Graduate School: How I Made the Choice by Eleanor Perrone


As young nonprofit professionals, many of us struggle to define a career path in this diverse and evolving sector.  Part of this struggle involves the question of balance of graduate education with on-the-job experience.  While each young nonprofit professional’s experience is unique, I hope that I can provide insight into this decision-making process based on my own experience.  I recently earned my Master of Public Administration (M.P.A.) through the business school at a local university.  I elected to follow the Specialization in Nonprofit and Mission-Driven Management track in a part-time program.  So how did I navigate the alternatives available and arrive at this decision?  To begin with, I spent a lot of time reflecting on my interests and ambitions before deciding anything. Here’s a sampling of the thought process that helped inform my final decision:

As a young nonprofit development professional, I knew that I wanted a degree program that addressed the business of management in addition to the particularities of the nonprofit sector.  Furthermore, I wanted to explore the intersection between public service and the nonprofit sector and engage in a debate about the balance between government and private services to address social issues.  Finally, as one dedicated to making a career as a nonprofit professional, I felt strongly about equipping myself to translate business insights and corporate best practices into effective public and nonprofit management strategies.  To be blunt, it was important to me to be taken seriously as a businesswoman in the nonprofit sector.  For all of these reasons and more, an M.P.A. program housed in a business school was the right choice for me.

As I mentioned earlier, I elected to pursue my M.P.A. through a part-time program.  While it took two-and-a-half years (including summers) to complete, it allowed me to stay at my full-time job and continue to acquire that valuable vocational experience.  As I discovered through the process, it allowed the issues I was experiencing at work and in the sector, and the discussions and projects in which I was participating in school, to inform each other in interesting and valuable ways.  This, combined with the fact that I had several years of nonprofit work experience under my belt when I started my program, allowed me to maximize the time and resources I was devoting to the degree.

Clearly, there are many alternatives.  For example, there are M.P.A. programs housed in graduate schools of public policy or social science, and there are Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.) programs with the option to focus on nonprofit management.  Moreover, a range of Master of Arts (M.A.) or Master of Sciences (M.S.) programs exist that address nonprofit management within contexts ranging from graduate schools of social work to graduate schools of urban planning and much in between.  And of course, many graduate programs offer certificate programs if pursuing a full Master’s degree isn’t feasible.  Finally, if you’re on the development side of things, like me, there are graduate schools dedicated solely to philanthropic studies and training.  In the end, it’s important to examine the reasons that you’ve chose to work in the nonprofit sector and the philosophy that you think will drive your career therein.  I found that clarifying these aspects of my decision-making process naturally led me to the degree program that was the best fit for me.

As a side note, some positive aspects of pursuing a graduate degree didn’t connect directly to my choice of program.  I interacted with classmates with a variety of experience (or lack thereof) in the nonprofit, public and private sector who connected me to organizations and job functions of which I knew little and that complicated my thinking about myself and my success as a nonprofit professional.  The experience of spending two-and-a-half years in a part-time graduate program and the sacrifices I made to complete that program motivated me to take steps to move my career forward more quickly than I may have otherwise.  In addition, I saw my coworkers’ perception of me shift as they considered my decision to pursue a graduate degree and my dedication to the sector, which made me take myself more seriously as a young nonprofit professional.

As I acknowledged at the outset, each young nonprofit professional’s experience is unique.  While I’m satisfied with the decision to earn my M.P.A., it doesn’t mean that it’s the right decision for you.  However, if you’re dedicated to a career in the diverse, evolving and competitive nonprofit sector, I would urge you to consider the option of graduate education.  The investment of time and resources is significant, and it can be tough to balance it with life if you’ve been out of school and in the workforce for a number of years.

However, the ability to differentiate yourself in the market based on your combination of education and experience is extremely valuable, and those extra letters after your name have the ability to do just that.  At the end of the day, it’s not those letters or that extra line on your resume, but your ability to put what you’ve learned to use to make you a more effective nonprofit professional.  If you can demonstrate and articulate that to a potential employer — and cohesively incorporate it into the “story” told by your resume — then a graduate education can be a truly valuable asset.

About the Author: Eleanor serves as Director of Development for New Leaders, a national nonprofit working to ensure high academic achievement for all children, especially students in poverty and students of color, by developing transformational school leaders and advancing the policies and practices that allow great leaders to succeed.  Eleanor has been professionally committed to creating equal, quality education opportunities for all students since 2005, when she joined The Black Star Project, and organization that helps Black and Latino students in Chicago and nationwide succeed academically and become knowledgeable and productive citizens with the support of their parents, families, schools and communities.  She continued her work in nonprofit development at Facing History and Ourselves, an international nonprofit combating bigotry and nurturing democracy through work with educators throughout their careers to improve their effectiveness in the classroom as well as their students’ academic performance and civic learning.  Shortly before moving to New Leaders, Eleanor completed her M.P.A. — with a nonprofit and mission-driven management specialization — in 2012 at IIT’s Stuart School of Business.  She received her B.A. in History and French from Carleton College.