… or the ROI of Professional Graduate Degrees

Let me begin by saying that you should center yourself on doing things you love and care about; it is much more fulfilling than chasing money. Further you are more likely to find happiness by finding a team of good people and finding a culture that matches your values.

However, I also believe that people should be compensated for what they are worth. In conversations that I have had over the last few years, I have found some of the things that I have uncovered are not common knowledge. I was recently asked about Professional Graduate Degrees. Are they worth it? What is the ROI? Should I invest time and money into one of these later in life. It may help at this point to share some of my learning journey that I am drawing on to write this post. I was accepted into University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign for a Master’s of Computer Science at the age of 39. I graduated when I was 42. I was accepted into two MBA programs, but ultimately made the decision to build my own program from courses I have chose and self study.

To determine a return on investment you need to know a few things:

  • What would happen if you do nothing? (not investing is your baseline)
  • What is the cost of the investment you are about to make?
  • Where can you get if you do invest in your education?


Over the years at DevOpsDays in multiple cities, I have taken part in (and twice led) Talk Pay events. If you haven’t heard of these or participated in one, you should read Paul’s blog and take part in one at a future DevOpsDays when you get the chance (and we can do things like that again). For me it was really eye opening to see the range of salaries and I love the stories of people having frank discussions with their bosses after the experience.

If you want to get an idea of the range of pay for your profession, I recommend signing up for and downloading the guide from Parker Lynch. This will help you to figure out if you are getting paid in the bottom, middle or top of your market for your profession. There are 5 pages of line items for different job titles. Here is just a small clip of the type of information in this document:


This can give you an idea of where you are relative to the market and also pay levels of other job titles that interest you.

If you are toward the bottom end of your job title, try to figure out why? Did you come in from a non-traditional path and not know the market? Depending on the reason, if you feel you should make more and you have “put in your time” (and listen - this amount of time is not a decade, more like a year or two), then you should consider applying and doing interviews at other companies to understand your worth. If you are given an offer that is 20%, 40%, or I have heard stories of as much as over 80% more money, then you are in fact worth more in the market. You need to act on that in some way, even if it is to bring that up to your current employer in the case where you love your job/team/company. This can be a tough conversation–so seek out guidance from your inner network before having it and think about what you are going to say. Emotional intelligence here comes through thinking through this from multiple sides. Just know, friend, that you are worth it in the market.

The Cost of Professional Graduate School

These are the things that I would suggest you look at:

  • What do you want to study? (Computer Science, Data Science, Business, etc.)
  • What are the top schools in that field?
  • What are the costs of the schools you like?
  • What will your employer chip in?
  • Do you have time for the commitment?

If you are considering taking on a Professional Graduate Degree, whether it is an Executive MBA or something in a rad field like AI, for example, make sure it is something you are excited about. Most programs are going to be a significant portion of your week. This extra time is going to put extra stress and take away time from your current job, your inner network of family and friends, and your leisure activity. So you want to make sure that it is something that you are really jazzed about so you can motivate yourself to push through when times are hard. In my situation, I am still really pumped about the prospects of the breakthroughs over the next decade in AI and want to be part of that. That made it easy to push through all the statistics and programming homework (that and I am a nerd and love statistics and programming homework). I am excited about business strategy, but I am not as excited about accounting. So I have decided not to do a full MBA, and go more of a la carte and self directed route for my Business education.

Since you are going to be putting in time, I believe it is worthwhile to find a school that is known for the thing you are studying. There are a number of lists that come from a number of places that rank schools. I would spend some time perusing these lists and go beyond only using the US News & World Report list. Other lists use different algorithms that may expose things the US News list does not. I have found myself on the Poets & Quants website quite a bit from the research I have done.

Cost is a big consideration. If you are considering an Online MBA, currently the UNC-Chapel Hill Kenan-Flagler business school costs over $125,000. This is the top ranked program, however is out of reach for most people. A quick Google search for “most affordable online master’s computer science” lands me at an article from get educated .


I graduated from UIUC (number 25 on this list of affordable options, number 5 in the nation on US News & World Report) and know many people that graduated from Georgia Tech (number 1 on this list of affordable options, number 8 in the nation on US News & World Report). Both are much more affordable than other programs and all of your school work can be done on your schedule, wherever you are on in the world. When I was applying to schools for an MBA, I read an article from Poets & Quants and that is what helped me decide to apply to UIUC and Boston University.

