Master’s Degree Now or Later?

One of the most frequent questions I see discussed on social media is, “When should I start a master’s degree?” It’s often phrased as, “Should I start my master’s right away or should I teach for a few years?” It’s a good question, and ultimately the decision is a personal one, but I’d like to give you my perspective. Spoiler alert: I think you should wait a few years.

The most frequent argument I hear for getting your degree early is that you’ll make more money sooner. This is true, most schools set up their pay scale so those with advanced degrees are paid a higher wage. The question is, how much higher a wage? The argument I hear most often for waiting to get a degree is that it’s easier to find a job without one because the school can pay you less. This also has a certain amount of truth to it, but how much truth is unknown. I myself have been applied for, and gotten, three different jobs after gaining an advanced degree (two of the jobs were with two master’s degrees on my resume). While I agree these are factors to consider, I don’t think they are the only, or necessarily most important, ones.

The purpose of a master’s degree, in my opinion, is to set you up for the end of your career. If you want to go into administration, you’ll need a Master’s of Educational Leadership. If you want to be a specialist or interventionalist, you’ll need a corresponding degree. If you want to stay in the classroom, you will want a Master’s of Teaching for your grade/subject area. I think you get the idea.

The problem with deciding what you want to do at the end of your career is that you don’t know who you are as a teacher yet. Thus far you’ve experienced education almost entirely from the viewpoint of a student. The view from the other side of the classroom is very different and there is a lot that goes on in a school that students never even notice (even student teachers just get a small glimpse of it). It takes a few years to get to know yourself as a teacher and start to see/experience different aspects of the education world.

I’ll use myself as an example. When I graduated with my BS in elementary education, there was one thing I was sure I’d never do: teach English language learners. TESOL was just getting started as a focus for schools in most of the USA, and they’d talked about it in some of my classes, but it wasn’t something anyone really pushed. I listened and decided it wasn’t for me. Then I started teaching for a non-profit that had an English language school and said, “You have a teaching certificate. You can run the school for us.” I decided that if I was going to do this, I should do it right, and took the classes necessary to become certified in TESOL. Shortly after that, I enrolled full time in a Master’s of Education in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages program. It’s been 14 years since I finished that degree; I am still teaching ESL and still enjoying it. In fact, I can’t imagine not teaching language learners! Had I immediately gotten my master’s after graduation I would likely have gotten a general Master’s of Elementary Education, or become a reading specialist. There’s nothing wrong with either degree, I know many great teachers who have one or the other, but neither would have been the right one for me and my career would likely look very different today.

Another argument for waiting to get your master’s degree is finances. Taking a few years to teach gives you the chance to start paying off any student loans you may have taken out for your bachelor’s degree. Rather than continuing to add to your debt, take the opportunity to gain some experience and pay it down a little. There are even loan forgiveness programs for qualifying teachers, but they all require you to teach full time.

Besides dealing with any student loan debt, getting started with your teaching career can help you pay for your master’s degree in different ways. Many colleges and universities offer scholarships for returning students and students who are advancing their careers through further education. The school you work for may also offer some type of tuition reimbursement program. The first school I worked for upon returning to the USA had such a program and it paid for almost half of my second master’s degree (curriculum and instruction, if you were wondering). Sometimes, if a school really needs people with a particular certification, they will pay for the entire degree (though this is fairly rare and usually for very specific specialty fields).

Besides getting to know yourself as a teacher and finances, there’s application to be considered as well. I don’t mean the application to the program, I mean the application of your learning. Both of my master’s degrees required me to complete assignments, projects, and research that could only be done in a classroom with real students. There were also a lot of readings and class discussions that were much more meaningful to me because of my classroom experience.

You learn a lot in your teacher preparation program, and student teaching is invaluable experience, but nothing can compare to having your own classroom and learning on the job. I’m sure you’ve seen the memes and funny videos about the college classes they should have offered. They are funny for a reason–there’s a lot of truth in there! Some things just can’t be taught in a classroom, or experienced in a student teaching internship. Having a few years of teaching under your belt will give you a whole new perspective on the theories being taught and how various concepts/approaches might look in the classroom.

Finally, though certainly not least, your first few years of teaching will likely be the hardest of your career. I speak from experience when I say that being a full time teacher and a full time student is HARD! To some degree it is easier now with remote learning (yes, I did both of my master’s degrees in the dark ages before on-line learning was popular), but don’t underestimate how much time a degree will take, even in a remote format.

You also don’t want to underestimate how much time and energy those first few years of teaching will take. While I will be the first to tell you that it’s ok to stick close to the curriculum and not do a lot of the extras your first year or two, it still takes a lot of time to make even the most basic of lesson plans and prepare for each new day of learning. I was only able to survive teaching and taking classes because I was teaching the same curriculum I’d used for a few years already and I only had to update and tweak my lesson plans, not start from scratch. I’d also already worked the kinks out of my classroom management strategy and classroom routines/procedures for every aspect of the school year. Teaching is never an eight to three, or even eight to four, job, but it does get easier and less time consuming as you gain more experience.

Whether you decide to pursue that master’s immediately or wait a year (or two, or three…), I can tell you this–it will be a valuable experience for you. Even though I never became a curriculum director or designer, as I thought I might when pursuing the second degree, I use both of my master’s degrees every day. I learned a lot pursuing both degrees and they’ve made me a better teacher. I’m sure you’ll find the same to be true for you as well. Happy teaching, everyone!