Thinking of getting a master's degree to help you advance professionally? You might want to consider these options that won't cost you an arm and a leg.

Master’s degrees are the new bachelor’s, according to a recent article in the New York Times, which notes a growing trend of many more people graduating with master’s degrees these days — more than double the rate in the 1980s.

If you’re one of the people trying to beat the competition and ensure your resume stands out by pursuing an advanced degree, then you’ve probably explored the program costs and know they’re pretty steep.

Student loan debt has skyrocketed in the U.S., and while it is often worth investing in your education, you don’t want to start your adult life with a large debt burden. It will limit your options. With too much debt, it’ll be tough to accept lower paid work even if you enjoy it or to cover the expenses of switching careers or moving.

But there might be no need to shell out tens of thousands of dollars for another degree or professional qualification. Here are some suggestions from career experts:

Hit the library

Yeah, it’s obvious, but it’s surprising how often we forget that nearly everything you’d learn in a high-priced class is available for pocket change on Amazon or zilch at your local library. It’s a principle Josh Kaufman understands well. As the founder of The Personal M.B.A., Kaufman claims that you can get a solid business education on your own through his carefully selected reading list. Personalize his program to your specific areas of interest or simply look through online syllabi for reading lists from prestigious universities.

Take a mentor to lunch

Book smarts will only get you so far. Navigating office politics, networking effectively and moving up in your industry are best learned from experienced insiders. So find a professional role model or mentor and take him or her to lunch for bargain career development advice, suggest the folks at Get Rich Slowly.

Harness the power of the Internet

Sure, there’s no shortage of cute cat pictures or social media distractions online, but the Internet can nurture your brain as well as melt it. Just look at the wealth of free online courses from world-class experts. Need to brush up on how financial markets work? Learn from Yale professor Robert Schiller. Forgot your calculus? Go back to school with MIT.

College is, of course, not always a bad idea. It is often a way to flee the hard work and uncertainty of your early career for the structure and validation of the classroom. And plenty of big names including Seth Godin and Peter Thiel have questioned whether it’s a waste of time.

So prospective master’s candidates: think carefully about whether you want to write that check. A bit of hard work and creative, cheaper career interventions might serve you better. The options above are just the tip of the iceberg — affiliations with professional organizations, attendance at conferences or good value e-courses could also help you advance without getting you into debt.

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London and is the author of BNET’s Entry-Level Rebel column.


  1. Jaclyn Schiff

    Really enjoyed this post. I’ve often thought about going to grad school, but, well, it has never seems to happen for a variety of reasons. The alternatives you’ve written about are great and can certainly help you navigate your career really well. Thanks for all the valuable links, I didn’t know about the Yale and MIT resources and they look pretty awesome!

    • Maureen

      Each time my Alma Mater askes me to take the next step, I tell them I will when this degree pays off or is paid off…

  2. Edward - Entry Level Dilemma

    Until employers agree with these sentiments, degrees are always going to hold more weight then “I read it in a book” If 99 applicants have a degree and you don’t, guess who is the first person to go in the “no” pile?

  3. Zubar u Zagrebu

    Great post Jessica, a lot of good info here 🙂 Student loans are a great thing for people that just want to flee from the real life, and that’s a fact..

    • Maureen

      I have to disagree. It was a means to an end when I couldn’t go any further in business. The formal education I gained and the self esteem is not the same as on the job. It is an asset like someone else noted. It can never be taken away from you like a career can.

  4. Amanda Abella

    Great post! I completely agree! People with Masters and PHDs were constantly applying at my old job where they would have been making the same as someone who only had a Bachelor’s (about $12/hr). At my current job we also find it more difficult to place people with degrees higher than a Bachelor’s because they are too overqualified for the work that is available out there right now. It’s quite a gamble if you ask me. However I’m sure that a lot of it may depend on what kind of Master’s you seek.

