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Is an advanced degree for me?

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Question from a reader: "Is an advanced degree (MA or PhD) a helpful asset or actually a disadvantage when it comes to keeping one's teaching job or getting hired in today's tough market (because administrators and districts have to pay those with advanced degrees more money)? In other words, is it worth the extra time, effort and money to get an advanced degree or will this only hurt teachers in the end?"

Dear reader,

You raise a good question!

As you consider an advanced degree, please keep in mind the fact that schools and school districts can vary widely according to several factors, including:

Balance of new and veteran teachers - If an academic department or school has many rookie teachers, the district may want to hire a veteran teacher with a master's degree. Likewise, a school or department with many experienced teachers may seek a rookie teacher with fresh ideas and energy.

Goals/expectations of teachers - Some districts maintain a certain percentage of teachers with advanced degrees, such as 65 - 75%. So they may be more likely to hire masters-level teachers.

Budgets - Given limited budgets, some district administrators must justify to their school boards why they are interested in hiring any candidate that has more than a bachelor's degree. For these types of districts, it is probably "safer" not to have a master's degree. On the contrary, some fortunate districts estimate the new hires for the coming year at a master's level with 5 years of experience (as an average amount they'd have to spend). So for them, the masters is not an issue. Some districts base their hiring limits mainly on experience, so they tend to avoid hiring a teacher with more than 8 years of experience, regardless of his or her degree level.

Research districts in your area (or other areas) - Given the varying factors above, it is wise to learn more about the expectations and practices of the district in which you are teaching or to which you are applying. One school district Human Resources administrator I know said that he needs teachers who are willing to relocate to his area, regardless of whether they have a bachelor's degree or master's degree.

Keeping in mind the above variations, here are some general considerations based on my discussions with teacher candidates and school administrators:

For candidates with no teaching experience, it would be advisable not to get an advanced degree until you gain experience. (Of course, there are exceptions, such as in the case of hard-to-fill positions where districts have a harder time recruiting qualified candidates.) A doctoral degree with no teaching experience is likely to raise a "red flag" to a school district in terms of why you have so much schooling without experience.

If you are currently in a teaching position, it may be wise to begin some type of advanced course work within your first three years of teaching, if possible. Some districts that place an emphasis on continuing education may wonder why a third year teacher, for example, has not yet begun course work toward a master's degree in order to improve his or her knowledge and skill as a teacher. In some cases, a BA + 24 (credits) may be "safer" than a masters. I do not have a clear sense of whether or not you should complete the master's degree prior to gaining tenure. (Perhaps another reader can provide insight on this issue.)

The type of advanced degree program is a consideration. If you are a secondary-level teacher, a master's in the subject area you teach may be more valuable than a general curriculum/instruction masters, depending on your goals. (At least 18 credits at the master's level in a discipline may qualify you to teach dual enrollment courses, through which students receive college credit while in high school.) An educational leadership masters with appropriate state certification would be helpful if you receive positive feedback regarding a future goal to become a department chair, an athletic or other type of director, or a principal. A doctoral degree is appropriate for some higher administrative positions. (A doctoral degree may be seen by some districts as somewhat "luxurious" for teachers, but, again, it can vary by district and some districts may value the doctorate for teachers.)

When investigating potential degree programs, you might consider attending a college that is accredited by an organization such as the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), which indicates that the programs have been scrutinized for quality.

National Board Certification (http://www.nbpts.org) could be a consideration for your future. Some districts provide financial incentives for board certification. (At least one district's compensation is currently equivalent to a doctoral degree).

At this time, I cannot predict potential changes that may occur during the next several years in the field of education that may modify some of these factors. I hope this answer brought to mind some considerations as you investigate your options regarding an advanced degree or, perhaps, national board certification.

--Sara Dahms,
Career Counselor,
Concordia University Chicago

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