Graduate Education

Professional or Academic Degree: Which Should You Choose?

Students participate in the Master of Science in Engineering Management (MSEM) program at Beacon Institute.

Before you decide which advanced degree to pursue, it’s helpful to know the difference between a professional degree and an academic one.

As the term suggests, a professional degree prepares you for a specific profession. Think Doctor of Medicine (MD) for doctor, Doctor of Physical Therapy, Master of Business Administration (MBA) and Master of Engineering (ME) degrees.

Advanced academic degrees have a different purpose. Because their goal is to increase knowledge in a specific academic discipline, these degrees tend to focus more on theory and research. A Master of Science in Chemical Engineering, for example, is likely to include a thesis instead of the project required for an ME in the same field.

Think about your goals

Student listening to a lecture.

Why are you considering an advanced degree? Or, put a different way, what are your plans for the future?

In engineering, one of the most important factors to consider is whether you might want to eventually pursue a PhD. If so, you will need research experience. That makes the MS your best choice because it typically requires original research and a thesis. An ME is considered a “terminal” degree and, therefore, not a path to a PhD. Some MS degrees at Clarkson offer the option of completing a project or a thesis, so speak with an admissions counselor or program director to understand the available options. 

Many engineers who plan to spend their career working in the field opt for a professional degree that culminates in a project because it tends to take less time to complete. Experts agree that there’s no wrong choice. Both the ME and MS can advance your knowledge, increase your appeal to employers and improve your access to a broader range of opportunities than ever before—in private industry, government, healthcare and research.

What matters most is not whether you earn an MS or ME but how well the master’s program aligns with your goals. After all, different universities may define the degrees differently. For instance, some MS degree programs—such as the master’s in electrical engineering, engineering and management systems and mechanical engineering, offered evenings at Clarkson’s Capital Region campusare considered professional degree programs. Other MS degree programs offer multiple paths to completion, allowing you to define whether your path will be professional or academic. Examples include the master’s in civil & environmental engineering and environmental science & engineering at Clarkson’s main campus in Potsdam.

Before you choose a program, read the description carefully. Don’t hesitate to reach out to the school if you have questions or want some information clarified.

Will a master’s help in your field?

An advanced degree makes more sense in some fields than others. The Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks data on wage premiums—the wage increase for workers with a master’s degree over that for workers with a bachelor’s degree in the same job—for many occupations. For example, the BLS reports that civil and mechanical engineers with master’s degrees earn 9 percent to 13 percent more than those who have only a bachelor’s degree.

Professor lecturing.

The wage premium is even higher for business, financial and sales professionals with master’s degrees. Securities, commodities and financial services sales agents top the list, with a wage premium of 89 percent. For financial managers, the premium is 41 percent and for marketing and sales managers, 38 percent.

That type of information, plus expected grad school tuition costs, can help you decide whether and when it’s time to consider a master’s.

To learn more about your options, explore Clarkson’s programsIf you are a Clarkson undergraduate student, check out the Career Center.

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