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Top Careers with a STEM Master’s: Is It Worth the Upgrade?

If you have a bachelor’s in a STEM discipline, you may be working in the field already — and getting paid pretty well, too. Despite this, you may still be wondering if earning a master’s degree can help develop your skills and get the salary boost you want. Take a detailed look at the top 10 STEM fields where a campus or online master’s degree could position you for a higher salary.

Author: Shannon Daigle

Editor: Staff Editor

A smiling african american man wearing glasses and a light blue shirt stands in a data center, holding a tablet, surrounded by server racks illuminated in blue.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in a well-paying STEM field, you may be wondering if earning a master’s degree is worthwhile. After all, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the median annual wage for STEM workers ($95,420) is more than double that of non-STEM occupations ($40,120). And with STEM careers projected to grow 10.8% by 2031, there are plenty of high-income job opportunities for bachelor’s degree holders.

However, as the STEM industry continues to expand, so does the competition for jobs; between 2010 and 2018, the number of STEM bachelor’s degree holders grew by 62%. And while many STEM careers don’t require a master’s degree, they often pay more to those who have one. For some disciplines, holding a master’s degree in STEM can equal a 33% pay increase, making it a worthwhile pursuit.

However, the idea of earning a master’s degree while working full-time, raising a family, or dealing with other responsibilities can be daunting. Fortunately, many online and hybrid degree programs can boost your career and income potential without taking over your life. Below, we break down the top-paying STEM fields and careers for master’s degree holders, including projected industry growth, income potential, and related online or hybrid master’s degree programs.

Nursing

+$46,180

Building a career in nursing is all about caring for patients in various healthcare settings like hospitals, physicians’ offices, nursing care facilities, and outpatient clinics. Nurses perform vital care functions, including observing and assessing patient symptoms, administering medication, and responding to patient needs. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree, students can become registered nurses. However, those with master’s degrees can take on advanced roles as nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse practitioners.

  • Estimated Growth (2021-2031): 6%
  • Entry-Level Degree: Bachelor’s
  • Median Annual Salary (BSN): $77,600
  • Median Annual Salary (MSN): $123,780
  • Salary Difference: $46,180

Source:BLS, 2023.

Why Does a Masters in Nursing (MSN) Matter?

Healthcare needs in the United States are on the rise, and the demand for nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse practitioners is projected to rise by a whopping 40% by 2031. While a bachelor’s in nursing (BSN) trains you to provide the fundamentals of patient care, a master’s degree elevates your clinical expertise, opening up the opportunity to serve in specialized roles, like advanced practice registered nurse (APRN), clinical nurse leader, or nurse educator.

Are There Online MSN Programs?

Several online MSN programs are available, but due to the hands-on nature of nursing, they are hybrid programs. While you can complete coursework and listen to lectures online, you’ll still need to complete clinical rotations or a supervised practicum in person. Many schools work with online nursing students to coordinate local arrangements, while others require on-campus workshops. Duke University offers an online Master of Science in Nursing with mandatory intensives each semester.

To find the best MSN for you, read our guide to the best online master’s in nursing programs, which outlines program details and costs.

Medical Illustration

+$45,250

Medical illustration is uniquely suited to those with artistic talent and a passion for medical science, as it calls for blending artistic and visual communication skills with expertise in anatomy and science. People with medical illustration skills often start their own businesses or work on creative teams in agencies, universities, or law firms. With an advanced degree, medical illustrators may work directly with scientists or physicians to produce detailed visual representations that help students or the general public understand complex medical concepts.

  • Estimated Growth (2018-2028): 1%
  • Entry-Level Degree: Bachelor’s
  • Median Annual Salary (Bachelor’s): $39,150
  • Median Annual Salary (Master’s): $84,400
  • Salary Difference: $45,250

Source: College Scorecard, 2023.

Why Does a Medical Illustration Master’s Matter?

