“That,” he says, “was not something I intended on doing.”
In a field that relies on technical expertise in specialties such as international economics, agriculture or democratic governance, and is dominated by those with advanced degrees, Day says his management skills took him only so far. He was a skilled problem solver who could identify development goals and assemble teams of experts to execute action plans in his host country, but he was doing it without the academic credentials. “I knew that at some point my lack of a master’s would catch up to me,” he says.
And so, instead of going to Afghanistan last year, Day went to graduate school. After weighing acceptance letters from American University’s School of International Service and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Day left the mountains of Montenegro in August and moved to Cambridge, where he is now halfway through a one-year master’s in public administration.
Day’s professional world may be specialized, but the circumstances that led to his enrollment in a graduate program are hardly unique. As Phillip Trella, assistant vice president for graduate studies at the University of Virginia, sums it up: “The bachelor’s degree is no longer the coin of the realm it once was. Thirty years ago, it distinguished you in the marketplace. That’s no longer so.”
For those who want to shore up their worth in their chosen profession, boost their salaries, switch careers or even simply wait out the bad economy while adding to their academic résumés, the case for earning a master’s degree is strong. Especially, it seems, if you aspire to work, or advance, in Washington. Twenty-eight percent of the over-25 population here has a master’s or PhD — more than any state, according to 2009 Census data.
The trend is similar elsewhere. Nationwide, the number of people enrolled in graduate school has risen steadily, an average 3.8 percent per year in the decade before 2010. In that year, in the thick of the recession, applications were up 8.4 percent, though first-time enrollment dipped slightly by 1 percent as employers pulled back on tuition reimbursement, according to a survey by the Council of Graduate Schools and the Graduate Record Examinations Board. Nevertheless, 2010 saw more than half a million graduates land in the marketplace with newly minted advanced degrees. Today, two in 25 people age 25 or older have a master’s as their highest degree — about the same number with a bachelor’s in 1967, according to the Digest of Education Statistics.