Top reasons to go to grad school in public policy/international affairs:
- You already have 3-7 years of experience in your professional field and you need a master’s degree to be qualified for a promotion. If you’re already on a track you love or close to it, the master’s program is a perfect way to get a break where you step back and have the luxury of building your theoretical knowledge. You’re already doing work related to what you’ll study, so you’ll shine in courses where many students have only read about a refugee camp and you lived in one, or have only theorized about anti-poverty policy innovations and you worked for an organization testing them out in real life. You might leave the program and return to your current organization at a higher level of responsibility–and a higher pay grade–or you’ll choose one of the other doors open to you.
- You are a career changer. This can be tricky, because one of the challenges I hear often from graduates of masters programs is that they have the degree but not enough experience to get the jobs they want, so they’re over-qualified for entry-level jobs and under-qualified for mid-career-level jobs. However, if you are able to spin how your past experience provides you with transferable skills and you carefully select internships to fill in the gaps, the degree can be the perfect bridge. Internships and capstone projects are a great way to get experience in a field new to you, in which no one would ever hire you to do the job, but they’ll happily put you to work for free. Being a career changer is never easy, but you’ll be taken more seriously with a master’s degree under your belt.
- To gain connections. Perhaps the single-most important thing I got out of my degree was the network of students and professors. They will introduce you to employers, write you recommendations, pass along job postings, even hire you. Maybe one day you’ll repay the favor and hire them. The more respected the program within your specific field, the more valuable the connections you’ll be making within that program.
Do not expect that a master’s degree is a golden ticket and that you’re guaranteed to walk out of the program with a job right away, particularly the perfect job. Especially not if you don’t do the work, and I don’t just mean turning in your papers on time. It’s your job to make the degree work for you, not the other way around. Set realistic expectations, and then do everything you can to make a name for yourself in the program as a smart passionate student, engage in smart networking with peers and professors, build your resume with experience that fills in any gaps, and make use of your career services department by applying for positions well before graduation. Do not go to graduate school if:
- You don’t love your job and you’re just not sure what’s next. Grad school is a lot of time and money and your peers will be driven individuals who care deeply about their fields. At best they’ll see you as someone not worth networking with, and at worst, you’ll be seen as a nuisance.
- You just finished college and you don’t want to get a job. Most master’s programs in public policy and/or international affairs want you to have at least 2-3 years of professional experience. You also will be setting yourself up for the over/under-qualified trap.
- You want to work with a specific professor. This might work for a PhD program, but professors in a lot of master’s programs often move around a lot and may take a year sabbatical, and you are only in the program for 1-2 years.