Medical illustration is a highly specialized role. In North America, there are currently only five master’s in medical illustration programs accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Programs (CAAHEP).Furthermore, each program accepts a maximum of 20 students each year. If you decide to pursue a master’s in medical illustration, you’ll be among a handful of qualified graduates in the field. It’s important to note that many medical illustrators, especially those who work in academic settings, choose to further their education and expertise with a PhD.

Are There Online Master’s Degree Programs for Medical Illustration?

A master’s degree in medical illustration is interdisciplinary and students must complete extensive coursework in science, art, and writing. Additionally, quite a bit of hands-on learning is required. These aspects — combined with program exclusivity — mean the available accredited programs only offer in-person learning opportunities. If you’d like an overview of one of five accredited master’s programs, review John Hopkins’ Master of Arts Medical and Biological Illustration program.

Management Sciences

+$40,088

Management sciences encompasses a wide range of professions and disciplines that use data to solve complex problems and drive decision-making in organizations. Graduates of management science programs are trained to take a scientific approach to organizational management, making decisions that assess risk and improve performance. Entry-level careers in the field include actuaries, financial analysts, insurance underwriters, and personal finance advisors. Advanced degree holders may serve as chief executive offers, college business or math professors, or operations managers.

  • Estimated Growth (2019-2029): 25%
  • Entry-Level Degree: Bachelor’s
  • Median Annual Salary (Bachelor’s): $51,712
  • Median Annual Salary (Master’s): $91,800
  • Salary Difference: $40,088

Source: College Scorecard, 2023.

Why Does a Management Sciences Master’s Matter?

Many professions require a master’s degree for employment or advancement. For instance, if you’d like to teach business, math, or statistical courses at a collegiate level, you’ll need a master’s degree at a minimum. Most colleges and universities require professors to have a doctoral degree. Outside of academia, a master’s degree in management sciences will significantly enhance your career options in fields like operations research, personal finance advising, and statistical analysis.

Are There Online Master’s Degree Programs for Management Sciences?

There are multiple online master’s degree programs in management science available. Some are even offered by top schools, like the Management Science and Engineering MS degree from Stanford University. If you choose online study, your choice of concentrations may be limited based on online course availability. At Stanford, online students are encouraged to select the technology and engineering management concentration. The online MS in Management Science at the University of Texas is more flexible, as you can combine it with an MBA.

Science Technologies

+$38,950

Science technologies is a wide-ranging field, incorporating science with practical application. Graduates with bachelor’s degrees often land roles as laboratory technicians, quality control specialists, or research assistants. Advancing to a master’s degree enables graduates to pursue careers like biotechnologists, clinical research coordinators, or environmental analysts. Some healthcare workers, including diagnostic medical sonographers, registered nurses, physician’s assistants, and physicians, also fall under the science technologies umbrella.

  • Estimated Growth (2021-2031): 9%
  • Entry-Level Degree: Bachelor’s
  • Median Annual Salary (Bachelor’s): $47,450
  • Median Annual Salary (Master’s): $86,400
  • Salary Difference: $38,950

Source: College Scorecard, 2023.

Why Does a Science Technologies Master’s Matter?

In the realm of science technologies, a master’s degree can serve as a critical differentiator in your field. When you consider that about 60% of professionals in the field possess bachelor’s degrees, the 37% of people with advanced degrees undoubtedly stand out, sharpening their competitive edge. While some high-paying roles in science and medicine necessitate further education and training, a master’s degree can be the key to a well-paying physician assistant role.

Are There Online Master’s Degree Programs for Science Technologies?

While the field of science technologies is diverse, all programs share the common characteristic of training students for practical applications of scientific concepts. Due to the hands-on nature of this pursuit, you can expect to encounter in-person and hybrid master’s degree programs in science technologies. However, it’s possible to earn a master’s flexibly and without relocation. Yale University’s PA online program blends online learning with in-person clinical rotations in your hometown and three on-campus immersions.

