Should You Get a Master’s in GIS Now?

by Michele Mattix

In my last article I added some food for thought in the discussion of whether a master’s degree in GIS is worthwhile. Today, I will add to that discussion by considering two recent New York Times articles regarding the value of a master’s degree.

First, The Master’s as the New Bachelor’s, written by Laura Pappano, looks at the reasons behind the proliferation of master’s degree holders. It is now the fastest growing degree with about 2 in 25 people age 25 and over having a master’s degree. That is, according to Pappano, about the same proportion of the population that had a bachelor’s or higher in 1960.

In a job market saturated with college educated applicants, the master’s is certainly a way to differentiate yourself and prove your commitment to your field. But is it worth it financially? In another New Times article called R.O.I., Cecilia Capuzzi Simon investigates the return on investment of getting a master’s degree. She says:

Students will invest, typically, two or more years in advanced study and thousands of dollars in tuition and expenses. A little more than half of students working toward a master’s will borrow an average $31,000, on top of any undergraduate debt they may already have.

Many experts believe that a master’s degree should be looked upon as a long-term investment. If you are under 35 years of age, then you will most likely be able to enjoy the long-term benefits that come with holding the degree: higher salary (on average), promotion to management positions, and greater opportunity in general. As far as borrowing money to pay for the degree, the article says:

The rule of thumb for borrowing, says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of, is that debt should never exceed starting salary. Ideally, he adds, it should be half that.

Some say that education is the next bubble to burst – that university endowments are down, debts are growing, and the benefits of holding a college degree are not paying off for students. Mark Taylor, professor at Columbia University, says in an opinion piece in the New York Times:

One of the dirty secrets of many research universities is that they treat master’s students as cash cows that fund other activities. To make matters worse, with many faculty members uninterested in teaching, students cannot assume they will get what they are paying for.

There has been a huge increase in the number of GIS master’s programs in the past six years. I remember when I began work at Esri in 2005, there were two master’s programs in the United States – one at the University of Redlands, the other at Penn State. Now a search on reveals 161 such programs! And that doesn’t include a few programs I happen to know about that have started up in the past year.

Is the increase in the number of master’s programs because there has been an equal increase in the number of GIS jobs? Here’s a trend graph from that shows how the number of job announcements with ‘GIS’ in the title have fallen the past few years after a few years of slow growth:

It appears that the number of GIS master’s programs has grown much faster that the GIS job market over the past five years.

The recession took a major toll on jobs across the board and GIS was no exception. Pursuing higher education has always been viewed as a worthy endeavor during such times. The challenge lies in guessing what the future holds – continued decline in the number of GIS jobs or a return to growth. One option could find you deeply in debt with no job prospects and the possibility of having to change fields. The other would have you hitting the newly expanding job market with master’s degree in hand ready to sort through the offers.

Getting a master’s degree should be a decision you consider carefully. In my next blog article, I will offer some suggestions on what to look for from a GIS master’s program to make sure you get the most bang for your buck.

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