The Most Popular Graduate Degrees

mbaAttending graduate school is a big decision -- there's a lot of time, effort and money involved in earning an advanced degree. Yet despite the major commitment, the popularity of graduate degrees is on the rise.

According to the annual Survey of Graduate Enrollment and Degrees conducted by the Council of Graduate Schools, the number of applications to grad school has increased by an average of 4.8 percent per year between 1999 and 2009, and shot up 8.3 percent between 2008 and 2009 alone.

Though the CGS study reported that the number of graduates from advanced degree programs increased across almost all disciplines last year, it seems some programs hold a stronger appeal than others. According to the study, a combined 51 percent of the total number of master's degrees awarded in 2009 were in either business or education. By contrast, 7.2 percent of master's degrees were granted in engineering, 8.6 percent were in health sciences and 4.1 percent were in either mathematics or computer science.

While the large number of master's degree earners in business and education is definitely a testament to the popularity of those professions, it doesn't necessarily attest to the growth of these particular industries and vice versa. Despite the fact that only 4 percent of master's degrees were awarded in math or computer science in 2009, for example, many of today's fastest growing professions are in these disciplines. The same goes for health science and engineering: Though these graduate programs may not be as popular as those in business and education, job opportunities are expected to abound.

To illustrate, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the following jobs will experience the fastest growth from 2008-2018 (based on percentage change in number of jobs). Most are in health care, computer science and engineering:

  1. Biomedical engineers

  2. Network systems and data communications analysts

  3. Home health aides

  4. Personal and home care aides

  5. Financial examiners

  6. Medical scientists, except epidemiologists

  7. Physician assistants

  8. Skin care specialists

  9. Biochemists and biophysicists

  10. Athletic trainers

  11. Physical therapist aides

  12. Dental hygienists

  13. Veterinary technologists and technicians

  14. Dental assistants

  15. Computer software engineers

Just because education and business aren't widely represented among the fastest-growing industries doesn't mean that entering into and M.Ed or M.B.A. program is a loss, however.

M.B.A. programs are regarded as one of the most financially rewarding advanced degrees, and for good reason. According to research done by the Graduate Management Admissions Council, student who attend two-year, full-time M.B.A. programs earn an average of 64 percent more than they did pre-M.B.A. For those in part-time programs, salaries increased by about 55 percent post graduation. Additionally, chief executives, marketing managers, financial managers and sales managers -- all jobs that usually require an M.B.A .-- are consistently among the BLS' list of top-25 highest-paying occupations.

As far as education degrees go -- just because teaching isn't one of the fastest- growing occupations percentage-wise, doesn't mean the industry won't have a need for qualified professionals. In the BLS report of the occupations expected to have the largest number of job openings through 2018 (measured by anticipated number of jobs added from 2008-2018), both post-secondary and elementary school teachers break the top 15. Job openings for post-secondary teachers are expected to jump by 257,000 through 2018, while jobs for elementary school teachers will grow by 244,000.

For more information on the best graduate degrees, visit the Council of Graduate Schools, the Graduate Management Admissions Council or the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

*The BLS defines Fastest growing occupations as those experiencing the most percentage growth from 2008-2018. Occupations with the largest employment growth are those expected to add the largest number of jobs from 2008-2018.

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