Degrees of Excellence

Degrees of Excellence

Is a graduate degree your key to success in the new economy?
By Andy Steiner

A generation ago, earning an undergraduate degree was all anyone needed to build a successful, lifelong career. Now, as job descriptions increasingly include a growing list of specialized skills and technical training, many employers consider a graduate degree a standard requirement for their most highly sought-after positions.

You — or someone you care about — may be mulling over the decision of whether to take the next step, to pursue education beyond a four-year degree. Recently, we sat down with the directors of three of St. Catherine’s graduate programs — Amy Kelly, medical director of the Physician Assistant Studies program; Merdi Rafiei, assistant professor and Health Informatics program director; and Michelle Wieser, associate professor and MBA program director — to find out what they think: Will an advanced degree soon be required for most jobs? Is graduate school best for everyone? Who are the top candidates? Can a grad degree be affordable? And — what is the return on investment?

Their answers were insightful — and surprising. Read on to find out where they stand:

Question: What’s a graduate degree worth in today’s economy?

Michelle Wieser: From an MBA perspective, I would say a graduate degree is invaluable. There are many situations in which an advanced level of education is absolutely essential for career advancement and changing your career. And then there’s the question of the economic impact of graduate education. I recently completed my dissertation research on the impact of the MBA on women and men, and found that earning an MBA was shown to increase total annual compensation for women by 208 percent, and for men by 80 percent. The quantitative benefit is very obvious in terms of compensation and career growth — and there is also the qualitative benefit of a boost in self-confidence and career satisfaction that these degrees give graduates.

Merdi Rafiei: The world is moving in this direction. America has moved away from being purely a manufacturing economy to an intellectual property, digital and service-oriented economy. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, a four-year college degree was sufficient to find gainful employment. Now, the world is a much more technically complex place, and you need to be able to solve complex problems — and provide expert insight on how those problems occurred in the first place. You can’t easily learn how to do that in four years.
     There’s a vast difference between a graduate degree and an undergrad degree. Undergraduate programs build a foundation based on existing knowledge. In graduate programs, we teach students to be creators of knowledge — leaders of the new economy.

Question: Some observers have made the case that a four-year college degree isn’t right for everyone, that some people can build a successful career with a two-year degree or certificate-level training. Does that perspective undermine the worth of a graduate-level education?     

Rafiei: But not everybody wants to go to graduate school, nor are they a good candidate for graduate school. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with two-year and four-year programs. But I am saying that graduate programs offer a higher level of education for those who are prepared to take on new intellectual challenges required to advance their careers.

Amy Kelly: I do think that anyone who has a master’s degree could clearly articulate the difference between the depth of their knowledge and that of someone who hasn’t earned a master’s degree. The reality is that in many cases having a master’s degree sets you apart in the workplace. If you have a graduate degree, it signals to a potential employer that you are valuable because of your experience and expanded knowledge base and your willingness to take the next step. In the end, it makes you more competitive in the marketplace.

Question: How would you describe the best candidates for graduate studies?    

Wieser: It’s going to differ by program, of course, but I think that consistently across disciplines the best-qualified candidates are people with a love of lifelong learning and a real passion to be a leader in an economy that depends on the knowledge and experience of highly trained workers.

Kelly: In the Physician Assistant Studies program, applicants must meet basic requirements, including undergraduate prerequisites, performing well and meeting GPA standards. They should also have some life experience and specifically previous healthcare experience, as this allows them to be confident of their decision to enter our program. But, most importantly, the most competitive candidates have a strong sense of social responsibility and an inner desire to become a culturally competent global citizen.

Rafiei: I think the best candidates for advanced degrees are seekers and adventurers: Christopher Columbus was inquisitive — but he stopped at the shores of the Bahamas. Lewis and Clark went all the way across America and mapped it out. You could say that Christopher Columbus is a four-year degree, and Lewis and Clark are a graduate degree.

Question: When is the best time to enter a graduate program? Right out of college? A few years after entering the workforce?     

Wieser: Students must come to this decision in their own time. We have a woman in our program in her 50s, and she has over 30 years of work experience. Earning an MBA has been a lifelong goal for her, and she wants to switch careers and do something different. And then we have younger students with fewer years in the workforce. People have these “a-ha” moments, where they realize, “I really want to accelerate,” and that happens at many different points in their lives.

Kelly: Our most competitive applicants have had some experience in the workplace, specifically in a healthcare environment. We have accepted students right out of undergraduate school, but there is a certain requirement for clinical hours, which takes time. In addition, seeing the world and being certain that this is what you want to do with your life is very important. This is a significant investment, so you want to be sure.

Question: What about your applicants’ undergraduate backgrounds? Are liberal arts grads particularly appealing?

Kelly: I am a strong proponent of a liberal arts education. It builds a good foundation of knowledge and prepares well-rounded students who are curious intellectually, and ready to take the next step into a master’s program.     

Rafiei: America needs more liberal arts graduates. The liberal arts help transform a person into a critical thinker. Unfortunately, too many schools are moving away from this and instead educating their students to simply be employable rather than future leaders. To me, the value in education is not having all the answers. Coming up with answers is easy — you can just use Google. A liberal arts education encourages a person to generate questions, and that’s what the world needs.

Wieser: We are looking for curious minds. A liberal arts education breeds curiosity.

Question: Do you think earning a graduate degree has a particular benefit for women?

Wieser: It does help to close the income gap. When men and women enter an MBA program, the average income gap is 32 percent. In their first post-MBA job, the income gap has dropped to 14 percent. Men still make more, but the gap has been cut in half. Another good way of thinking about graduate education for women is that it builds confidence. And with increased confidence comes increased marketability.

Kelly: Most graduate programs have a component related to leadership, including requirements for public speaking and leading small groups. I think these skills help build a woman’s confidence to lead, as well as to take on and achieve challenging goals. With a graduate degree, you are clearly more marketable in the workplace. If you are a female applying for a job with an MBA, you will stand out in a positive way from applicants who do not have a master’s-level degree.

Question: Graduate programs are expensive. How do your students make their education affordable?

Wieser: Most of our students receive some form of financial aid while they are completing their degree. Plus, many continue to work full time, and quite a few employers provide financial support for their education.

Rafiei: With a master’s degree in informatics, graduates can expect to make around $80,000 a year, if not more, right out of the gate. So there is a great return on investment. Say you’re making $50,000 or $60,000 a year now. You can earn back the cost of your tuition in less than one year. It’s a great investment. And because our program is 100 percent online, students can work at their current job while earning their degree.

Kelly: St. Kate’s Physician Assistant Studies program is full time. You can’t work while you’re getting your degree. But after completing our program in 28 months, job security is remarkable and average annual starting salaries are impressive. In terms of future earning and career stability, the return on investment for this degree is absolutely guaranteed.

St. Kate's MBA class in session.

St. Kate's MBA class in session.

Exam lab used by both Physician Assistant Studies and Nurse Practitioner programs.

Exam lab used by both Physician Assistant Studies and Nurse Practitioner programs.

Merdi Rafiei, Michelle Wieser and Dr. Amy Kelly.

Merdi Rafiei, Michelle Wieser and Dr. Amy Kelly.

Photos by Rebecca Slater ’10, by Rebecca Studios. 


St. Kate’s offers more than 20 graduate degrees and certificate programs.

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