Continuing Education

Kristan Murray boosts her income by earning a master's degree

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Kristan Murray went back to school to pursue a master's degree. (Photograph by Ryan Ketterman)

No one knows better than Kristan Murray that a graduate degree can equal a higher salary. A recent study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that master’s degree recipients earn about $13,000 more in wages per year than those who hold a bachelor’s degree alone. When the 29-year-old went back to school, she positioned herself to increase her earnings and broaden her career options.

Murray graduated from Columbia College in Columbia, South Carolina, in 2002 with a bachelor’s degree in biology and looked forward to starting a career in healthcare. After working at several entry-level positions, making $10 to $14.25 an hour, the South Carolina native landed her first salaried position in 2004 as a data validator at GEL Laboratories L.L.C., earning a salary of $34,500. She served as a project manager, which required her to monitor tests for scientists at the lab. Murray was grateful for the experience and, eager to move up the ranks, in time expressed interest in a promotion. But after three years it was clear she wasn’t on the fast track.

The turning point came in 2006, when she met with her supervisor for an annual performance review. Much to Murray’s dismay, she learned that there was no room for her to advance at the company because most of her colleagues had worked there for many years and none were leaving anytime soon. Even if someone did leave, a promotion would require an advanced degree.

“My supervisor told me I had reached the proverbial glass ceiling,” says Murray. “The only thing to do was wait until someone retired. That’s when I decided it was time to go back to school to improve my career prospects and increase my earnings potential.”

After researching graduate degree programs, Murray chose the Medical University of South Carolina. In August 2006, she began taking classes toward a master’s in health administration during the day and worked evenings at the lab.

Murray’s company did not offer tuition reimbursement, so she bridged the financial gap by taking out two federal Stafford loans totaling $35,000 at 6.8% interest. Murray, who is careful to write off the interest when she does her taxes, says she isn’t worried about the loans. “Any opportunity to further your education is worth the time and money spent to obtain it. If you happen to be fortunate enough to receive grants or scholarships, it may make the effort more affordable. Obtaining loans is the option that most of my classmates and I took to ensure career advancement.” To make her monthly payment more manageable, Murray has consolidated her loans and extended the payment period. Her school debt is higher than that of many of her peers, however, the average student pursuing a master’s borrows less than $27,000, according to FinAid.org, a financial aid Website.

But Murray’s hard work paid off. Last May, she received a master’s in health administration, and by July she had relocated to Gainesville, Florida, to begin working at the North Florida/South Georgia Veterans Health System as a healthcare administration fellow. With her master’s degree in hand, Murray commanded a higher salary and position. She now earns $46,625—an increase of more than $10,000. In her new job, she’s counted on to have a working knowledge of all the services the medical center offers and to provide supervisory support as needed. She also collaborates with department heads to implement procedures and completes special projects as assigned by the associate director.

Murray has still higher goals: She plans to go back to school in about five years to pursue her Ph.D.; her ultimate career goal is to become a healthcare facility director. She knows that the more educated she is, the better her chances are. “In order to be a director of a healthcare facility, I need to keep climbing that educational ladder and advance my base of knowledge by obtaining various roles with increasing responsibility and accountability,” says Murray. “I understand the mission, value, and vision of the Department of Veterans Affairs and know what they expect from their leadership. I want to be prepared to fill those shoes when called upon.”

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