The Value of an Advanced Degree During Times of Uncertainty

How a professional master's degree can provide stability in a post-pandemic job market

August 20, 2021 | By Kelsey Harris
Graduation caps at the master's in applied systems engineering graduation

Fifty-eight percent of respondents to a recent global survey indicated that closing the skills gap is now a higher priority since the pandemic. While it is always important to plan for continuing education that supports your career goals, a volatile job market makes the need increasingly vital. Reskilling and upskilling have long been considered effective tools for positioning oneself for advancement or leadership roles, but they are also influential in developing resilience against the inevitable ups and downs – and rapid transitions – of today's global marketplace.

Historically, we know from past economic turndowns that additional education can enhance your marketability in a crowded job market while also leading to career advancement as the economy begins to recover. But it's important to choose the right educational option that maximizes your chances of success and return on investment.

If you are considering investing in an advanced degree – and want a cross-disciplinary blend of STEM with business and leadership training – a professional master's degree might be the best fit. These degrees are designed to provide practical knowledge, extensive real-world industry exposure, and hands-on experience that can be applied immediately. Here are three key components to look for during your search.

Industry-Led Curriculum

Over the last two decades, the workforce has undergone transformational change characterized by the growing adoption of new technologies such as artificial intelligence, big data, and cloud computing.

When the pandemic struck in early 2020, these socioeconomic and digital advancements were accelerated, ushering in the Fourth Industrial Revolution at a pace and scale that was previously unimaginable. And these massive industrial changes have had a disruptive impact on the workforce.

"Industry today looks drastically different than it did even a year ago," reflects Nisha Botchwey, associate dean of Academic Programs at Georgia Tech Professional Education. "This rapid transition has underscored the need for professionals who not only have expertise but can also keep up with the fast-changing needs of their respective organizations."

Built on practical knowledge and a curriculum developed and supported by industry, professional master's programs can meet the new demands of the workplace. Led by academic faculty and industry partners, these degrees provide real-world insights by integrating modern-day examples, applied learning, and case studies.

This specialized and contemporary education gave Jessica Blume the competitive edge needed to advance in her career. "We utilized software tools that are used in the industry today, allowing me to learn them in an educational environment first," she said. "Now, when I come to a decision point at work, I can look back on those tools and I am better prepared to make recommendations."

Whole-Person Skills Development

In McKinsey's newest global survey on reskilling, it was revealed that companies engage in more skill-building than they did before the crisis, with a prioritization on social, emotional, and advanced cognitive skills. These human skills – like leadership, people management, critical thinking, decision making, and project management – are crucial to navigating the level of uncertainty present in today's environment.

"To survive the current and future workplace, professionals must develop a mindset that embraces change alongside the assurances of financial and technological practicality," said Aaron Stebner, executive director of Georgia Tech's Professional Master's in Manufacturing Leadership. "This exposure is what will develop industry leaders that can move the field forward."

Combining technical knowledge with an MBA-like focus on business and leadership techniques, professional master's degrees focus on honing experience rather than conducting research – all critical components for effective leadership in the 21st century.

When Eric Taylor was promoted to general manager, the highest position at the mill level, he was prompted to pursue an advanced degree that could provide him the skills to lead and develop his talent effectively. A professional master's degree fit the bill. "The courses within my program not only forced me to look at leadership differently, but it also gave me some tools to facilitate growth and learning of others."

Robust Professional Networks

While professional growth is dependent on education and experience, it also is nurtured by your relationships – a critical component for staying agile in times of change.

"Building meaningful relationships is an important tool in preventing career stagnation," notes Nelson Baker, dean of Professional Education. "They help you stay on top of the latest trends in your industry, keep a pulse on the job market, and gain access to resources and people that will foster you for the long-term."

Assembled around a small cohort that begins and remains together until graduation, professional master's degrees offer a stable and supportive group of diverse peers and esteemed faculty who serve as career coaches, mentors, and advisors.

For Victor Shell Jr., the ability to build this strong sense of community was invaluable in his career search, aiding in securing his first job offer – and later promotion – via a fellow student. "As the youngest in my program, I got to meet with peers who had been in the industry as long as I had been alive," he noted. "This exposure allowed me to see how they handle certain situations and then take those learning experiences and apply it to my own organization and industry."

Find the Right Postgraduate Program for You

As we adapt to the overwhelming disruption of COVID-19, a graduate or professional degree program can be a great way to further your education, improve your job prospects, and thrive in a post-pandemic world.

But it's important to be strategic.

"Today’s workplaces need agile thinkers who have the deep expertise required for their areas of specialization but also the social breadth and the ability to collaborate and make connections across disciplines," reminds Baker. "The goal is to keep pace with change and remain relevant in your chosen field, and perhaps your next one, too."