Computer and IT Technology

+$37,910

Professionals in the computer and information technology (IT) field create or support computer applications, systems, and networks. An entry-level career may include working as a computer support specialist, web developer, or network and computer systems administrator. Meanwhile, advanced degree holders can expect to work as a computer and information research scientist or in another senior-level position, like a senior software engineer.

  • Estimated Growth (2021-2031): 15%
  • Entry-Level Degree: Associate’s
  • Median Annual Salary (Bachelor’s): $93,580
  • Median Annual Salary (Master’s): $131,490
  • Salary Difference: $37,910

Source:BLS, 2021

Why Does a Computer and IT Technology Master’s Matter?

As of 2019, 71% of computer and IT technology workers held roles requiring a bachelor’s degree, with 30% of workers holding an advanced degree. Considering that such a high number of entry-level roles in this field require a bachelor’s, holding a master’s degree automatically positions you for better-paying positions and a smoother career trajectory. Choosing a specialization like networking, cyber security, programming, or cloud computing can also make you more competitive in the job market.

Are There Online Master’s Degree Programs for Computer and IT Technology?

There are many online master’s programs available for computer and IT technology. In many cases, you can specialize in a specific field or topic to gain expertise that fits within your desired industry or career trajectory. The University of Maryland Global Campus offers an online management master’s in information systems and services that teaches students how to procure and use computer-based information systems for decision-making and organizational effectiveness.

To find the program that best fits your computer and IT technology career goals, check out our ranking of the best online masters programs in information technology and information systems for online program details, highlights, and costs.

Systems Engineering

+$32,195

People in systems engineering work within organizations to manage existing systems and design new ones that help an organization function well. Additionally, they may act as project managers supervising a team of information technology (IT) professionals who will implement these systems. Those with bachelor’s degrees can find entry-level careers as information and cybersecurity analysts, quality managers, or government consultants. With an advanced degree, systems engineers can find jobs as lead engineers, engineering managers, or project managers.

  • Estimated Growth (2018-2028): 21%
  • Entry-Level Degree: Bachelor’s
  • Median Annual Salary (Bachelor’s): $69,480
  • Median Annual Salary (Master’s): $101,765
  • Salary Difference: $32,195

Source: College Scorecard, 2023.

Why Does a Systems Engineering Master’s Matter?

While systems engineers can excel in the field with a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree can set you apart for more advanced roles. Those who kick off their careers with entry-level positions usually work in that capacity for several years before building up the skills to advance. With a master’s degree, you’ll gain the flexibility to enter the field at a higher level. In rapidly expanding roles like computer and information systems management, having a master’s degree could move your resume to the top of the pile.

Are There Online Master’s Degree Programs for Systems Engineering?

The options for earning a master’s degree in systems engineering online are plentiful, and they’re commonly available entirely online. In many programs, you can choose a focus or tailor your degree to build specialized skills in a selected area that aligns with your career goals. That’s the case at Purdue University, where online systems engineering students work with an academic advisor to create a personalized plan of study.

Biotechnology

+$29,050

Those who work in biotechnology examine biological processes and use them to develop products and technologies that fit industry demands. Biotechnologists perform vital developmental research and produce pharmaceutical drugs, antibiotics, and hormones. At the bachelor’s level, graduates become laboratory technicians or bioprocessing specialists. With an advanced degree, they may become research scientists or biotechnological product managers in the pharmaceutical industry. A biotechnology degree is ideal for people who have a passion for biology and want the opportunity to make a difference in the world.

  • Estimated Growth (2021-2031): 9%
  • Entry-Level Degree: Bachelor’s
  • Median Annual Salary (Bachelor’s): $37,300
  • Median Annual Salary (Master’s): $66,350
  • Salary Difference: $29,050

Source: College Scorecard, 2023.

Why Does a Biotechnology Master’s Matter?

While it’s possible to find a job with an undergraduate degree in biotechnology, a master’s degree will offer more job prospects and higher pay. While laboratory technicians make $57,800 annually, environmental engineers earn $96,820 per year. If you want to work in a highly specialized role, such as a biochemist or biophysicist, you’ll need a doctoral degree. In that case, a master’s degree can serve as a stepping stone along the way.

