get much more in terms of job placement with a masters. Maybe it’ll polish up a resume that is otherwise on the weak side, but a solid bachelors with good extracurriculars and internships will get you extremely far. A masters isn’t guaranteed net monetary gain.

One reason you should definitely not use to get a masters is just to prolong your undergrad. Yes, the real world is scary. But you’re spending a lot of money to avoid it. Get a job, take a year off, heck join the Peace Corps.

And please don’t get a masters as an academic trophy. If you enjoy the topic and enjoy learning, then great. But don’t get one because you feel obligated to get one or because you believe it imparts prestige.

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