Everyone knows it takes more than a bachelor's degree to perform heart surgery or try a case in court.
But are advanced degrees -- a doctoral, master's or professional degree -- so common in the job market these days that having one is essential to career success?
It's a question routinely asked of career specialists such as Barbara Juliussen, associate director of the career development office at the University of Pittsburgh.
The answer to the question is not as simple as some might expect, she and other experts said.
On the one hand, the vast majority of career paths do not require anything beyond a four-year college degree. In fact, of the 555 career paths tracked by ACT -- a nonprofit group focusing on education and workforce development -- only 51 of them, or 9 percent, require more than a bachelor's degree.
Many of them involve disciplines that train health professionals such as pharmacists, physical therapists, epidemiologists and mental health counselors, just to name a few.
"It depends on the field," Ms. Juliussen said. "In many fields, it's kind of expected that at some point you will further your education."
One generally can't teach at a research university without a doctoral degree, she said. Similarly, landing a job as a school superintendent is tougher without a doctoral degree.
At the same time, those hiring in fields including many creative professions such as advertising, writing and film production are more likely to be impressed if a recent college graduate has job experience.
"Every year, a student will ask panelists who are professionals in these fields, 'Do I need a master's degree?' And, consistently, the answer is 'no.' What is much better is to go out and get experience," Ms. Juliussen said.
"Certainly, down the road, it helps to get a graduate degree," she said. "But when you get started, it's the experience rather than the advanced degree that's important.
"I would not want to paint a picture that going to graduate school is wrong," she said. "Going to graduate school for the right reason is the key."
One reason why the question of graduate study has become more common is the increasing frequency with which workers change jobs and even professions.
College graduates can expect to switch jobs 10 to 14 times in their lifetime, said Michaeline Shuman, director of career services at Allegheny College, citing U.S. Labor Department statistics. Those individuals will likely go through five to seven career shifts.
She and others point to a familiar adage: The more you learn, the more you earn. Pay generally increases with degrees attained.
Median usual weekly earnings total $740 for a full-time worker with an associate degree, according to U.S. Labor Department data for 2007, the most current year available. Those median earnings increase to $987 for someone with a bachelor's degree; $1,165 for someone with a master's degree; $1,427 for someone with a professional degree and $1,497 for someone holding a doctorate.
"The data tells me the more training you get, the better off you are," said Marilyn Maze, a principal research associate who oversees content on the ACT's Discover career planning program, a library of occupations and majors available by subscription on its Web site.
The extent of the edge may depend on how wide open the field is.
Ms. Maze said a higher degree in a field such as philosophy or astronomy might not guarantee a job because there are relatively few openings in those fields. It could make a more significant difference in rapidly expanding fields such as business or computer science, she said.
Many companies will help employees pay for graduate study in areas approved by the company, and completion of a degree often brings a bump in pay. But in other cases, the real financial benefit of an advanced degree won't be felt until an employee re-enters the job market.
Shannon Pelissero, manager of corporate recruiting with PPG Industries, said it behooves recent graduates and others weighing an advanced degree to think first about what kind of career path they prefer. Her company recruits a range of professionals, from research scientists to sales and marketing personnel, and often looks for evidence of successful work experience.
"You need to decide what you want to do and what you think a graduate degree is going to give you in return," she said.
Someone planning on computer programming or analysis might do fine with a bachelor's degree, she said. However, someone interested in becoming an information technology manager will probably want a higher level degree.
Many of the engineers hired by her company are right out of undergraduate programs, she said, and often someone with a master's degree in that field won't start out significantly higher in pay than someone with a four-year degree.
But many of the research chemists employed by PPG have master's or doctoral degrees.
"We do hire bachelor's level chemists, but you're going to be limited in your career," she said.
The overwhelming majority of Allegheny College graduates -- 80 percent -- enroll in a graduate program within five years, Ms. Shuman said, though she's seen evidence in the last several years that more undergraduates who finish their studies are wading into the job market or service jobs such as the Peace Corps for a year or longer before deciding whether to go back to school. In some cases, they are wary of taking on additional debt.
Seven years ago, nearly all who went on to graduate school did so immediately upon finishing their undergraduate studies, she said. Today it's just less than 50 percent.
So what are the right reasons for going to graduate school?
They include a desire to be more competitive in one's chosen field, or to make a transition into a new one, Ms. Juliussen said.
Another is the recognition that "I love my subject matter; I want to know more," she said.
But enrolling in graduate school purely for self-esteem or because co-workers all seem to have advanced degrees probably is not a sound reason. Nor is the refrain she sometimes hears from students after four years: "I don't know what I want to do, so I'll just continue on."
Bill Schackner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1977.