Are There Online Biotechnology Master’s Degree Programs?

There are several online biotechnology master’s degree programs, but biotechnology requires a certain amount of lab work that must be completed in person, so most programs are presented in a hybrid format. Some schools offer specialization tracks so students can learn targeted skills to accelerate their career path in an area of particular interest. At the University of Wisconsin, Master of Science in applied biotechnology students can specialize in quality assurance and compliance, business management, or research and development.

Aeronautical/Astronautical Engineering

+$26,612

Aeronautical and astronautical engineering focus on aircraft and space vehicle design. Aeronautical engineers perform tasks like conducting wind tunnel tests, designing airplane structures, and optimizing jet engines. Meanwhile, astronautical engineers specialize in designing rocket engines, analyzing spacecraft trajectories, and developing control systems for space vehicles. Entry-level careers include aerospace design engineers or flight test engineers. With experience or education, becoming a chief aerospace engineer or aerospace engineering manager is possible.

  • Estimated Growth (2021-2031): 6%
  • Entry-Level Degree: Bachelor’s
  • Median Annual Salary (Bachelor’s): $61,622
  • Median Annual Salary (Master’s): $88,233
  • Salary Difference: $26,612

Source: College Scorecard, 2023.

Why Does an Aeronautical/Astronautical Engineering Master’s Matter?

While a bachelor’s degree is sufficient for some entry-level careers in aeronautical and astronautical engineering, that’s only sometimes the case. Some employers, including the United States Department of Energy, prefer the additional qualifications provided by a master’s degree. If you’d like to expand your career into the realm of research and development or executive leadership, you may need to earn a doctoral degree.

Are There Online Master’s Degree Programs for Aeronautical/Astronautical Engineering?

There are multiple online master’s programs available in aeronautical and astronautical engineering. The University of Illinois offers a 100% online Master of Science/Master of Engineering in aerospace engineering. Students in the UI program can choose from specializations in aerodynamics, fluid mechanics, combustion/propulsion, structural mechanics, solid mechanics and materials, dynamical systems, aerospace control, orbital mechanics, and spacecraft. Many schools offer similar opportunities to develop an area of expertise while in your master’s program.

Biology

+$20,160

Biologists study living organisms and how they interact with the environment. These science professionals often find themselves in roles that involve research, data analysis, teaching, fieldwork, and even conservation. Fresh graduates might start their career journey as lab technicians, field research assistants, or high school biology teachers. With experience and advanced qualifications, roles can evolve into specialized positions as research scientists, epidemiologists, or molecular biologists. Beyond academia, the pharmaceutical sector employs biologists to drive research and innovation.

  • Estimated Growth (Top-employing Occupations, 2021-2031): 6%
  • Entry-Level Degree: Bachelor’s
  • Median Annual Salary (Bachelors): $27,798
  • Median Annual Salary (Masters): $47,958
  • Salary Difference: $20,160

Source: College Scorecard, 2023.

Why Does a Biology Master’s Matter?

While you can start work in the field with a bachelor’s degree in biology, you’ll need to pursue a postgraduate degree to specialize in a particular discipline. With a master’s degree in biology, you can take advantage of in-demand specialized roles like epidemiology, which is expected to grow much faster than average in the coming years. However, if you dream of becoming a research scientist or teaching biology in higher education, you’ll need to keep going with a doctoral degree.

Are There Online Master’s Degree Programs for Biology?

There are several online options for earning your master’s degree in biology. Since graduate-level study is centered around biological concepts and high-level communication skills, many of these master’s programs can be completed entirely online. The University of Arizona’s Biology program allows students to customize a course of study based on their unique interests. ASU’s master’s program is available at an accelerated pace, with classes lasting seven and a half weeks each.

