How do I explain a career change?
September 18, 2023 12:49 PM   Subscribe

I got a graduate degree in something I didn't end up liking, and ended up working in a totally different field. Now I am applying to a graduate program in my new field, from the same school - how do I explain this?

After some internships, I decided the degree I got in 2017 was a mistake. After a few years of working in a different job, I've decided I should pursue it professionally, and am preparing an application to the masters' program. However, transcripts are required, I can't hide the fact that I have a useless degree already - how do I explain this in my 'personal statement'? Or, to people I meet who know me from both contexts? Or to myself (I am still not sure I have made the right decisions)?
posted by epanalepsis to Work & Money (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
For most people, it's none of their beeswax.

In professional contexts, you should be talking about what is drawing you to and qualifying you for advanced work in the new field. If there's some overlap of skills with old field allowing you to point out how you are particularly qualified for new field, great, but otherwise, I wouldn't even bother talking about it. You're not there to justify your life to date, you're there to explain why you would be a good candidate for this degree at this time.
posted by praemunire at 1:02 PM on September 18 [12 favorites]

It's not necessarily something that needs explaining. It might be an opportunity to say that there are things about the old field that you don't like so much, and that's why you're extra enthusiastic about this new field. More generally, it's an MA not a Ph.D., I don't really see why it would be a negative -- it would not be for me -- unless people are concerned about your age or something (which of course happens, unfortunately), or if there is a funding issue where the same university might not want to fund two differert degrees for the same person
posted by melamakarona at 1:04 PM on September 18

Well, I think you need to work on changing your own framing. "Fake it til you make it" can work here. When you refer to your first graduate degree as "useless" and say it was a "mistake" to get it, you set yourself up as having been foolish and wrong, and having to explain yourself.

I'd say instead to think of it as your "first graduate degree." Sometimes we have to walk down a path to realize it's not the best one for us, but we wouldn't have known if we hadn't started down the path in the first place.

I understand you might be thinking of the time and expense, but the folks at the program you are applying to won't be thinking of that at all. They're interested in how you got to where you are now and what makes you interested in their program. Truly, having an additional graduate degree isn't like some scarlet letter you need to hide. In fact, doing well in that program will show them you are a strong student.

I have two graduate degrees, and I can absolutely tell you how they are both valuable to me in my current profession. Try to come up with something similar for yourself, and move forward with a more positive framing.
posted by bluedaisy at 1:07 PM on September 18 [10 favorites]

Theoretically, the admissions office could be concerned that you wouldn't use the second degree, as you didn't end up using the first. If you went into the first program without much work experience, that might even be a plus: "When I entered my program in underwater basketweaving, I didn't have a full understanding of what the industry is like. But after working for several years in theoretical fishmongering, I've discovered my passion for the field." If it's more complicated, the gist would be the same, even if the explanation would be a little more complicated.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 1:12 PM on September 18 [3 favorites]

Speaking as someone who's read hundreds of applications to my shop's master's in library and information studies... your other degree would read as beneficial to us, and you wouldn't need to explain it at all. We get a lot of career-changers and we LOVE them and all we really want to know is 1) why they're interested in our program, and 2) as applicable (and it's fine if it's not), how they think they'll apply what they learned in their other educational and work environments to their new career.

We could not possibly care less that your other program didn't work out. We're used to that. Happens all the time.
posted by humbug at 1:45 PM on September 18 [10 favorites]

After a few years of working in a different job, I've decided I should pursue it professionally, and am preparing an application to the masters' program.

That's it, that's the explanation.

Maybe leave out the part about the prior degree being a "mistake". It was part of your journey. But you ended up finding something else that you really clicked with and had a passion for. That's what matters.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 1:55 PM on September 18 [11 favorites]

I did this! My PhD was absolutely an asset in several ways. The strengths it gave me were unusual in my cohort and compensated somewhat for my weaknesses. And having already worked in the new field for a couple years, I had an excellent explanation for why I wanted yet more school. Your situation sounds identical to mine on paper. Your deeper academic experience can be a strength! Don’t apologize for it.
posted by eirias at 2:17 PM on September 18 [2 favorites]

Your previous degree demonstrates that you can successfully complete a graduate degree. That's huge.
posted by heatherlogan at 3:01 PM on September 18 [5 favorites]

Your funding situation differ, but my department chair sent a budget email with the summary that if we want to get the maximum amount of money from the university, we should get more grad students. They typically pay more tuition and don’t require the same support as undergrads. Some masters programs are straight up cash cows. Focus on what makes you better than other students coming into to program if it’s competitive, the university probably wants to accept as many grad students as they can handle. As long as you have some plausible explanation why you want the degree, you’re fine.
posted by momus_window at 5:43 PM on September 18

A lot can change in six years! Especially if we've been in a pandemic for at least half of that.

I think the first step is for you to accept and feel comfortable with your path.

The University will not care. They are a business.

Other people should not judge you. But if you are fine with your choices, then any judgement will not hurt you.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 12:22 AM on September 19 [1 favorite]

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