    • Edward - Entry Level Dilemma

      The news lately seems to portray a different picture. It’s the higher level positions that employers are having difficulty filling because professionals with the required skills aren’t out there.

  5. cynic

    Sadly, It’s the piece of paper and not the education that’s important to getting a job

  6. KatDC

    I would also add “get certified” to this list. Certifications often provide just as much “oomph” to a resume as a degree (and at a cheaper cost).

    • J Michael Phipps

      this is true. But many companies pay for advanced degrees. Best to go to work and get masters later. I’ve been on both side searching for a job and interviewing. Not sure which one is harder. Well having a job and interviewing is better for the pocket book. But on average it is who you know versus what you know. That is why as part of college social aspects are very important. People like to hire people they can related too. And Ego cares more in the decision. Also Cost.

  7. Karla

    Interesting post, but getting a graduate degree is still a valuable investment not only for the piece of paper and knowledge you gain (you do learn much more than you could learn from books through group work and consulting projects), but it’s also about the connections you make. Depends on your school and degree of course, but having recently graduated with an MPA, I know it’s the strong network of alumni, classmates, and future students that might help me meet the right people for the right job down the road. It’s one of the smartest investments you will ever make, and the one thing that no one will ever be able to take away from you, regardless of the economy.

    • Amg_403

      I agree with you Karla. An advanced degree is a good investment depending on the field. I think it can make you stand out from the crowd in a market where people all have the same credentials. It’s all relative!

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  9. Melissa Langeman

    I agree with the solid advice in this article, and also with cynic – it is the paper that matters. To keep costs down, I’d suggest looking outside of the US, especially in the EU, where education costs are much lower, and you get international experience to boot.

    To maximize your book education, I’d use the Amazon app on LinkedIn, *updated regularly* so it shows up on your activity. You might also consider writing book reviews for targeted sites or even your own blog. This demonstrates your commitment to educating yourself, and that you know how to use what you’ve read. I can’t say it’s a perfect substitute for the piece of paper, though it gives it a bit of a boost.

    @KatDC – Certifications are also a good way to go… though the best ones require either experience and/or a few thousand dollars. There are likely better options which I have not explored, so I’ve added it to my to-do list.

  10. Michelle G.

    I personally think it depends on the industry you’re heading into. When it comes to media, yes you need at least a BA, but thereafter, it really depends on your actual body of work, and the contacts you make. Yes, an MA or MFA program can help you accomplish a great body of work and a full contact litst, but so can pounding the pavement and creating your own experience (my current plan — as opposed to film school — is basically a regimen of reading, actually producing small projects, active learning, and a certificate program).

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  12. Benjamin Schuman

    There’s a lot of “Don’t get a Master’s” hype out there. Don’t believe it. Or at least, take into account that advice like this often makes at least one of several assumptions about the reader.

    1) The reader is an undergrad or is a few months out of undergrad.

    2) The reader wants to do a non-professional master’s (ie humanities, arts).

    3) It is not hard for recent grads to find jobs.

    4) The reader went to a prestigious undergraduate institution and/or has already amassed a great resume while in undergrad.

    5) The reader already has a job that pays the bills.

    6) You already have some sort of special skill that is marketable in the workplace.

    If none of these things are true about you, then you should probably get a Master’s, even if it puts you further into debt.

    The thing about getting a Master’s that many of these articles try to say but often don’t quite get across is that you should focus on professional goals rather than thinking of school as a “default” way to spend your time. If your professional goals involve getting a Master’s, then get one. If you have no professional goals, but want to get another degree anyway, you probably won’t be very confident or passionate about the program you choose (this seems to be a common scenario with law school), and, as a result, you probably won’t have a good time or do particularly well in the program anyway.

  13. Dimitrihouse

    The Open University can be a pretty cost effective way towards a Masters as at least you are free to earn while you learn.

  14. Jeff Thomas

    Great tips for students currently in a financial crunch. This should help buy them out sometime to work their things through.

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