Does It Matter Where You Get Your Master’s?

by Josh B on June 24, 2010

If you read this blog often, you’d probably think that I’m on the payroll of the American Association of Community Colleges, as strongly and often as I advocate for doing your first two years at a community college.

That’s exactly what Nate did, and he’s kept his student loan debt down to $5,000. Now, he faces the next dilemma — grad school. Can’t get a master’s at community college, after all.

Hey Josh,

I have been subscribed to your postings on an regular basis due to the interesting college information you post so I thought I should throw my questions into the arena. Now, I am a 3rd year college student going to Southern Maine Community College. (Yes, way way out there in the boonies). I will soon have an Associates in Computer technology once I complete my internship, and planning on transferring to a Bachelor Degree level.

Due to some thinking ahead and some planning, I have under 5,000 in debt for 3 years of college which I think is quite good considering I am also paying for dorms and my family is heavily strained on money so I try not to rely on them.

Congrats on outstanding navigation of the college-financing thicket thus far, my friend. $5k in loans after three years of college is impressive indeed.


Though I am at the point where I have to decide where I want to go to school for my Bach. I am thinking of transferring to University of Southern Maine in Gorham, because they have an degree called Industrial Technology, with an focus in Information and Communications tech, where they will take my primarily focus of computer courses and have me take business management courses as well.

That sounds pretty reasonable. Guys who are business-savvy as well as computer-savvy have a great head start in the business world on those who are only one or the other (or, as is often the case, neither).

Another reason why I want to take this particular degree is that part of courses involve taking an partial minor (4 courses), some of the minors are Accounting, computer science or business administration. I was thinking of aiming at the business administration since it seems to have the most robust courses.

Still, all thumbs-up over this-a-way.

Part of the reason why I am at the Community college for 3 years is because I don’t feel the need to pay $800 a course when I can get them for $400. So when I transfer over, I will have roughly 13-15 courses left to take for my degree. While I think this degree will help me in any job situation, It’s more of what to do after that degree I am concerned about. Since I am at the age of 22, I have no qualms with going into the job market or continuing my education though I am leaning to avoid the job market at the moment.

Yeah, now’s definitely a good time to start thinking along the lines of what you’re going to do when you get out.

I am interested in Robotics, which the University of Maine, Orono recently came out with as a minor. Though I also plan to go to my master’s degree as well. My goal has always been to go for my master degree. I totally admit that it is perfectly normal to not know what to do with my life, which is probably a good thing. I was thinking of taking an master’s in Computer Science with an general focus towards A.I programming, at which school I’m not quite sure.

Let me try to boil this down just a bit: You’re not sure what you want to do for a job once you get out of school, and unless you really quickly discover some career field that you’re super-interested in over the next year or so, you’re inclined to get a master’s degree and wait it out. I think I understand.

Does it really matter which school you go to for your master’s job wise?

It depends on the job, and we’ll have to speak generally here since you haven’t mentioned any specific careers that interest you. Many times, no, it doesn’t — having the master’s is a lot more important than where you got it from. However, read below…

I was thinking of either taking the master’s at USM or UM Orono just to avoid the out of school tuition cost, though I will admit that while I like USM, It isn’t any Harvard type school. and Orono seems to be only a little bit better but boosts another $2000 a year cost. What is the differences really in master programs?

Again, that’s a very general question to which I can only give you some wishy-washy answers, unfortunately (but they’re true!). Master’s degree programs can and do vary widely in terms of their requirements and the academic rigor associated with them. Some focus on academics while some focus on professional preparation. Some let you choose between the two. And that’s just the beginning — I know we’ll get some great comments below from current master’s students who will be able to spell out some of the differences for you in programs like your own. I could spell out a lot of differences between my master’s in journalism at Missouri vs. other master’s programs, but I’m not sure you could really apply those to your situation.

Would going out of state to MIT, or Rochester Institute of tech be better or worth it?

Kudos to you for asking exactly the right question, with special emphasis on the last two words: “worth it.” That’s always the question. I’d be insane to tell you that a master’s from MIT isn’t going to swivel a lot more employers’ heads in your life than a master’s from a state school in Maine. But the question is — is it worth the extra expense? MIT degrees aren’t cheap — graduate tuition is about $40,000 per year. And that could be a bargain for the doors it opens up for you.

But then again, the question remains: do you even care about those opened doors? If you’re looking to really climb the ladders of the profession you choose, then perhaps you do. If you have a more laid-back approach and would like to do your own thing, or do something low-profile that simply pays the bills and allows you to eat Kraft macaroni-and-cheese instead of the store brand (which is a totally fine position, by the way — don’t think for a second that I’m knocking it), then maybe the MIT tuition isn’t worth it for you.

What should I look for when I am looking at master programs? Any light to be shed on the issue would be most helpful.

Well, here’s the thing — all of the answers I *could* give you are dependent on how you think you want to live your life after college. I’m all for minimal student-loan debt and I think you’re exemplary in that regard, and that many, many other readers of this site should take note of what you’ve done. But, that may not be the end of the story for you.

What you should look for in any master’s program is whether it’s going to give you the type of advancement that’s got you seeking the master’s in the first place — and if you’re not seeking any type of advancement — career, intellectual or otherwise — you should check yourself about whether you should be getting a master’s in the first place.

If you’re not sure what you want to do for a career and you’re at the master’s degree crossroads, my generic advice is the same as that of undergrad programs — choose one that gives you a well-rounded education within your subject, because that’ll leave you with the most options (as opposed to a super-specialized degree).

That’s all I’ve got today. What about all you grad-school or grad-school-bound students? What do you think Nate should do? Let us know in the comments below.

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