Taking the Next Step in Your Impact Career: Master’s Degrees and Strategic Volunteering

By: Shannon Houde | April 13, 2015

This post is the first advice column in our new series. In this edition, longtime impact expert and career coach Shannon Houde tackles two questions.

Going back to school…

I am a 31 year-old woman who has been involved in mission-driven work since earning my BA in economics several years ago. With your diverse background, I was hoping you could provide any insight on the pivotal skills and areas of learning that can take an impact career to the next level. I’m considering graduate school, but waiver between an MBA, an MS in big data, a degree in international development or economic development, or maybe even trying to build knowledge through my work. What’s the best strategy to build the kind of hybrid knowledge base that this sector demands? –CHERYL

The question of whether or not to go back to school is an important one. On the one hand, master’s degrees are expensive, intense, and time consuming, and not guaranteed to get you a job. Not only that, but practical, tangible work experience is worth its weight in gold in the sustainability space. That being said, graduate school is an excellent place to gain professional connections and expand your network, focus on subject-specific knowledge, and add additional credentials to your CV that will help you stand out in a competitive jobs market. If you are seriously considering the international development field, I should also note that I’ve been told a masters degree is becoming increasingly necessary to advance in the sector.

If you decide to go back to school, it’s up to you to make the most of it and squeeze out every last drop of opportunity before you start school and to make sure you have realistic expectations of what your program will do for you. Map out why you chose a specific program, the tangible takeaways you want to leave with, and your plan for achieving those goals.

Then, during your studies, focus your coursework on real projects with real companies so you build relevant competencies and expand your network. Give yourself a head start by kicking off your personal branding and job search six to nine months before graduation. There is a “hidden jobs market” where 55 percent of roles are landed through word of mouth referrals or internal leads, so getting the word out about what you are looking to do next is a crucial first step.

Finally, after graduation make the most of your alumni network by getting active on social media. Connect with alumni, your old friends, people who have worked with you ten years ago ... everyone ... and stay updated on and involved with your university, giving back when you can.

Good luck!

Gaining experience through strategic volunteering…

I am currently pursuing my Executive Masters in Public Administration with a focus on environmental and wildlife conservation policy. I also hold a BA in psychology from Niagara University and a JD from Hofstra School of Law. I’m very interested in wildlife conservation policy and zoo administration and was wondering what things I should be doing now to position myself as an excellent candidate for those positions. I volunteer at the local zoo here and have reached out to my alumni network working in environmental/conservation industry. I am limited in my ability to intern as I work full-time to pay for school, but is there anything else I can be doing to gain experience? –GRETCHEN

It’s great that you have been able to set aside time in your packed schedule for some volunteering. However, since you have limited opportunities to gain experience from while in school, the next step is to get strategic about your volunteer work to ensure that you not only giving back to a cause that is important to you, but also boost your professional credentials at the same time.

There are three ways I encourage my clients to do this in volunteer work:

  • First, make sure your role uses your core skills and helps develop new, transferrable ones. Find ways to do work and take on projects that link directly to a stronger resume.
  • Second, look for ways you can quantify or measure your tangible impacts to the organization. For example, "helped fundraise $Y for wildlife conservation by reaching out to Z people through social media."
  • Third, connect to everyone you are working with, both professionals and other volunteers, on LinkedIn and other social media to deepen and diversify your network of contacts. Make sure the volunteer role you have taken on offers you access to stakeholders in the sector in which you ultimately want to work. It sounds like you are on the right track so far, but the conservation industry is still a broad field. So as you narrow your interests, make sure to check back in with yourself and the personal story you are telling to the jobs market.

Now you’ve got to do your homework - find your niche and reach out to your networks. What are you waiting for?

Still have questions?

Contact Shannon to set up a 30-minute CV critique to discuss your positioning, challenges, and career in more detail. Net Impact members receive 10% off their first coaching service.

Or ask one of our three experts for advice, and your question may be featured in an upcoming column.


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Shannon Houde

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