How do I choose a masters degree?

For a half decade, I’ve been toying with the idea of going back to school and getting a masters degree. I use ‘toying’ here in the way a lazy cat toys with a petrified sparrow. That is, with intermittent focus.

Why do I want to back to school?

  • I really enjoyed my undergraduate degree. I liked the academic rigour, the camaraderie and the debate.
  • Lots of smart people that I respect have masters degrees.
  • I enjoy public speaking and teaching, and an advanced degree would help me do more of that.
  • I enjoy living in other places–I write this on a plane over the Atlantic–and getting a masters degree might enable that.

I’m intrigued by the idea in the abstract, but I don’t know what I’d like to study. There’s my core competency: web marketing and communications. I suppose I’m boasting, but I suspect that I’m overqualified for that topic. Having written a book about it, and taught both undergrads and grad students myself, I’d make an intolerable student.

I don’t want an MBA. No offense to anybody who has one, but they seem highly commodified. I think a lot of people get an MBA for career advancement or to increase their pay grade, neither of which is among my motivations. Also, I’ve been the co-owner of a business for 10 years, and there’s some truth to that cliche about the school of life.

I have a notion that I’d like to study something tangentially related to my work. Something around Internet culture or using the web to do good. I can think of questions I’d like to answer, but I’m not even sure what university department they might fit in.

I Have No Idea

But that’s really all I know. I have no idea how one picks a program or how one gets into one. I assume that you can, to some degree, customize your masters program, but I don’t know how much. I don’t even know how to start looking for and evaluating programs, except with some deeply dumb Google searches.

In truth, I’ve been hoping the perfect program would magically appear in my Google calendar. It hasn’t.

So, those of you with advanced degrees, how would I go about finding one that’s the right fit for me?


  1. I keep “toying” with this idea as well … first I was considering a join screenwriting/filmmaking degree in an attempt to get a feature film completed, but have discovered there is no guarantee of this result.

    Now I think about going back and getting the writing degree … but to what end? Do I want to teach … I could possibly be a terrible teacher unless I decide I actually want to do it …

  2. I spent almost two years half-seriously searching for a suitable Masters program before making a decision. I also wasn’t overly interested in a MBA although I work in business and have a BBA. A few things helped me finally narrow my search: 1) format: As I wasn’t in a position to leave my job, I needed a program that was flexible enough for me to continue working full-time. I knew I also needed some fixed deadlines though to keep me from endlessly procrastinating; 2) Content: I wanted a program that would expand my current knowledge and skill set, not neccesarily go into a deeper level of the same content as my undergrad; and 3) Reputation: I wanted to ensure the school I chose was fully accredited and recognized world-wide.

    Having defined my criteria, I also looked at people I respected who had Masters degrees and where they studied. I asked them questions about their experiences and satisfaction with their program. I also looked at grad program rankings to an extent. In the end, I did end up chosing a university where a successful colleague attended but a completely different program. Having now completed my program, I am really satisfied both with the school and program I chose and my decision to pursue a Masters.

    Good luck!

  3. Since I’m apparently all about collecting university degrees, I couldn’t help but weigh in on this one.

    Some universities offer “interdisciplinary studies” graduate degrees where you can tailor your degree very specifically to your interests (e.g., – note: I’m not suggesting UBC per se, it’s just the only one I’m familiar with and I provide the link so you can see what it’s like in general). Though I have heard from some people that those programs often leave students feeling very isolated, as none of the programs from which your profs come really consider you part of their own.

    It’s probably worth talking to some profs about your ideas. I find that profs are generally pretty willing to chat with potential students and may be able to provide you information about specific programs or other profs who might be worth talking to. You mention that you have specific ideas about questions you’d like to answer – feel free to send me an email with some details, as I might have some ideas of departments that they might fit into.

  4. I’d like Victoria’s approach on narrowing down the search.

    I know you are very much closer to internet and social media. I like to suggest to take look at Sherry Turkle’s research area at MIT. Is this something you like to spend 2 years of studying?

  5. Hi Darren,
    A thought occurs to me around your search. Your knowledge and awareness of the online world makes me think you should consider a course online.

    Online learning for adult learning, including of course, postgraduate study is very much a growth area. There are lots of options out there from completely online, to a mix of online/offline.


