The Wonders and Worries of Grad School

Disclaimer: Yes, I work at Hamline University; yes, I am earning a Master’s in Nonprofit Management at Hamline; and yes, I interviewed the director of the Hamline MANM program (among others) for this blog post, but this is NOT an ad for Hamline University. Take from it what you will – I hope you gain a few pearls or nuggets of wisdom that make you really think about pursuing an advanced degree in the nonprofit sector.

Pursuing an advanced degree is a big undertaking – one that requires many hours of hard work and many gallons of coffee. The decision to attend graduate school should not be a light one. I will help you weigh the pros and cons – and give you a few things to think about before making your decision.

Grad school is the most expensive networking tool you will ever have. What I hear most often from people regarding their time in graduate school is the network of connections they made they would not easily find elsewhere. Often nonprofit professionals build networks within their subsector – medical professionals meet with other medical professionals, arts fundraisers get to know other arts fundraisers – but nonprofit programs throw you in with quite a variety of people.

For example, my first grad class consisted of 12 extremely diverse students. Half were in the middle of their careers and switching gears from the corporate world to the nonprofit sector. A handful were laid off from previous nonprofit positions and wanted an advanced degree to build their skill sets – and bide their time as they searched for jobs. They were from seven different countries on three different continents. I learned as much from my classmates and their experiences as I did from the professor.

The instructor made it a point to expose us to a variety of institutions by bringing in professionals from the sector – all of which passed out their business cards or shared their contact information with us – to share their advice and experiences. These sorts of interactions also foster the sharing of ideas between sectors and the creative strategic thinking needed to be a successful leader in the nonprofit world.

Grad school will give you credibility. With any advanced degree you can expect to enhance your knowledge and gain a variety of specialty skill sets, such as grant writing or financial management, that are particular to the sector. But the growing professionalism of the nonprofit sector is starting to demand a combination of experience and education from its leaders, according to Rob Routhieaux, director of the Master’s on Nonprofit Management at Hamline University. Many nonprofits are realizing it might be best for them to take a “for-profit” approach to the management of their institution and are thus looking for professionals with advanced credentials.

“One never knows when there are opportunities for management and leadership,” said Ann Johnson, director for the Center of Nonprofit Management at the University of St. Thomas. “Having good basic knowledge in decision making, performance, organizational development, marketing could serve most students well.”

Grad school is expensive – period. Very few nonprofit organizations have the means to reimburse their employees for advanced studies. Thus the financial burden is often solely on the student. Fellowships are hard to come by, and loans make many nervous in today’s economy. Likely figuring out how to pay for it is your biggest hurdle when considering an advanced degree. While it’s hard for me to give any advice in this area (I lucked out and the school that I work for offers the degree of my choosing), U.S. News & World Report offers 5 ways to pay for grad school and other useful tips.

"One should not pursue an advanced degree without a clear sense of direction professionally AND a deep desire to learn,” said Frank Schweigert, director of the Master of Public and Nonprofit Administration Program at Metropolitan State University. “The desire is critical, because the value of the education derives from the passion of the learner."

If you decide that grad school is for you, Schweigert and Routhieaux offer a few things for you to consider when deciding on graduate school programs:

  1. How connected is the school or program? Are they well known in any specific subsector?
  2. What programs and/or foci does the school offer? Any specific to the nonprofit subsector that interests you?
  3. What expanded offerings does the school have for you to take advantage? Can you add public administration or MBA courses to your program?
  4. Who are the faculty and where do they come from? What is their real-world experience? Which nonprofits have they served – either as a staff or board member?

The Twin Cities nonprofit world is an amazing one. There are so many opportunities for us young professionals to make a big difference in our world – with or without an advanced degree. How you navigate your career is up to you, but know there are many opportunities to find a graduate school program that is right for you right here in your own backyard.

What do you think about graduate school? Share your own experiences and comments.

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