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May 3, 2012

Last week I had the privilege of working at the Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy Annual Conference as a career coach. One of my tasks was to lead a discussion about Graduate School. I thought I would share this information with others who are emerging as nonprofit leaders and debating about attending graduate school.

To begin my case, I encourage you to check out Nonprofit Times’ Top 50 Nonprofit Leaders List. I used this list of impressive leaders as my convenience sample.  Then I conducted some basic research to determine how many of these leaders had advanced degrees. Below are some of the findings.

Of the 50 Most Influential Nonprofit Leaders:

1. Types of Degrees

  • 30% (n=15) had a Master’s degree
  • 18% (n=9) had a Law degree
  • 14% (n=7) had a MBA
  • 14% (n=7) had a Doctorate degree
  • 4% (n=2) had a medical degree
  • 2% (n=1) had an MPH
  • 72% (n=36) had one or more advanced degrees

2. Top Institutions Attended

  • 10% (n=5) Harvard University
  • 8% (n=4) University of Pennsylvania
  • 8% (n=4) Oxford University
  • 6% (n=3) Columbia University
  • 4% (n=2) Stanford University
  • 4% (n=2) Emory University
  • 4% (n=2) University of Texas
  • 4% (n=2) Rutgers University

3. Variety of Concentrations – 3 Most Common Master’s degrees were in: Public Policy, Social Work, and Education

I present this information to illustrate that having an advanced degree is often required now in senior level positions within the sector whether you work for a nonprofit or a foundation.  You’ve probably heard people say: “40 is the new 30”, I say, “a graduate degree is the new undergraduate degree.”  I would add that my research confirmed that the exact degree is less important that having attained an advanced degree. Choose a program that speaks to your interests as it will help chart your future course.

Other considerations to keep in mind about graduate school is portability.  You never know what the future holds and you may think you will live forever in NY until the chance meeting of your future life partner who lives in California… Folks often don’t talk about the portability of different advanced degrees.  Some degrees are recognized in every state (e.g., MBAs, public policy degrees) but others require certain credentials such as passing the bar in a particular state even if you got your JD or putting in several hours to be eligible to do social work even after you earned your social work degree.

If you are skeptical about attending graduate school and apprehensive about assuming so much debt there are a couple of alternatives to graduate school that are recognized as significant leadership development experiences which may be cheaper alternatives.  Consider joining the Peace Corps, applying to the Coro Fellowship, being a White House Intern, or an Echoing Green Fellow.  There are numerous programs out there that are well reputed and give you substantial skills.

Whichever path you take, be sure to continue your education and learning to remain a vital candidate for any position.

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