Masters degrees – choose correctly

For Bachelor students on their final years, the Masters stage becomes an important stepping stone to a good career. Of course, as with everything in life, the Masters degree stage has its own challenges, opportunities, costs and benefits. As such it should be analysed and planned carefully.

The main decision components are:
1. Definition of quality.
Quality is not the holy grail of education, as no one knows what it really MEANS. Definitions are offered that suit those that provide those very definitions. So each person must define for themselves what they understand to be a “quality education”:
– Overall prestige of the institution. Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford, MIT. Names that assure immediate amazing careers. Or an institution in each country that everyone knows, fears, respects. A good guide is the Times Higher Education Ranking.
– Narrow prestige (reputation) for something very specific, showing leadership in that narrow area. Finance? Wharton. Luxury goods? Monacco.
– Knowledge passed in class. Top specialists in their fields, advertised on the university websites (good universities have nothing to hide!) with extensive CVs, top publications, senior positions in business or government. Professors with international reputations, authors of books used in universities around the world, scientists with publications in top international journals, people employed by top “think tanks”, etc.
– Contact with the business world (or diplomatic or administrative or technological) – are the teachers in corporate employment, or were they senior directors of departments? Ex-Minister teaching a course, Diplomats, CEOs, etc. Can they teach by giving their real-life examples? Can the teachers be useful later, as business or job contacts?
– Market-perceived quality, measured by speed and level of graduate employment after programme, the competition for graduates among companies, speed of advancement.
– Strong networking, both in terms of the contacts that you will make during your studies (your classmates will go far and high, so they will useful) as well as the strength of the Alumni Office, managing the alumni mafia, which loves to employ later graduates of its OWN university.

2. The trade-off between price and “quality”.
Whatever you define as quality, it will cost you. Top universities are expensive because… they can charge those prices. Ferrari will not lower its price. Nor will Harvard. In USA and Europe many universities advertise their programmes by showing how much money their alumni earn. MBA schools show how much MORE you will make after their MBA. Understood?
As soon as you define, which outcomes are important for you, compare them to the fees that you will be required to pay. Consider the fees, especially when you are a non-EU or non-US student planning to go there – they will charge you more (that is their business model).
If you have no money and want to do a Masters degree cheaply, do not expect any good outcomes. You will get your piece of paper. If you need a Masters only to tick a box on your application, then the cheap programme is for you. But at some point, someone might need some knowledge from you, and … you will not have it. Nor any useful skills.
Consider loans or scholarships – have someone else take the financial burden of your studies, so that you can repay it over time, while already having a well-paying job.

3. Time/speed.
In the world there exist two main modes of education: full-time (Monday-Friday), and part-time (weekends), with part-time usually taking longer to complete, as the hours are spread over less contact days. Europe is all about Bologna, and 90% of Masters programmes last 2 years. UK is sabotaging Bologna and still offering a one year Masters. Full-time means little opportunity to work, while if you need to work to pay for you programme then part-time is the solution, but you may have visa issues.
Masters programmes will be either:
– Low on content, to fit it into a one year stretch;
– Very intensive to fit everything into a short time (then you cannot work);
– Longer-lasting, to provide all the courses you need;
Every option has trade-offs. Fast = shorter time to start work. Longer = more knowledge. Intensive = no time for anything else. Easy/shallow = only get diploma (no real knowledge).

4. Selection of correct specialisation.
We assume that you have, at least, decided on the rough area of knowledge that you need, for example Finance.
The next step is to identify what you want, need, or think will be useful. You can pursue:
– Very broad education, in the general field of “Finance”, with some core courses (set by the university, required) and choose what you like or find interesting through elective subjects;
– A very narrow specialisation, with very deep courses providing you with cutting-edge knowledge, skills and understanding;
Those pursuing the first type, will want a career in “general” finance, from staffing cash registers, through assisting stock traders, to doing analysis in a bank. A job awaits anywhere. An average job. Those pursuing the second, narrow type, will gain employment in appropriate institutions, and probably get it faster, earn more and get promoted faster. In narrow specialisations, the level of competition is higher as people are more focused and they contribute stronger KPIs.
As in all these analyses, the message is clear – decide where you want to work and pursue that with determination!

5. Home or abroad.
Highest quality is located in only a few countries – most of you do not live in them. Remember, quality comes at a price, so make sure you can afford it.
Going abroad has its costs – financial expenditures (tuition, flights, living expenses), stress for yourself, family and friends, lost relationships, traumas, visa problems, travel problems, risk of sicknesses, etc.
But studying abroad offers amazing opportunities (alongside the advanced knowledge) – about this I will write in the future. For now, we can state that foreign degrees from good countries are more valuable in the heated battle for top jobs.
If you cannot find funds for study abroad, spend money on a top local university. And consider the opportunities outlined below (a second, better, foreign degree later, a few years into your career).

6. Immediately or not?
Rushing into a Masters degree immediately after your Bachelor is only one option available to all. In reality, you can:
– Finish the Bachelor and go to work, get the job, get yourself sorted out, gain the first real-life experiences. Then, after a year or two, take the Masters and do it alongside your work, adding the second degree title to your now-interesting CV;
– Finish the Bachelor and never do a Masters degree, as your career might not require further formal qualifications;
– Take the Masters immediately after Bachelor, “get education over with”;
The last option has some subcomponent issues. Rushing into a Masters might seem simple, you get a “MA” tick on your CV, but it could be a mistake – you should think about what you really need and want. Maybe a delayed Masters, once you get some money, will be better (it will help your career)? Or, maybe, after 2-3 years of work, you will see an opportunity in something that needs a Masters degree, and THEN, you do one, a correct one? For example, you did finance, but then you see the market need for forensic accountants?
Overall, the biggest danger to delayed Masters is that you will not want to go back to university, so many people “rush through” that second stage of education. In essence they waste time and money.

