What about graduate school?
My short answer
I get questions about whether to go to graduate school and what to study a lot. My short answer is: Don’t go to graduate school until the lack of a graduate degree is stopping you from getting the job you want.
What I mean by ‘graduate school’
In some technical areas, like public health, primary health, engineering etc, there are professional graduate certifications or degrees that you need to practice those professions. Of course, if you’re going to be hired in one of these technical capacities you need the appropriate (most likely graduate) qualification. By ‘graduate degree’ in this context I’m talking about a masters degree in something like Development Studies, International Relations or some such.
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Good things about graduate school
A graduate degree in a relevant field can be a hugely positive experience. The opportunity to learn about development theory and practice, to study the successes and failures of the past, and think about trends and future innovation is a great thing. It can make you a better professional, it might help you grow as a person, and it will probably make you more appealing when you are applying for highly competitive jobs in the aid business.
Organizations like Catholic Relief Services and Mercy Corps that have overseas internship or fellowship programs generally restrict applications to graduate students or people with grad degrees. One reason for this is a perception that those folks have a level of maturity that many undergrads lack, another reason is just the practical desire to reduce the number of applicants to a manageable level. Being on the graduate school track opens these options to you.
One trend that I see is that as relief and development begins to mature as a profession, a graduate degree is increasingly being looked on as a minimum requirement for a lot of more senior or competitive jobs, and the way things are going you’re most likely going to need one at some point in your career. Humanitarianism is such a competitive field to get into that I frequently see people with graduate degrees taking jobs essentially doing filing work in order to get their foot in the door (for the reasons for this, see Why is it so difficult to get your foot in the door?).
There are some schools these days that are specializing in humanitarian related issues, whose curricula are very tailored towards the kinds of things that are needed in the field, and whose alumni and networks are deeply embedded in aid organizations. If you’re enrolled in one of these programs, you can get access to these networks, which can sometimes help you get the field exposure you will need.
In itself, without field experience to back it up, a graduate degree is unlikely to help you to get your first field job as an aid worker if you don’t also have a passport full of developing world visas. Without some field experience you will likely not even get an interview with most relief and development organizations for field jobs. You may even be placed further down the pile of resumes than someone without a graduate degree who spent the last two years volunteering in Africa.
Relief and development is a young field of endeavor. The profession has not yet settled on what the core skills of a practitioner really are, and the hiring manager who is interviewing you may not even care what courses you took in grad school. While the field is slowly professionalizing, not every hiring manager will understand why you think that course in public policy uniquely qualifies you to fix on-farm water systems in Uzbekistan. They will be much more interested in evidence that you can solve practical problems in difficult environments and keep your head under stress.
Graduate school can be expensive. One thing to bear in mind is that, even after you graduate, you may have to take unpaid or poorly paid positions to build your resume. I hear from quite a few students that debt incurred during their student days makes this difficult. Some schools have fabulous debt forgiveness programs for people who work in the non-profit sector, some don’t. You should check this out, and make sure you have a plan for how to do deal with any debt you take on.
I don’t want to deter anyone from going to graduate school, but there is a case to be made for waiting and going back to school when you have some experience under your belt. You may appreciate it more, you will certainly have more money to pay for it, and you will probably have a better idea of what you want to study. At that point in your life, it will likely help you more in your career too.
If you go the graduate school route before you have much or any field work, it is vital to make sure that you use your time in graduate school to network, get internships in the field, and build contacts that will help you after you graduate.
- A number of schools are developing partnerships with the Peace Corps to combine two years field experience, some of which counts as credit towards a Masters degree. Read more about it at the Peace Corps website.
- The Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs website has some interesting resources about international affairs related jobs, some of which are international (they estimate about 29% of their graduates go into non-profit work – I don’t know how much of that is overseas).
- SIPA at Columbia maintains a (by no means exhaustive) Global Humanitarian Studies Index.
- Grad school vs Work in the Global Health field, by Alanna Shaikh