Often, a recurring theme in conversations about higher education begins with, “Do I need a master’s degree?” More questions likely come to mind. “If I sacrifice the time, effort and finances to acquire a master’s, will it be worth it? Will it push my career forward? There are only 24 hours in a day—how will it fit into the rest of my life?” These are all fair concerns, and answers often vary depending on your field of interest and other qualifications. After speaking with two business professionals—who are in very different fields but yet also share many similarities—we were able to uncover some clarity on the importance of a master’s degree and how it can have the most impact.
From a market perspective, Liz Wingenbach, director of talent management at global footwear company Caleres, Inc., says the combination of education and experience is key when she’s sorting through resumes. As to whether a master’s degree helps a prospective hire stand out from the rest, it ultimately depends on the circumstance.
“When I come across someone who has made the decision to get a master’s degree while working full time and raising a family—I mean, wow. Talk about a multitasker. That tells me this person has drive, has set ambitious goals and is looking to achieve those goals. In a world of competing demands, he or she was able to prioritize things and be successful. That’s someone who has discipline,” she says. “It shows me I have a well-rounded person who would bring all of those skills and apply that to the job. That’s the type of person we want on the team.”
However, from Wingenbach’s perspective, an undergraduate who immediately matriculates to graduate school without any real-world work experience wouldn’t be as impressive.
Experience plays such a critical role, even with a master’s degree. I like to see someone who has gone back to get a degree after a few years of experience.
Wingenbach herself went back for her master’s degree from Saint Louis University while working full time and raising a young family. She knows firsthand what it takes to manage it all. Looking back, she remembers how concepts that evaded her while in undergrad clicked once she had work experience. “Supply and demand, for example,” she says. “It never clicked before. I use that in how I evaluate and understand many different situations now. I had some work experience to apply to what the professor was trying to teach, and those real-life examples made things click. It enriched the learning.”
Similarly, Michael Williams, principal and audit IT director at Edward Jones, began his career at Monsanto as a programmer and eventually moved into internal auditing. While there, he embarked on a part-time Professional MBA program at Washington University’s Olin Business School, graduating in 2001. As he researched potential programs, Williams’ mentors at Monsanto passed along a piece of sage advice about how to proceed in his search, something he tells employees he manages today. “Every MBA program is difficult. It will take a lot of time from you, your family and your resources. Period. The thing that matters is making sure it will pay you back. And it will only pay you back if it is from a school that is well respected and has an incredible reputation. Otherwise, the investment that you make—which will be the same—will not have the dividends that you are looking for,” he recalls.
Due to company changes, Williams decided to leave Monsanto after 10 years. He was offered an internal auditor position at Southwestern Bell, but the financial package wasn’t comparable. To make the shift work, Williams tapped into the negotiating skills he learned from his master’s program. “The first class I took was an organizational behavior class. The resonating message was that everything is negotiable. The teacher shared her path about how she got to where she is, which included things like negotiating for extra vacation days if an organization couldn’t meet her salary requirements.” Williams implemented these skills and offered Southwestern Bell some suggestions about how to make the offer more equitable. “They were able to put together a fantastic offer, and I felt really good about the transition,” he says.
Williams credits his master’s degree from Olin as a primary contributor to his current career success and says it’s still paying off 16 years later. “If you’re looking for three letters, that’s one thing. If you’re looking for knowledge to benefit your career, that’s the difference at Olin. Today, I’m a general partner with Edward Jones, and that’s due in part to my MBA from Washington University,” he says. Now, Williams is at a place in his career where he manages and hires employees, encouraging them to get a master’s degree through the program as well.
As a hiring manager, he sees a discernible difference before and after an employee has acquired a master’s degree. “I can see the difference between an employee who is pre-MBA, in the middle, and post-MBA. The value is not only delivered when you receive your degree. It begins after that first class. As a hiring leader, I can see that immediately.” The differences range from technical and business acumen to the level of engagement he sees among employees. While a pre-MBA student may do their job well as a smart and hardworking business professional, the level of exposure to the inner workings of the business world for a mid-and post-master’s student elevates employees to a much higher level of engagement.
Most recently, Williams went back to Washington University and earned a master’s degree in cybersecurity management through the School of Engineering & Applied Science. It was an easy choice to return to WashU, knowing the quality of peers, professors, and instruction. Today, he still cites these benefits—plus WashU’s excellent reputation—as components that have helped him grow into a highly marketable professional. The master’s programs attract students who are already of exceptional caliber, and when paired with world-class professors teaching cutting-edge concepts, they emerge from the program as business professionals who truly stand out from the rest.
“They almost intuitively become sharper, because they’re running with some of the smartest people on the planet,” says Williams. “That bleeds over into their work life: how quickly they get to their desk in the morning, how engaged they are and excited to work. It’s like if you’re a mediocre tennis player and you play with Serena Williams, you’re going to play the best game of your life. When a school challenges you that way, you never go back.” Further, Williams explains that the expectations for WashU master’s degree students automatically increase, and students are given tools in the program rise to the challenge. “You’re in an environment of thoroughbreds, so you have to run faster.”
Learning these practical and theoretical concepts in the master’s program helped deepen Williams’ business and leadership acumen. Rather than merely participating in the professional world, he learned how to climb the corporate ladder with knowledge and skills to achieve his career goals. “You begin to understand how the business world works, which is not something you get with every other degree. You learn things like salary management, the theory behind it and why it works the way it does, and what motivates an employee to move from level to level. You can leverage that knowledge to move through that system.”