Ask Devex: When does experience outweigh education?

A graduating student at a commencement ceremony. When does experience outweigh education? Photo by: Will Folsom / CC BY

Dear Kate,

I am at a crossroads, getting ready to retire from civil service and wanting to re-enter the world of global development. I am trying to decide if I need to go back to school for my master’s, or if my seven overseas years in the Peace Corps and 20 years civil service doing project management is enough to get my foot in the door. So I guess the question is: When does experience outweigh education?

A master’s degree requires a substantial financial and time commitment. I’d like to circumvent that and enter the workforce as soon as possible. Any information you can provide would be greatly appreciated.

Back to school

Dear Back to School,

Your dilemma is a common one. In fact, Devex — along with our partners — will be discussing when, where and how you should pursue a graduate education for your global development career later this month in a special series called Grad School Week, starting Oct. 31.

In the meantime, to answer your question about when experience outweighs education: I usually advise that — everything else equal — experience outweighs education. However, there are some caveats.

Many global development funders require — or strongly prefer — a master’s degree to be qualified for most of the positions they hire or fund through a grant or contract. So if you pursue positions with these funders directly or indirectly via one of their implementing partners, you may find it difficult to get past their initial screeners, who will look for this credential when reviewing applicants.

A graduate level degree can often be like checking a box: do you have it, yes or no? A yes by no means guarantees a job — and real experience plays a bigger role in the ultimate decision. But a no can get you disqualified before someone even gets a chance to review your experience.

This means that a lack of a master’s degree will make it harder to get past the online systems and recruiters who may rely on this criteria to weed down applicants.

However, as you say, pursuing a master’s degree requires a significant investment of time and money. While you may ultimately decide this is a necessary step to achieving your career goals, I suggest trying these four approaches first.

1. Test the market.

Before investing in additional education, see how you can do without it and apply to jobs even with a master's degree requirement. Most jobs you see advertised will include a post-graduate degree as a preferred qualification or requirement. But not all jobs actually require the degree; it is sometimes just an easy way to whittle down a list of applicants. While there are many jobs where this will be a hard rule, some may be willing to overlook your lack of a degree provided you have relevant experience. This becomes more the case, the more experience you gain. The worst that can happen is you don’t find a job and can therefore feel more confident in your pursuit of an additional degree.

2. Leverage your professional network.

When your credentials alone might make it difficult to get your foot in the door, this is where your network can help. People you have worked with during your Peace Corps and civil service experience can help put your experience into context when talking you up to their colleagues and professional acquaintances. If you apply to a job, reach out to people who work at the organizations you are interested in or have friends who work there. They can draw attention to your professional record to the recruiters and hiring managers, who may have initially dismissed your application.

3. De-emphasize education on your CV.

When writing a CV, the first half of the first page is your most important real estate. Use this section to focus on your relevant work experience and accomplishments and push your education to the end of your CV. Hopefully, by the time a recruiter gets to your education section, they will be so impressed with your experience that the education won’t matter as much.

Watch: Your 60 minute guide to a stand-out global development CV

4. Choose jobs accordingly.

There are some positions where having a master’s level degree — or even a more advanced degree — will be an absolute requirement. For example, you’ll find this with technical advisory roles or project team lead positions and those tied directly to bilateral or multilateral donors. However, there are some functions where this isn’t as important. For example, communications and advocacy positions or home office operational and support roles tend to be looser on these requirements.

If you try all of these strategies and still get nowhere, heading back to school may be your best next step. If you do go this route, I would choose a program based on length of time and cost over other factors — such as the prestige of the institution or a specific program focus — to get the most return on your investment.

If you are considering heading back to graduate school, join us for a special webinar with speakers from American University Kogod School of Business' MBA Program, George Washington University's MA in International Development Studies Program and Harvard Kennedy School's MPA Program on Wednesday, Nov. 2, to discuss how to choose the right grad degree for your global development career.

If you have a question about your career in global development, send me an email at, submit one anonymously here or tweet me @DevexCareers.

You know you need a postgraduate degree to advance in a global development career, but deciding on a program, degree and specialization can be overwhelming. Devex and our partners are digging into all things graduate school and global development in a weeklong series called Grad School Week. Join online events and read more advice on pursuing a postgraduate education here.

About the author

  • Warren kate 1

    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.