To continue to learn or to earn? It’s a question that can pop up at different stages of a person’s education and career journey.

For some, it arises in the final year of their undergraduate degree. When weighing up what to do next, many choose to go straight into a master’s degree programme. For others, it occurs later in their career when they may want to pivot or specialise in a specific area.

While it is a personal decision, there are other factors to consider.

For example, currently, enrolments in master’s degree programmes are taking a dip. Employment levels in Ireland are very strong – it’s an employee’s market meaning there are a lot of job opportunities. As a result, enrolments in taught masters declined by 4.9% from 29,990 in 2021/22 to 28,525 in 2022/23.

Finances also come into play. The cost of undertaking a master’s degree in Ireland ranges from €9,000 to €25,000, depending on the tuition fees, college and course. It is a large financial investment, so for many people it involves taking out a loan.

However, this is an investment and in the long-run, people generally see a return in their salary. Adding this qualification can significantly enhance career prospects, both in Ireland and internationally.

Graduates often find employment in leading multinational companies, research institutions, and government organisations. It can open up doors and boost your employment prospects when applying for new roles.

Four factors to consider

1. Return on investment

When weighing up the value of doing a master’s degree, your first consideration should be the investment return. Be honest with yourself and the reasons why you are considering it.

What are you hoping to achieve from further study? Do you want to change careers, earn more money, or learn more about a particular area? Whatever your goal, do some research and make sure the course you choose will help you achieve it.

2. Expanding knowledge

Beyond financial considerations, it can offer personal development and advance your education and skills in a specific field. Tutors train you to examine the theories and practices that make up the professional knowledge in your subject. Think about the structure of the programme and the knowledge you are going to gain.

3. Career advancement

In many sectors, it can lead to better job prospects, higher salaries and advancement opportunities. In fields like education, engineering, healthcare and business, they are often required to obtain a higher-level position. It’s important to look into your sector and the job you are aiming for. Ask yourself – do you need a masters to get it?

4. Earning potential

Studies have shown that individuals with a master’s degree tend to earn more over their lifetime compared to those with a bachelor’s degree. The latest HEA Graduates Outcomes Survey (2022) stated that 59% of taught postgraduates earned more than €35,000 per annum compared to 33.2% of undergraduates with an Honours degree. However, increases in salary vary in different fields. For example, a master’s in business administration (MBA) typically offers a significant salary boost. Therefore, it is important to do the maths and look into the projected salary earnings upon completion.

Ultimately, whether it is worth the money is an individual decision. The most important thing is to do your research and a cost comparison to allow you to make an informed decision. Apply for any funding or scholarships available as many are partly funded.

Profile: Niall Diffley

Niall Diffley.

Hailing from Co Roscommon, Niall Diffley grew up on a farm. He completed his undergraduate degree in Food and Agribusiness Management at UCD in 2020. He is currently a development adviser with the HPSU (High Potential Start-Up) team in Enterprise Ireland.

“I work with early stage, Irish software companies to enable them to scale internationally via equity, grant, market and capability-building supports. I’ve ended up in a very different role than I’d have imagined post-undergrad and masters,” says Niall.

He decided to go straight into further study once he finished his degree as there weren’t many jobs on the market at the time, due to the COVID-19 pandemic

“Some of my friends had been offered places on graduate programmes and then they were rescinded because of the pandemic so I was a little bit spooked. I also had some offers for programmes but none of them were jumping out at me. I probably didn’t know what I wanted at the time and a masters kicked that decision down the road – it was a bit of a perfect storm,” he says.

Niall completed the MSc Food Business Strategy programme in UCD Smurfit School, primarily online because of COVID-19. He believes that the online element potentially reduced the value as he missed out on the networking and social aspects. However, he did avail of a scholarship. “I was fortunate enough to receive an ASPIRE scholarship. I’d never heard of it before so I’d recommend to everyone to look at the potenital scholarship opportunities out there,” he advises.

Was the master’s degree worth the money? Niall replies that he found the content similar to what he studied in his undergraduate degree.

“Regarding the course content, the value for money wasn’t there for me. From an extra and co-curricular point of view, being a class representative, taking part in different programmes and getting involved outside of the virtual classroom is where the real skillset development and value add-on took place,” he says.

For anyone considering a master’s degree Niall offers the following advice: “I would say think long and hard about what you want to achieve or what your next step is. Will the master’s degree get you to where you need to go and fill your knowledge gaps?

“If you’re unsure, join the jobs market, find out what you like or what you don’t like. Then come back once you have that laser focus on what you want. It’s a huge financial and time commitment, and it is a tough year, so you have to be sure.”

In short

• At Irish universities, a taught master’s degree programme

typically lasts one year

• The cost of studying a master’s degree in Ireland ranges from €9,000 to €25,000 based on tuition fees

• Enrolments in taught master’s programmes declined by 4.9% from 29,990 in 2021/22 to 28,525 in 2022/23

• Conducting a cost-benefit analysis specific to your situation can help determine if pursuing a master’s degree is the right

decision for you