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The Role of Grad School in Changing Careers

Posted on April 9, 2020
graduate studies student and career change

As we continue our blog series on graduate studies, this week’s post focuses on going back to school for a career change. Whether you’re looking to move up in your organization or switch into a whole new field, graduate studies may provide you with the knowledge and networks needed to make those moves. Individuals choose grad school for a variety of reasons, but the three most common career-related reasons include:

  1. Gaining the necessary skills for advancement: Often a master’s degree is required for certain promotions or readership roles—like directors, executive managers, etc. 

  2. Changing career fields: It’s one thing to go from team member to team leader. It’s another to go from marketing to environmental science. If your interests change, going to graduate school is a great way to get started in a new career endeavor. 

  3. Engaging in lifelong learning: Graduate studies may be right for you if you’re interested in expanding your professional skillset. For example, someone in banking, who worked their way up the ladder, but wants to learn more about communication or get involved with nonprofits and shift sectors. 

For those looking to change career fields through graduate school, it’s important to find the right kind of program. Look for a graduate program that focuses on applied skills instead of one that is solely based on theory. What’s the reasoning? With applied learning, you can build a portfolio of work, add industry experience to your resume and prove to employers that you have the hard skills needed to work in the industry.

For example, in Goodwin's MS in Nonprofit Management, online graduate students participate in at least three experiential learning courses that impact their local communities. From volunteering with a nonprofit to working on a solution to a real-world organizational challenge (like reaching a fundraising goal, using data to find service opportunities, etc.), students in the program get hands-on experience leading in the field. For someone who already works in the nonprofit sector, paired with the technical skill training in accounting and strategic communications, these opportunities can help them gain a promotion or move up in a different organization. For someone transitioning into the sector, a hands-on program provides the well-rounded skillset needed to enter the field.

Even if you decide to go down a more academic or theoretical route career-wise, an applied master’s program can help you gain research experience often required in advanced degree like PhDs. 


Let me share an example with you about a career change that was boosted by a master’s program. One of my MS in Professional Studies students in the Personal Leadership Trajectory class, identified that she wanted to get a director-level position while working on her personal leadership plan. By making that core to her goals she was able to take all the skills she learned in the Professional Studies program package these skills with her goals. Within three months of finishing the class, she had an interview and was offered a director-level job in a new organization. 


When it comes to making a career change, is a master’s degree really worth it? That’s all dependent upon your individual goals and the programs you explore. Often in graduate school, the ROI depends on how much time and effort you’re able to invest in getting the most out of the experience. There’s a lot to consider before diving in, but here are six reasons why you may need a graduate degree for a career change 

  1. Increasing salary: In some cases, a master’s degree can help raise your pay grade at your current organization or in a new role at a new organization. For example, you might be in a role with a pay range of $55,000 - $70,000 and the master’s degree will boost that range to $65,000 - $80,000. 

  2. Changing industries: If you are considering making a big shift in industries where half or less of your skills are transferrable, then a master’s degree may be the right choice for you. Though you can seek opportunities through internships or apprenticeships, graduate school offers the opportunity to learn about the practice, theory and history of the industry you’re aiming to enter. It also provides the qualifications needed to be hired in many cases.

  3. It’s a job requirement: Higher level positions often require a master’s degree, so you may need to earn one in your field to move up. 

  4. Gaining a promotion and enhancing skills: Whether or not a master’s is a baseline requirement for a promotion, internal or external, a master’s may help you fill necessary skill gaps and improve your confidence in a new role.

  5. Specializing in your field: Earning a master’s requires that you dig deep into an area of research or professional interest. Throughout your coursework, and especially in a capstone or thesis project, you can become a specialized expert in your field. 

  6. Expand your network and increase opportunities: For a seasoned professional, earning a master’s allows you to join a learning community that challenges your thought processes.  

So, Is a Graduate Degree Worth it for a Career Change? 

While there are many pathways to make a career change, one common way is to enhance your skills and build your network through graduate school. If this is the right choice for you, it’s important to find the right kind of program. There are so many choices and options ranging from traditional face-to-face to fully online and hybrid programs. But there are other things to also consider such as flexibility, faculty and focus (applied versus theoretical learning).

If you are looking to build your skills repertoire, a program with an applied learning approach may be best for you, allowing you to actively use and master those skills immediately. If you need flexibility because you have a demanding job or a family, then a hybrid or online program will likely be better option for you. Take the time to think about what is important to you and what you will need throughout your graduate school experience. Then, take the time to research the types of programs that both interest you and will help you best achieve your career goals.

I like to tell students who are seeking career advice to kick the can down the street, in other words, play out your choices. How will Program A help me achieve Goal B and then Goal C? Finally, combine these different thought processes to make an informed choice about which school and program will best suit your needs and help you achieve success.

Best of luck to you in advancing your career goals!


Anne Converse Willkomm

Assistant Clinical Professor

Department Head of Graduate Studies

Goodwin College of Professional Studies

Posted in professional-development-career-tips