8 things to consider before pursuing a graduate degree

Photo by: PromoMadrid / Alfredo Urdaci / CC BY-SA

The field of global development places a high value on education and credentials. While you can get started in an international development career without a graduate degree, you will most likely need to obtain at least a master’s degree to avoid a career plateau.

However, pursuing an advanced degree is expensive, time-consuming, and one of the bigger decisions you will make in your career.

Here are eight things to consider before diving back into the books.

1. Gain experience before heading to graduate school

While it is tempting to go straight into a graduate program, having a master’s degree with no real work experience can sometimes do more harm than good.

Entry-level positions in development, while competitive, often do not require a graduate degree. These positions are usually very administrative, so applicants with a graduate degree might hear they are overqualified for the job.

However, if you don’t have any work experience, you won’t be qualified for higher level positions. The result is those who go straight to graduate school often find themselves stuck in a rough spot of being overqualified for entry-level positions but underqualified for mid-level positions.

If you can combine your graduate degree with a few years of relevant work experience, you may find the employment environment much friendlier when graduation comes. Graduate schools also look for work experience when evaluating applicants to their program. Not to mention that getting a few years of real-life experience can help you hone in on what it is you really want to pursue.

2. General or technical degree

There are many general degrees out there that can be applicable to a global development career: A master’s in international affairs, public affairs or even international development, are just a few. These degrees provide a good grounding that can lead to careers in a variety of functions and disciplines.

However, hiring managers also say they are increasingly seeking people with more technical degrees. For example, agriculture sciences, econometrics, and engineering are all degrees in demand in the global development marketplace. For some jobs, having a master’s is literally just checking a box, and any field of study will do, provided you have the right work experience. But by pursuing a more specific area of expertise, you will make yourself marketable to jobs that require a technical degree as well as those that are looking for any kind of graduate level education.

Increasingly, more generalist programs offer specialists tracks and technical programs offer dual degrees in other areas. If you can’t decide which route to pursue, consider one of these to get the best of both worlds.

3. Analyze the job market before you sign that tuition check

You may have found a great program that will give you the training you need to pursue the career of your dreams. But before you invest money and time, make sure there will actually be opportunities on the other side. Ask the school for statistics on job placement and look to see where recent graduates were placed. Talk to seasoned professionals with the same degree and ask them what prospects they see for recent graduates. Scan the job boards and see what vacancies there are — or aren’t — out there.

4. Look at the practical experience over the university name

Going to an Ivy League school may help you land a top job in the banking or legal fields. But in global development, experience trumps school name for many employers. So instead of choosing the most prestigious school, also look at which programs will provide you with the practical experience necessary to be competitive in the job market.

For example, some programs allow you to do fieldwork as part of your degree or facilitate internships with major development organizations. Also look at the location of the program. If the program is based in a city where a lot of development activity happens — such as Brussels, London or Washington, D.C. — there will likely be more opportunities for networking at seminars, conferences, and events as well as internship opportunities throughout the year.

5. Employers can be skeptical of online degrees

Given the global nature of international development work, pursuing an online degree makes sense logistically and makes graduate education more accessible to people based outside of some of the education centers. However, some employers are skeptical of online degrees and do not give them as much weight as those obtained from a brick and mortar institution.

Before pursuing an online degree, make sure you do due diligence on the program, its reputation, and success rates. It’s probably worth talking to a few recruiters from organizations you hope to work at, to see how they would view a degree from the online university you are considering. While massive open online courses can be a great way to gain additional skills from world-class professors, they are unlikely to help advance your global development career at this point without earning a degree at the end.

6. Try to work and study at the same time

If possible, try to work on a graduate degree part-time while working. Sometimes employers will provide education benefits that may help defray the cost. Additionally, you won’t be taking yourself out of the workforce, making it so much easier to get a job when you graduate.

Working and studying at the same time can also help you apply both experiences to the other. You will come to class with real-world challenges, questions, and ideas and be able to go back and apply what you learn directly on the job. You will also be able to earn an income, often making a degree more economically feasible.

Juggling school and work at the same time can impress recruiters, too. Gary Lazor, talent acquisition manager at SSG Advisors, said the ability to hold down a job while studying shows “good discipline” and the ability to balance one’s time effectively, improving a candidate’s chances of getting hired.

7. A master’s is sufficient in most cases, except…

You do not need to pursue a doctorate level degree for most career paths. However, if you want to be an expert in one of the social sciences — maybe an economist with the World Bank, a senior-level M&E expert, or a top policy head at a thinktank — you may need to pursue a Ph.D. However, this can typically be done mid-career and with a lot of forethought.

8. Once you have a graduate degree, experience will trump additional degrees

Unless you have a very specific area you want to work in, such as engineering or law, it’s often not worth it to pursue additional degrees once you have a graduate degree. For example, if you have a master’s in psychology, going back to school to get a master’s in international development is not likely to help you much. Your time and money would be better spent gaining actual experience over collecting additional degrees.

For more coverage on professional development, visit the Skills for Tomorrow site here.

This article was last updated on 2 November 2018

About the author

  • Kate Warren

    Kate Warren is Executive Vice President and resident talent and careers guru at Devex. With 15 years of global development recruitment experience advising international NGOs, consulting firms, and donor agencies, she has a finger on the pulse of hiring trends across the industry and insider knowledge on what it takes to break in.