So, to finish off – a Masters degree should make sense, as part of your overall life/work strategy. If that is the case, then you already know: where, when, how, why you will do the Masters. Otherwise, do any masters immediately, to have the “MA/MSc” title by your name, or WAIT. Wait until you know what you need to do.
Follow your plan! Do not leave anything to chance!

Graduate careers – a critical perspective

Universities insist that they are providing students with the best education that is perfectly integrated with the needs of the labour market. This, in theory, should lead to 100% employability of graduates, immediately upon receiving their valuable piece of paper.

Looking at the people in different subjects, each one with an ambition to become the top dog in their field, it is clear that students should not rely on the promises of universities claiming to have the secret to immediate career success, nor depend on university career offices to find them the perfect job. A person’s success is a combination of luck and own career management. Depending on others leads you to an unemployment benefit line.

Students – plan and manage your own careers! NO ONE else will do that.

Otherwise, you will be swallowed by the tide of identical graduates, finishing your programme, your university, the same programme in dozens of other universities. Thousands of clones are pushed onto the labour market each year.

How to succeed – what is a good graduate career?

  1. Plan your career for the next 5-10 years.

University is not a period of life, after which comes “something else”. University is a stepping stone for the next 10 years of your career. You will have received the knowledge and skills (and degree certifying to that fact), from which you should step into full-time employment, preferably in an area related to what you’ve just studied.

I ignore useless people who moan that “they don’t know what they want to do”, as those people are wasting everyone’s time, efforts and the financial resources of family or government.

Good people, intelligent people, will have a good idea where they want to go, what they want to do.

Build a secret plan.

University (Bachelor) => Graduation => First full-time job, early experience, getting the first employer onto your CV => experience working + understanding real people (and crazy bosses) => Masters (part-time not to lose work?) => Second job or sizeable promotion within original organisation =>First mortgage … Etc.

Follow the plan.

Figure out what happens in the industry that you want to work in, what are the trends, where is the cool work, where do people earn or make money, who the powerful people are. And then, plan yourself pursuing that.

Develop alternatives in your plan. Be ready for changes – in your first few years OTHER PEOPLE will make decisions about you, so you always have to be ready for good and bad decisions made by THEM about YOU.

  1. Be aware of important trends.
  • Statistics are your enemy – every year thousands of identical students graduate and go looking for the same jobs.
  • Degree inflation – the value of lower degrees or qualifications is diminishing, as (see above) thousands graduate each year in each discipline. Soon, every cleaner or security guard will have a Bachelor (and a Bachelor in “ochrana”, that are offered, for example in Poland ;p).
  • Competency inflation – 2 languages are the norm, as are three. Four or five are desirable. You know Word? LOL – How about Visual Basic for Excel? Driving licence? Maybe a tank driving licence is still unique…
  1. Decide on the final outcomes of your education.

Be aware that there is a trade-off between quality/prestige and price. If you want to get your higher education done easily and cheaply, do not expect good jobs afterwards. There is a reason why top companies/organisations hire form best universities. Quality education = a lot of knowledge. But then, quality education = $$$$$$$$.

The chances of getting an amazing job with a bad education are remote – you would have to find an employer who does not understand the low value of your diploma and then, after appointment you still have to show your unique skills (if you have them). This combination of luck is unlikely.

If you did a low quality Bachelor, then jump in quality/prestige for the Masters. Bad Masters? Do another one in a better university. Hell, go abroad.

  1. Don’t waste time – differentiate yourself.

With thousands of clones graduating each year, you are among them, lost in the crowd. Everyone has the same degree title, similar GPA, even identical subjects on their transcripts. During your studies, pursue additional differentiating factors:

  • Learn more languages (with certificates, proving your skills – just not IELTS);
  • Gain additional qualifications/certificates, both at university and outside;
  • Work experience BEYOND what is required towards the degree (holiday work, part time work around classes, even full-time work integrated with classes) – anything to show to a potential employer that you are a “real employee with experience”;
  • International mobility (exchange) for a semester, to show intercultural and international experience and competencies (or even multiple exchange semesters in different countries, as is increasingly the norm in Europe) – show that you can live and study abroad, that you can deal with foreign cultures, languages, institutions, laws and people;
  • International double-degrees (or triple, if you can get them), where you gain a second degree while studying for a year or two at the foreign partner university – if possible seek programmes that award DIFFERENT degrees, enhancing your value to a potential employer;
  • Research towards your future career – write a dissertation on a topic that will show your future employer your interests, competencies or ambitions;
  • Take courses or gain skills towards your future career (all degrees allow for electives, or take additional courses/credits);
  • Get involved in projects outside of classes that will enhance your experiences, show your organisational skills, people skills;
  • Start projects, that will show your innovativeness and entrepreneurialism;
  • Attend conferences, events, to gain certificates, see what really goes on and, maybe/hopefully, pick up contacts of useful people, whom you can later contact about work/projects/opportunities;


And then, your CV will be INTERESTING to an employer, who will see a young person of above-average competencies, experiences, someone to whom a job offer MUST BE MADE.

You could argue that the lazy ones will get jobs too, but their chances are much smaller, as they are all IDENTICAL. You could argue that some weak graduates will get jobs because of family contacts – although true in some cases, understand that most employers need GOOD people (not children-of-friends), and will in many cases opt for the QUALIFIED CANDIDATE – you.

And after getting the job, you start on the SECOND challenge – developing your career ;p