Can a masters degree be a substitute for professional experience?
March 10, 2010 3:37 PM   Subscribe

Is a Master's degree in International Relations a good way to make up for a relative lack of professional experience in the field?

Ok, here's the deal. I'm 28 years old and have been living in Japan and teaching English for the last 4 years. I'd only intended to be here for 1 year, but got sucked into the lifestyle and all of a sudden 4 years have gone by and I need to somehow get started with a more professional career path.

I've been accepted into a good International Relations Master's program, starting in September. The coursework consists of classes in econ, finance, accounting, quantitative methods, in addition to more traditional IR stuff like foreign policy, and proficiency in a foreign language (for me, Japanese).

However, when I finish the program, I'll be 30 years old with a good master's degree and almost no professional experience outside of teaching English abroad, and possibly an internship I complete while finishing my masters. My question is, is a Master's degree a way to make up for a lack of professional experience? Or, am I just spending a lot of money and 2 more years of my life to end up with a shiny new degree that doesn't do anything other than keep me mired in debt.

Alternately, I could probably get a job with an engineering firm right now (basically through nepotism) making a decent salary, but working on something that is not very interesting to me. I already feel like I'm way behind in getting a proper career started, so this would give me the opportunity to at least get some sort of professional career going a couple of years earlier and minus several thousand dollars of debt, than if I get the masters degree.

So should I get the masters in something I'm interested in, or just get started on a career now, albeit in something that isn't really what I'm interested in?

Also, as a related question, does anyone have any experience with starting their first professional career at 30 years of age or older? Is it as bad as I think it might be?
posted by farce majeure to Education (7 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I ask this as someone with a pretty solid education in IR and international trade law, but without a Masters in IR:

What field, exactly, are you asking about? Diplomacy? Government work? International banking? International trade law? International business transactions?

To me, the degree you're considering seems too general to qualify you for any career in particular.

Once you have a specific career path in mind, you will be able to figure out whether the academic path you are contemplating will move you along that path.
posted by The World Famous at 3:53 PM on March 10, 2010

I agree with The World Famous, and would advise caution before investing the time and money in this degree. I spent a lot of time in DC where there are dozens if not hundreds of under-employed IR graduates from the best schools in the country. You should spend a fair amount of time researching future employment opportunities (perhaps through the placement office at the school to which you've been accepted?) before diving in. Good luck.
posted by hawkeye at 4:13 PM on March 10, 2010

I didn't get my first real job in my new career until I was 28, after a couple years working part time after grad school. Prior to going into my masters of urban planning program I was an industrial engineer and sorta hated it.

I wholeheartedly recommend going back to school. For one thing, it's a lifestyle you won't be able to live when you're old with kids. Enjoy it. The first time around you probably didn't appreciate it. For another thing, being stuck in a career you don't like is a terrible waste of a good life. Engineering can be pretty soul sucking if it's not for you.

A grad degree can't make up for experience, but if money isn't the most important thing, you'll be happier if you jump ship now rather than waiting for a midlife crisis.
posted by paanta at 4:52 PM on March 10, 2010

Smart words from hawkeye. There are many fields where a Master's in IR would be useful--there are probably some jobs where you won't be taken seriously without one (unless you have substantial practical experience). But before embarking on one you should make sure that the job you're interested in doing, or at least the sort of organization you're interested in working for, requires one.

It might also be a good idea to think about what skills you've developed over the last four years and how you might be able to present them in a job application now. If you get in the habit of thinking about these things before you go to grad school, you can make sure that when you get there, you're (a) able to concentrate on developing marketable skills that you haven't already got, and (b) ready to take your degree out into the world, once you've got it, and demonstrate that it's more than just a piece of paper. You might also find that you've got enough skills to barter for a 'career' job already, without going to grad school.

Some examples. Japan: linguistic competence, I'm presuming--that's obvious. But also, the ability to embark on a difficult intellectual task (learning Japanese) and stick with it. Cultural competence: dealing with a (very different) foreign culture, in the humbling position of being an outsider. As well as showing strength of character, this suggests--or rather, you should use it to suggest--that you have well-developed diplomatic skills when it comes to dealing with people from, or being in, a different cultural background. There are plenty of jobs where that's a marketable skill. Teaching: sure, everyone has taught English abroad. But still, you need to think about what skills you developed in teaching that can transfer to other careers. And, unlike many former TEFLers, you've stuck at it for a while, not just used it as a basically colonial way of justifying and funding a prolonged holiday in a poor country. What career(s) could you take these skills into? What careers could you take these skills into that a Master's in IR would also be a necessary credential for?

