Updated: Jan 24
by Aida Kajs
Many of us have been “thinking about grad school” for years. And we’ve all heard some advice echoed by lots of folks, most of it contradicting what we’ve heard echoed from others. What to make of these tidbits of wisdom from supervisors, friends, mentors, and coworkers? How can I actually know what to study, where, and if it's the right time? Here we’ve gathered some common advice about graduate education in the nonprofit sector and unpacked it a bit, to hopefully shed some clarity on this complicated and personal decision.
“Get a general MBA. There’s no field where you can’t use what you learn from an MBA.”
Even if you are absolutely certain that you want to stay in the nonprofit sector for the rest of your career, there’s no doubt that you will use some of what you would learn from an MBA. But, most MBA programs are aimed at the business world, and most universities don’t offer nonprofit management within the business school at all, offering it within the school of public administration instead. This can have impacts beyond just the curriculum, such as the network you will develop and the sorts of services offered by the career center.
If, on the other hand, you could definitely see yourself leaving nonprofits in the future, or are interested in management in a general sense, an MBA could be the right choice for you. If you pay attention to the actual curricula of the programs you are looking at, you will see that some of them have courses, or even whole concentrations, aimed at the social sector.
There are even some joint MBA/MPA programs offered, like that offered by the Wharton School at the Penn in partnership with the Kennedy School at Harvard, or the program offered in partnership between NYU Stern and NYU Wagner. These can be a great option if you have the time and energy to pursue them. But programs like these are long and intensive, typically taking three years full-time. Working full-time wouldn’t be an option, which rules them out for some people.
“People in the nonprofit sector don’t see much value in a master’s degree. They’d rather just see that you have nonprofit experience.”
While this may be true of some people in the nonprofit sector, it is by no means the rule. Generalizing about the nonprofit sector can sometimes land folks in hot water, because it is so diverse. Some organizations would never consider hiring someone without a master’s degree, others don’t expect it from any candidate. Attitudes towards graduate education vary widely between subsectors, between nonprofit fields, and between individual organizations and hiring managers. And some career paths, such as clinical social work, almost always require a degree as part of a broader certification system.
There are always different factors at play; currently, there is a general trend towards professionalization in the nonprofit sector. But, as organizations work to be more equitable in hiring, some will place less weight on a master’s degree, as they can act as a paywall. These sorts of ebbs and flows are likely to continue as time goes on.
Overall, nonprofit hiring managers, just like for-profit hiring managers, see education and experience as complementary, and they do so to different extents. While experience and education are both valuable, they are not necessarily interchangeable. Some skills, like people management or community engagement, are easier to learn on the job. Others, like program evaluation or formal research, are best learned in a classroom. Look around you at folks you work with and folks you admire; do they have advanced degrees? What did they study? Where? These are important questions to ask yourself when making this decision in the context of your personal career.
“Don’t box yourself in by studying something super specific. We can’t even know that the career path you’re thinking about is still going to exist in 10 years.”
If studying something with a narrower scope is what will help you to progress in your career, it could be the right choice. This could be because you are trying to make a career change, and need to gain knowledge in a certain area. Or, you could be filling gaps in your knowledge base in preparation for promotion within a certain subfield. There are plenty of reasons why a more limited scope could help you to achieve your goals.
But, if you are at a point in your career where you’re unsure what to study but still motivated to put in the work for a graduate degree, a more specific area of study may not be the best move. If you don’t know how your degree program will connect to your future career, you may want to reconsider that program. If you’re concerned that too broad of a scope will hurt your future career, it may ease your mind to remember that there are many graduate certificate programs aimed at nonprofit professionals that could allow you to specialize more later on.
“The nonprofit sector is so unpredictable, and so broad. You should just study something you’re passionate about, and the right job will come along for it.”
Passion is key. Passion for our work is what helps many people in nonprofits get up in the morning. And if studying your passion can help you advance your career, then you’ve hit the sweet spot. But, if your ultimate goal is for your degree to help you advance your career, it’s a good idea to have an idea of how that might happen before you invest your time, energy, and funds into earning that degree.
And regarding funds, nonprofit professionals have a lot to consider. For most of the degrees that nonprofit professionals seek out, funding can be hard to come by. The expectation for these “professional degrees” (public administration, public policy, business administration, etc.) is often that since the recipient will go on to make more money after the degree is earned, paying off loans will be easier. But for many nonprofit workers, the salary bump from earning a master’s degree is not as big as expected. This can make graduate education prohibitively expensive for some, and lead to significant debt afterwards. These issues can be further exacerbated if you aren’t sure how your degree will help you advance your career.
“Study something that you don’t know a lot about. The credential doesn’t matter, what you learn will matter.”
Generally speaking, graduate school is for learning. When looking at programs, it can help to decide what the skills you need to advance your career are, evaluate the skills you already have, and look for programs that fill the gaps in your knowledge.
But if you have experience in nonprofits, and are looking to advance your career within nonprofits, you’re probably going to end up taking some classes that aren’t chock-full of new information. And that’s okay; as much as we’d like to think that the most important reason you are in graduate school is to learn new things, another important reason is that you do want the credential. There are other ways to learn outside of the university setting; there’s a reason why you’re choosing graduate school over reading on your own or attending conferences.
“You don’t need a master’s degree to do what you want to do. You know what you’re doing, but people like the credential. You only need the master’s because people want to hire people with a master’s degree.”
If your primary motivation for going to graduate school is that you want the degree so you can get a better job, that’s perfectly valid! Maybe you keep getting looked over when applying to jobs or promotions because of this missing piece, or you know that more opportunities in your field would arise with a master's. But there’s a big difference between getting a graduate degree with the sole motivation of landing a better job, and getting a graduate degree with the sole motivation of other people telling you to.
If you fall into the former category, choosing graduate school solely to advance your career, your motivations are intrinsic. They can be strengthened by applying to programs that include courses you’re interested in, taught by professors you’re excited to meet, in a city you want to make connections in. This intrinsic motivation is what researchers have shown time and time again results in persistence through difficult tasks.
But if you’re in the latter, going to graduate school only because people are telling you you should, it might not be time for you to apply yet. Think about waiting until you’ve developed an internal drive to go; that drive will help you in selecting a program that’s a good fit for you, in diligently seeking out funding, and with the motivation to complete your program once you’re there.
At the end of the day
A graduate degree can be an invaluable tool to speed your career trajectory in any field. But your goals are yours alone, and so is your career. Where you go to grad school, what you study, and whether you go at all are all deeply personal decisions, but you owe it to yourself to discern what’s really right for you. It can be difficult and time-consuming. However, graduate school is even more difficult and time-consuming, and expensive to boot. If you’re seriously considering going to grad school, it’s time to reach out to people you trust, and invest in in-depth conversations with them about your goals, motivations, and vision for your future.