Psychology

+$15,893

Those who work in psychology develop a deep understanding of human behavior and mental processes, using that knowledge to conduct research, provide counseling, or cultivate success in related fields. People best suited for psychology possess strong analytical skills, empathy, and a genuine interest in exploring the nuances of the human psyche. Graduates with bachelor’s degrees often find roles as research assistants, case managers, or in sales. Those with advanced degrees can become licensed school counselors or work as a clinical or counseling psychologist.

  • Estimated Growth (2021-2031): 6%
  • Entry-Level Degree: Bachelor’s
  • Median Annual Salary (Bachelor’s): $27,926
  • Median Annual Salary (Master’s): $43,818
  • Salary Difference: $15,893

Source: College Scorecard, 2023.

Why Does a Psychology Master’s Matter?

Due to stringent licensing requirements, obtaining the appropriate level of education that corresponds to the profession you’d like to have is essential. For example, there’s currently a high demand for school counselors. Still, if you’d like to apply for those jobs, a master’s degree is a must. If you’d like to work as a clinical or counseling psychologist, you won’t be able to pursue a license and practice without a doctoral degree.

Are There Online Master’s Degree Programs for Psychology?

There are many online master’s programs in psychology. Some, like the online master’s in psychology at Southern New Hampshire University, are available entirely online. Others, like the psychology master’s degree at Harvard Extension School, require some on-campus training intensives. Often, you can choose a focus track to provide additional qualifications for your future career. It’s important to note that master’s programs won’t train you for a career as a counselor or clinical psychologist.

For more on the best online degrees in the field, check out our complete guide to online master’s degrees in psychology.

Resources for Students Pursuing a Masters in STEM

Navigating the journey to a master’s degree in STEM can be challenging yet incredibly gratifying. It’s essential to arm yourself with the right tools and knowledge to succeed. The following list of resources is tailored to assist prospective STEM master’s students, ensuring a smoother academic path in their chosen field.

  • ACS Webinars: On this page hosted by the American Chemical Society, you can stay up-to-date with videos of the latest news and innovations in chemistry.
  • American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology: Watch on-demand events from the ASBMB. Their library includes scientific lectures, career development webinars, resources on DEI in science, and more.
  • How to Choose a Graduate Program in STEM: This blog, written by an assistant professor at the University of Maine, shares advice for prospective students on what they should consider as they choose a graduate program in STEM.
  • IGEHub: This resource, funded by the National Science Foundation, exists to spread information and opportunities across the STEM graduate community. You’ll find access to research, resources, and funding opportunities here.
  • The Invisible Minority in STEM: In this blog, Emery D. Haley shares their experience coming out as nonbinary during their PhD program to encourage and guide LGBTQ+ graduate students in STEM.
  • Lessons for Aspiring STEM Grad Students: In this article from Scientific American, a student wrapping up his PhD program reflects on his journey and shares inside insights about the STEM graduate school experience.
  • MIT Open Learning Library: Explore different STEM specializations with free graduate-level courses in subjects like biochemistry, systems engineering, and computer science.
  • National Science Foundation Funding for Graduate Students: On this page, you can find information about internships, research grants, fellowships, and hands-on experience opportunities in science and engineering.
  • Pathways to Science Resource Library: You’ll find a wealth of resources for promoting the success of minorities in STEM, from professional development tips to diversity resources for faculty.
  • She Sciences Blog: This blog aims to support and inspire women in STEM, providing articles, resources, and organizational templates and tips.
  • The Society of Women Engineers: With a mission for supporting women in engineering careers, the SWE provides scholarships, continuing education programs, and networking events.
  • STEM Equity: On this page, you can find STEM equity tools and resources, including professional development webinars and printable posters of STEM-related career clusters.
  • STEM Study Quiz: After answering a handful of questions about your interests and career goals, this quiz will recommend which STEM major or field would be best for you.
  • The STEM Gap: This website is hosted by the American Association of University Women and is packed with valuable statistics and insights on closing the gap between women and men in STEM-related careers.
  • The University of Michigan Grad School Guide: This site explains the ins and outs of master’s vs. PhD programs, research experiences, and reasons to choose an advanced STEM degree.