Updated on 05.21.15

10 Master’s Degrees That Can Actually Pay Off

Health care is a good bet when it comes to career prospects. Art history? Not so much.

math formula

In the age of Big Data, an advanced degree in mathematics or statistics can mean Big Money. Photo: Ivan T

Earning a college degree is usually the best way to guarantee better job prospects and higher pay. You put the work in up front, do your best, and emerge from the experience with the skills employers expect and demand. And most of the time, that investment pays off.

Here’s a good example: According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data from 2013, high school graduates age 25 and older earned an average weekly income of $651. Compare that to the average weekly income of associate degree holders ($777) and you’ll see what I mean.

But wait an even bigger payoff is waiting for those who pursue a bachelor’s degree or higher. According to the data, the average weekly income for adults with a bachelor’s degree was $1,108, while those with a master’s degree pulled in $1,329. Meanwhile, adults with professional degrees and doctorate degrees pulled in a weekly salary of $1,714 and $1,623, respectively, that same year. Notice a pattern?

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It’s hard to debate that the more education you have, the more money you’ll likely earn. But it’s also important to realize that all college degrees aren’t created equal. And that’s especially true of master’s degrees, since they can be earned in any number of subjects, many of which aren’t known for being lucrative.

Selecting a Master’s Degree With Career Potential

And that’s why it’s important to research the likely outcome of any degree program you want to pursue before you sign on that dotted line. Prior to taking that next step, take a look at this list of high-paying and proven master’s degrees that could really pay off over the next decade:

No. 10: Political Science

As more people become interested in politics and general governing, professionals who conduct research and provide analysis in this field are expected to be in demand. Political scientists, who can usually get started in this career with a master’s degree in political science, use their knowledge and experience to provide analysis on political trends, ideas, and ideologies.

Because politics will continue to be necessary and prevalent even as society changes, the demand for political scientists is only expected to increase — by as much as 21% from 2012 to 2022, according to the BLS. In 2013, political scientists earned an annual mean wage of $100,900, but the top 10% in this industry brought in an average of $148,510.

The top-paying industries for political scientists in 2013 are: federal executive branch (OES designation, $114,580), scientific research and development services ($94,530), and management, scientific, and technical consulting services ($88,050).

No. 9: Mathematics

Advanced math has been important throughout history, with its origins found in the sixth century B.C. with the Pythagoreans. Since then, the utility of math has extended itself into nearly every industry, from science to construction to engineering. And today, modern mathematicians use advanced math to do everything from analyze data to solve real-world problems.

Since advanced math transcends all industries and occupations, the future looks bright for the professionals who embrace it. Specifically, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that employment for mathematicians will increase 23% from 2012 to 2022. Meanwhile, mathematicians earned an annual mean wage of $103,310 nationally in 2013, with the top ten10% of workers pulling in an average of $155,480.

Industries that paid mathematicians the most in 2013 were aerospace product and parts manufacturing ($130,830), scientific research and development services ($124,450), and computer systems design and related services ($121,680).

No. 8: Nurse Anesthetists

Health care continues to be a dominant force in our economy, making up 17.9% of our GDP in 2012, according to the World Bank. Still, supply isn’t always meeting demand, which is why more doctors are turning to advanced practice nurses, or APRNs, to help them see more patients. Nurse anesthetists pitch in by using their knowledge and expertise to provide patients with anesthesia before, during, and after medical procedures.

Since our population is expected to age and grow, the outlook for nurse anesthetists is excellent. The BLS predicts employment for these professionals will increase 25% during the decade leading up to 2022, which is more than twice as fast as all occupations combined. Nurse anesthetists also earn quite a bit compared to other master’s degree careers. The BLS reports that they brought in an annual mean wage of $157,690 nationally in 2013, with the top 25% of earners making an average of $179,270.

Industries that paid nurse anesthetists the most in 2013 were dentists ($179,570), specialty hospitals ($174,850), and outpatient care centers ($169,770).

No. 7: Statistics

Statisticians use advanced mathematical formulas to turn figures and statistics into useful data that can be harnessed for a number of purposes. And as more businesses, governments, and individuals turn to statistical analysis for answers, the job prospects for these workers are only expected to increase.

Specifically, the BLS predicts that job openings for statisticians will surge 27% nationally from 2012 to 2022. Statisticians also earned a healthy annual mean wage in 2013 – $83,310 nationally – with the top 10% of workers earning an average of $128,430.

Although statisticians earned high wages across the board, several industries paid the most. In 2013, those industries were information services ($130,870), drugs and druggists’ sundries merchant wholesalers ($113,190), and monetary authorities-central bank ($112,250).

No. 6: Nurse Midwife

Like nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives are advanced-practice nurses who begin their careers by earning a master’s degree in a nursing specialty. For nurse midwives, that specialty is gynecological care, prenatal care, and assistance during labor and delivery.