What I'm getting at here is that if you want to build yourself a career, with or without grad school, you need to start seeing your time in Japan--an experience that relatively few people are privileged to have had--as something that helped prepare you for [whatever career you embark on] rather than as four years of basically wasted time.

Do not say, if asked in a job interview why you spent four years in Japan, that you just got sucked into the lifestyle.

Good luck!
posted by lapsangsouchong at 4:56 PM on March 10, 2010

All very good advice here. FWIW, many of my friends from my MPP program studied IR after teaching English abroad (either in Japan or through Peace Corps) and are now working in IR. One works on the Hill for a Senator on an IR-related committee, a few work abroad for international aid groups, many work for the World Bank. A few tips from what I've seen work with friends:

- Be prepared to take an entry-level job when you finish, no matter how good your program is. My friend working on the Hill was in the JET program before grad school. She had less experience than most people in our graduating class, and spent 8 months after graduating looking for a job, before she finally got one as a staff assistant in the Senate (lowest rung above intern) and was happy to get it.

- Network like crazy. Only go to a school that has professors who are well-respected and well-networked with practitioners. Get to know those professors well.

- Figure out your specialty early (if you don't already know it) and do everything you can to buff up your credentials in this area.

- Use your internship wisely. Again, ask your professors for guidance and help getting an internship that will get you some of the skills or connections you'll need.

- Consider applying for the Pickering Fellowship, if it's not too late. The State Dept pays for your education, and in exchange, you work as a Foreign Service Officer for 2 years.
posted by lunasol at 10:28 PM on March 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is all a lot of very helpful information, so thank you. In regards to The World Famous' comment, you are absolutely right, I do need to find a more specific focus within the field of international relations. Luckily the program requires that; students are required to choose a career concentration and I'm trying to decide between focusing on international environmental policy or international politics. I already studied domestic environmental policy as an undergrad, and would much rather get into a career in international politics. Ideally I'd like to work in a research position, something like a Political Affairs officer for the U.N. That position definitely requires a master's degree, but also ostensibly requires a minimum of 5 years experience in international relations. As lapsangsouchong suggested, I can probably market a lot of the skills I've developed in my time in Japan as an English teacher, but I suspect it probably wouldn't count as significant experience in international relations.

But again, thank you, this has all been extremely helpful information. As a follow up question, for someone who's interested in International Politics, specifically in the Asia Pacific region, do you have any suggestions as to what kind of careers might be available in that field, and where to research them?
posted by farce majeure at 10:43 PM on March 10, 2010

I'd just like to add that I was in the exact same position as you a couple years ago. I had spent three years teaching English in Asia for lack of anything better to do after I finished my undergrad. I had a blast, but it wasn't exactly going to pan out into a lifelong career for me.

My dream all along was to work in the diplomatic corps. While I was in Asia I took the exams, had the interview, and was eventually hired by the government for just that job at age 30. I have a number of colleagues who have graduate degrees in international relations from some pretty prominent schools. But there are others who have completely different backgrounds, from acting to accounting to HR to psychology. Hell, there's even a seamstress. Me, I have a BA in history and half a journalism degree (dodged that bullet).

For a job like this, which sounds like something that could interest you, what they look for are competencies. Having a nice resumé with fancy schools and degrees is all well and good, but they want to know if that will translate into real-world competency in the work place. I believe that a big part of why I was hired was my experience living abroad and immersing myself in a different culture. During the interview I could play up the fact that I'm incredibly adaptable and that I don't experience culture shock anymore, which, I assume, would be the same for you after having lived in Japan for four years.

As others have said, don't sell that experience short. Something like that is incredibly valuable.

As for whether or not you should take the engineering job, I believe that it could be a bad idea. Our world is littered with people who started jobs they didn't like because it would pay them well or because it was just something to do and who never left. Beware the golden handcuffs. There's always a danger that you start a job like that and then wake up 30 years later still doing it because you never found a good enough reason to leave and realize that you just wasted a shitload of time doing something that didn't even interest you. Changing jobs is easy in your 20s, but the older you get the harder it gets, so why not go for what you want the first time around?

Personally, I'd go to school. Don't worry about the age thing.
posted by fso at 8:09 AM on March 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

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