Statistically speaking, a graduate degree is often a direct line to a better job and higher salary. Employees holding a master's degree have median lifetime earnings that are $403,000 more than employees holding just a bachelor's degree, according to research from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. At the doctoral degree level, the premium rises even higher, with Ph.D.s often earning nearly $1 million more over their work tenure than their bachelor's degree-holding coworkers.
National statistics don't always shed much light on the difference a graduate degree can make in your specific field. Using Payscale.com's data on the highest paying graduate degrees by salary potential, we looked at which master's degrees had the highest percent of growth between the median salary of employees who are just starting out, and the median salaries for those in the middle of their careers.
These figures encompass workers from across the country, which means that salaries will vary significantly between organizations and geographic regions. Because our analysis is based on percentages, this list isn't ordered by how well workers are paid in each industry (though some median salaries are included in the story too), nor does it address the earning power of employees with a master's versus those with a bachelor's degree. This data does, however, provide some insight on which fields emphasize salary growth.
Here are 10 majors where salaries increase impressively fast for master's degree holders.
Median salary growth from early to mid-career: 97% to 112%
Business fields dominated our list, so much so that we grouped them all together. Among the top majors with the highest median salary growth, a Master's in Business Administration (MBA) appeared in seven. Early-career employees with MBAs in any of these seven majors (which include marketing, management, finance and economics, amongst others), can expect to receive a median pay jump of about $66,000 by the time they reach the middle of their careers. An MBA isn't cheap — two years of tuition at a top-20 school like Harvard or Stanford costs more than $120,000 — but the biggest takeaway is that the return on investment varies tremendously between programs.
Median salary growth from early to mid-career: 108%
With median mid-career salaries hovering at $126,000 per year, there's strong financial incentive to earn a Master's of Science in Taxation. Designed for those with an accounting background, many master's taxation programs have a core curriculum focused around advanced accounting practices, but also allow students to gain specialized skills in areas like corporate taxation, estate planning, or international taxation. These programs are often only one year long, and many can be completed entirely online.
3. Marketing Programs
Median salary growth from early to mid-career: 83% to 104%
Marketing programs were also prominent on our list. Among the top 30 majors with the fastest salary growth, marketing programs took four spots on the list, with integrated marketing communication degree holders earning an 83% salary increase (more than a $41,000 pay bump between early and mid-career), marketing grads earning an 84% increase (a $43,000 bump), marketing and management degree holders earning an 86% increase (a $45,600 bump), and marketing and communications grads earning a walloping 104% increase (a $48,300 bump). Marketing is a wide field, encompassing jobs ranging from advertising executives to public relations specialists to social media managers, and jobs can be found in an equally broad span of organizations, including nonprofits, government agencies, small businesses, and mega-corporations.
4. Technology Management
Median salary growth from early to mid-career: 97%
Technology management isn't the most well-known field, but raises can come relatively quickly here. Honing both business acumen and technology expertise, this degree is designed for those fast-tracking it up the IT chain. Masters-credentialed employees with less than five years of experience bring home median salaries of $63,600 annually. By mid career, they're raking in nearly double.
5. International Relations
Median salary growth from early to mid-career: 96%
Employees working in international relations generally start their careers earning around $51,500, but by the time they're mid-career, that median salary has grown to a cool $101,000. Graduate degrees are required for many higher-level jobs in the field, and schools vary substantially in terms of curriculum focus, program format, and required courses. Joint degrees also abound in this field. Many institutions offer dual programs that allow students to pursue their international relations master's alongside degrees in journalism, public policy, law, or business.
Median salary growth from early to mid-career: 96%
A master's degree in advertising may be geared towards interactive media, marketing strategy, copywriting, digital campaigns, or a combination. You'll also need a killer portfolio of work, sharp communications skills, and some industry contacts to thrive here. Master's degree-holding employees who are just starting their careers have median salaries of $45,600. With about 15 years of experience, that salary balloons up to $89,400.
Median salary growth from early to mid-career: 93%
A bachelor's degree is needed to break in, a Ph.D. is required to conduct independent research, but a master's degree in microbiology can be a solid stepping stone to a bigger, better paycheck. Master's degree holders in the field for less than five years earn median salaries of $45,200, and those with about 15 years of experience earn $87,100 annually. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers with a microbiology background can find jobs in pharmaceutical and medical manufacturing organizations, research firms, academic institutions, and governmental agencies.
8. International Business
Median salary growth from early to mid-career: 90%
Navigating the cultural, legal, and financial delicacies of global commerce is a highly valued skill, one that organizations including multinational corporations, nongovernmental groups, international nonprofits, and government agencies are willing to pay for. Students earning a master's in International Business (not to be confused with an MBA in international business, mentioned above) can start their careers off earning around $54,600 annually, and rake in median salaries of $104,000 after about 15 years in the field.
9. Environmental Management
Median salary growth from early to mid-career: 89%
Those holding environmental management master's degrees start their careers earning median salaries of $51,300, but they also get a median $45,500 raise over the next 10 to 15 years. Some EM degree programs focus on one specific area of environmental management, such as forestry or watershed, but many provide students with a multidisciplinary overview of the scientific, economic, legal, and logistical aspects of working in the field. Grads who earn their master's can expect to find work in a wide array of nonprofit, governmental, and educational organizations.
10. Industrial Psychology
Median salary growth from early to mid-career: 85%
Between 2012 and 2022, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the need for industrial and organizational psychologists will grow by about 53 percent, making this profession one of the fastest-growing jobs in America. Raking in median early career salaries of $52,200 and mid-career salaries of $96,800, industrial psychologists study human behavior in the workplace and create programs to help organizations operate more efficiently. Unlike many of the fields on this list, a master's degree is generally required to break into industrial psychology reports the American Psychological Association, with the highest earners in the field bringing home $250,000 or more annually.
Find the right fit
Your search for the right degree program will depend on a number of factors, most important being what you envision for your future. With the right tools and a possible starting point in one of these promising graduate degrees, explore online degree options at the grad level and strengthen your career outlook today.
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2. "Highest Paying Graduate Degrees by Salary Potential," Payscale.com, http://www.payscale.com/college-salary-report/majors-that-pay-you-back/graduate-degrees
3. "College Salary Report Methodology," Payscale.com, http://www.payscale.com/college-salary-report/methodology
4. "Financial Aid Cost Summary," Harvard Business School, http://www.hbs.edu/mba/financial-aid/Pages/cost-summary.aspx
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6. "Occupational Outlook Handbook," US Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/
7. "All About Industrial and Organizational Psychology," American Psychological Association, http://www.apa.org/action/science/organizational/education-training.aspx