  6. I found my masters degree to be mostly a waste of time. Basically I came out of it and honestly felt like I didn’t really have many more skills than when I went into it. Compared to my undergrad, where some of my classes had hundreds of people in them, I found the course load and material to be a breeze, almost to the point of being a bit boring (especially compared to the pace of the ‘real world’)

    That said, I do like the relaxed pace of school and the friendships I made.

    If you are serious, then my advice is to make absolutely sure your supervisor is someone a lot smarter than you. If you can’t learn from that person, they aren’t going to be able to guide you to places you haven’t been before, which I think should be a big part of the learning process. maybe look for some research that you really though was great and then find out where they did that research and who their supervisor was. Then contact that person directly.

  7. My input is so vague it may be useless, but in essence I suggest you try to identify scholars or academic figures you find interesting, then try to see if there are any graduate programs at their institutions that would support what you would want to learn about. It’s often a good idea to write the scholars directly once you’ve identified them – it’s a good way to get a sense of them (if they don’t write back, you wouldn’t want them advising you on your thesis… do they actually seem engaged?), and they often know of programs or paths to a degree that may not be obvious on a departmental website.

    I recently read this post about a degree Douglas Rushkoff just finished… seems like a cool program:

  8. I really enjoy online studying as well. I’ve been doing a Certificate in Food Security through Ryerson. It’s not a masters, but it’s an advanced degree. I can do it when I want to do it, and can do it whenever I want. I’m learning a lot, and I enjoy the dialogue with people. has interesting degrees, both graduate and undergrad and they’re all online. I don’t have an English degree, so I think I might take some English classes online eventually. I’ve also taken some marketing courses from BCIT online. I don’t have a Masters, but I’m constantly learning and taking classes and getting more credentials. I have a short focus, and don’t really want to (and can’t afford) to go back to school full-time.

  9. Darren,
    Why not go for a PhD? A masters on its own won’t do much to open doors to teaching at colleges these days. You’re smart and you write fast – you could get through a PhD faster than most people and you’d actually have a chance to do original research and contribute to humanity’s body of knowledge. You do not need to do a masters to enroll in a PhD.

    I did an MBA with the thought that I might do a PhD at some point. But, had I not wanted an MBA, I simply would have gone into a PhD. The PhD will do more to meet the objectives you’ve set out.

    I will spare you the details on why an MBA is valuable to someone who has owned a business for several years. 🙂

  10. I was a mature student who went back to do a Masters at 31 – in mid-sized-city Ontario.

    You need to talk to as many people as possible who have obtained a degree you might be interested in pursuing and ask them what they would have done differently.

    Ask them about the profile of their peers in the program they took… is that who you’d like to spend time with? Some programs are populated by 95% 23 and 24 year olds. They’re brilliant, idealistic and energetic, but after time in the real world, you might lose patience with them. On the upside, you get immersed in cutting edge of everything. Personally, I gained the most in courses that had a broad age dispersion.

    Ask yourself what matters to you? Is it learning, or contributing to academia? Would a course-based program suit you, or do you want to spend half of your time writing a thesis? As a returning student, I think I would have gotten more out of the course-based program. The classes are small and you can really get into deeper discussions and savour the learning opportunities. A thesis, in contrast, is very self-directed and not about learning so much as figuring it out on your own… which you probably have already done plenty of in real working life.

    Once you have access to the research databases, you should be able to keep those privileges as an alumni, so if you really want, you could partner with someone in academia and still do research afterwards easily (with or without a thesis behind you).

    In terms of continuing on to do a PhD, most PhD students I know aren’t thrilled with the decision. Despite the ongoing boomer retirement wave, jobs in academia are hard to come by if people want to stay in major centres. Most of my PhD student friends felt that a second Masters in a related field would have been more marketable than a PhD which is just soo specialised.

    1. Also – I think the people make the experience more than the program. I know one program that was very ho-hum, but what pushed it to the top were the students.

      They were all at least four years out of undergrad and brought international experience from across the globe with them, often coming from government, think tank, econ, or very local, backgrounds. They knew their stuff, and that knowledge and their drive pushed humdrum courses and assignments to the next level. I was fortunate to have some of those students as roommates, and you can’t imagine a more interesting group to have as roomates, and later friends.

      Oh, and you want to spend some time chatting with potential advisors. You want someone who you click with well.

  11. I “toy” with this idea as well, pretty much ever since I graduated from undergrad. I have this decision componded by the fact that I work in civil service and an advanced degree isnt really required. I also feel the nostalgia of being around like-minds. At this point my deciding factor is “I dont want anymore student loans!” Lol

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