Since more women are turning to midwives for a more natural birth experience, the career prospects for workers with these skills are excellent. The BLS predicts that employment for nurse midwives will surge an astonishing 29% from 2012 to 2022, which is almost three times the average for all occupations combined. Meanwhile, nurse midwives earned an annual mean wage of $92,230 nationally in 2013, with the top 10% earning an average of $120,450.

The industries where nurse midwives earned the most in 2013 are: home health care services ($101,420), general medical and surgical hospitals ($97,730), and employment services ($95,880).

No. 5: Occupational Therapy

Due to the fact that our aging population continues to lead active lives, the field of occupational therapy is alive and well. And as the baby boomer population enters their golden years, the demand for occupational therapists who can help them remain active is expected to surge.

Specifically, the BLS predicts that employment for occupational therapists will increase 29% nationally from 2012 to 2022. And along with good job prospects, that master’s degree in occupational therapy should pay off financially as well. These workers earned an annual mean wage of $77,890 nationally in 2013, with the top 10% of earners making $109,380.

The top-paying industries for occupational therapists in 2013 are: home health care services ($87,500), ambulatory health care services ($86,100), and nursing care facilities, and skilled nursing facilities ($84,490).

No. 4: Nurse Practitioner

Nurse practitioners are another type of advanced practice nurse (APRN) who can help ease the demand on doctors by providing primary care to patients. With a master’s degree, many nurse practitioners are even able to prescribe medications and order laboratory tests. Because of the overall demand for health care, the role of the nurse practitioner is only expected to expand in coming years.

The BLS expects employment for these professionals to increase 34% from 2012 to 2022. And that demand is likely a contributor to these worker’s high earnings. In 2013, nurse practitioners earned an annual mean wage of $95,070, but the top 10% earned $126,250.

Although nurse practitioners earn healthy wages in any position, some industries paid more on average. In 2013, those industries were personal care cervices ($117,300), specialty hospitals ($109,850), and grant-making and giving services ($107,350).

No. 3: Orthotics and Prosthetics

The surge in the number of patients with diabetes and cardiovascular disease, the top two causes of limb loss, is expected to lead to more jobs for the medical care professionals who design and fit prosthetic limbs. Fortunately, a master’s degree in orthotics and prosthetics can help you break into this growing industry.

Because the prosthetic industry continues to grow, the BLS predicts that employment in this field will increase 36% nationally from 2012 to 2022. Orthotists and prosthetists earned an annual mean wage of $70,740 in 2013, with the top 10% earning more than $110,000.

The top-paying industries for these workers in 2013 were: outpatient care centers ($77,770), dentists ($76,920), and medical equipment and supplies manufacturing ($75,720).

No. 2: Physician Assistants

Another master’s degree that can put you in a career with good job prospects is physician assisting. Like nurse practitioners, these workers provide primary care to patients and perform tasks that help doctors and surgeons see more patients. Because of an upward trend in the demand for care, jobs for all health diagnosing and treating practitioners combined are expected to surge 20% during the next decade.

But the future looks even brighter for physician assistants. According to the BLS, employment in this field is expected to surge 38% from 2012 to 2022, adding 33,300 new jobs in the process. Physician assistants earned an annual mean wage of $94,350 in 2013, with the top 10% earning $130,620.

The industries that paid physicians assistants the most in 2013 were employment services ($103,710), home health care services ($102,640), and office administrative services ($101,530).

No. 1: Industrial Organizational Psychology

Although psychology as a whole isn’t expected to see exceptional growth, some psychology specialties are expected to grow tremendously. The need for industrial organizational psychologists, for example, is expected to surge as corporations and businesses turn to these professionals for advice on decreasing their workforce without harming productivity.

U.S. Department of Labor data show that employment for industrial organizational psychologists is expected to increase a whopping 53% from 2012 to 2022, making this degree a good bet if you’re angling for a career with good job prospects. However, the pay for these workers is also something you can look forward to. In 2013, industrial organizational psychologists earned an annual mean wage of $87,960, but the top 10% earned more than $140,000.

Industries that paid the highest wages for these workers in 2013 were scientific research and development services ($110,700), health practitioners ($108,020), and management of companies and enterprises ($90,470).

Before You Spend the Money, Think

Even though a two-year master’s degree program can cost anywhere from $30,000 to $120,000, the payoff can be huge. The key is choosing a program that can lead to a high-paying career. If you don’t do the research first, you may not find out how much — or little — you can expect to earn until it’s far too late.

To avoid any surprises, compare your potential earnings with the cost of any degree program you’re considering to see if the investment is worth it. That master’s degree in music history might seem like a good idea, but will it really pay off? If you don’t want to end up sifting through mountains of student loan debt for the next few decades, that’s one question always worth asking.

Also keep in mind that there are plenty of other lucrative jobs for master’s degree holders that didn’t make this list. If you want to explore other careers and where they could take you, check out the Bureau of Labor Statistics at BLS.gov and the U.S. Department of Labor’s CareerOneStop for more information.

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