A big piece of the equation is the how much will your employer chip in? Many employers will have some type of program to help pay for higher education of some sort. According to a survey by International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans 92% of U.S. employers have some sort of educational benefit. 57% of U.S employers had some form of tuition reimbursement for at least the last 6 years. Most of the time it will be percentage based or capped by a certain amount per year. Also take into consideration that you will likely have to front the money for this, meaning you will need to pay the tuition upfront (or could get loans, the FAFSA is still a thing, and I qualified for loans from filling it out, but did not apply for them), then your company will reimburse you if you receive a certain grade or other standard. This is where you get out a spreadsheet and figure out the cost to you personally. Say the course costs $1000 and your company pays 1/2 if you get a “B” or higher. If you meet all the marks for the cost then you are looking at a cost to you of $500. If you have 10 courses in the program and they are all like this scenario. Then although the program/degree costs $10,000, you are looking at $5,000 cost to you. Remember to read the fine print. There may be stipulations that you have to be employed for a certain amount of time before you qualify and/or may need to stay employed a certain amount of time to not have to pay back the reimbursed amount.

Time is likely to be the biggest cost and stressor. For many, I believe more so than the money. However I will not discount that that money is always a major stressor for many people. When doing my Master’s of Computer Science, I specifically chose to take a job making less money because I knew that company allowed “compressed” schedules. I was able to work 4 days per week at 10 hour days and have Friday to focus on school. An added benefit to this schedule was that for over a year, I was able to take my daughter to gymnastics every Friday morning, something that was not possible with a traditional work schedule. You have to be creative to make time work for you, and for me the most important thing has been to form a habit, get into a routine and use “found time”. I love my current day job, and not longer have the extra time to do 10-20 hours per week necessary for and MBA. So I have decided to commit roughly 5 hours per week over the next year to study business using courses from Harvard Business School Online and self study using books on CD free from the library.

Goal Job

Perhaps this section should have come first. It is really important to have a target that you are aiming for. In addition to the research you did in the first section on the market rates for job titles, another site that is worth looking at is levels.fyi. This site has data gathered from many different companies across the globe and they have services that are intended to help you with your negotiation. I cannot attest to their paid services, I have not used them, however I have spent a fair amount of time researching the market on this site for free. It is worth understanding the things that go into seniority (or levels) at a company. For some companies having Master’s degrees can be the difference between entering the company at one level vs. another. As you can see from the site at many top companies this can be substantial.

Understand that getting a Professional Graduate degree does not guarantee a job. Also the goal job that you are looking at may not require a Master’s Degree of any sort. I personally look at my Graduate degree as a time when I really focused in on learning a specific thing to become an expert at it. I view Cloud Certifications the same way. Outwardly to other people these may show as success indicators. They also may not. It would be a sad state of affairs for you to spend an extra 5-20 hours per week to show someone else something they did not care about. This is why it is important for what you are studying to be important to you, first and foremost.

It is also important to not get discouraged in this process. I first interviewed for the current company that I work for in 2015, 6 years prior to actually being hired. This process can take a fair amount of time.

If you ever plan to be a CTO, CIO, CISO, or other type of chairperson, some boards will only look at and/or approve individuals with a Master’s degree or higher, so that is also a consideration.

Return On Investment

So back to the original question. What is the Return on Investment or ROI for a Professional Graduate Degree? If we look at this from pure math form and use easy round numbers, let’s say you currently make $100,000/year to start and you truly believe that you want a job where a degree would make a difference in either being hired, your pay rate, and/or whether you would have the skills to be successful at the job. Since you make $100k, I am going to roughly change that $50/hour that you could charge as a consulting side-hustle as opportunity cost. Let’s say you put in 10hours/week for 45 weeks/year (I did summer courses both years of my Master’s degree) for 2 years. We will use the scenario from above where school costs you $5000.


So it would take $50k to earn back what you paid in tuition and opportunity cost.

If you went from a job where you made $100k to a job where you made $120k. That would mean you would make back the amount you spent in 2.5 years, then everything after that point would be extra.

Your calculation would likely use different numbers, however this could get you started. Feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn if you have questions.