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Should You Go Back to School? Pros and Cons of Sustainability and CSR Degree Programs

For jobseekers wishing to break into the sustainability field, the idea of going back to school for a specialist degree in sustainability often seems like a no-brainer. However, I often ask my clients to carefully consider the pros and cons before they invest time and money into a graduate degree.

The Pros:

1. Gaining Professional Connections

There’s a reason this is number one, while ‘expanding your knowledge’ is number two. My clients who have completed degree programs in sustainability have overwhelmingly found the most valuable outcome to be the connections they made along the way. In the right sustainability graduate program, you will find like-minded individuals who will go on become the future influencers of the industry. You will also get exposure to academics and professionals who can serve as mentors. In addition to forming lifelong friendships, the people you meet could help you land your dream job, or even become your business partners in a future start-up. Don’t take this aspect for granted! While there are many great distance-learning options available, when considering a sustainability degree program, the opportunity to grow your professional network should not be overlooked.

2. Expanding Your Subject-Specific Knowledge

Outside of hands-on professional experience, there is no better place to grow your knowledge of a particular facet of the sustainability field than in a dedicated degree program. This makes going back to school a great choice if you want to break into a specialized industry like sustainable clothing design or responsible product development, but lack the relevant education or experience. However, before making the decision to pursue a sustainability degree, carefully consider if it is absolutely necessary for achieving your career goals. In the one-to-three years you would be spending in school, you can get an unpaid internship, join professional networks, and do a multitude of other things to enhance your CV. So take a few months to talk to professionals in the industry, track down alumni of prospective degree programs, and study the industry you want to work in. Only if, after substantial research, you decide that a specialized degree is the only way to get you where you want to go, should you take the plunge and go back to school.

3. Standing Out From the Crowd

Since sustainability is a fairly new subject in academia, the number of graduates of dedicated degree programs is still fairly small. That puts sustainability degree-holders at an advantage when it comes to standing out in a job search. That said, sustainability programs of questionable quality seem to be popping up every day, so make sure you do your due diligence. Check out third-party lists and rankings like the Aspen Institute’s Beyond Grey Pinstripes or Net Impact’s Business as UNusual guide before making a decision.

The Cons:

1. Time and Money

The number-one downside of pursuing any degree is usually the financial and time investment required. Most sustainability graduate degrees carry a price tag around $30,000 (£20,000), not to mention room and board, and the opportunity cost of leaving the workforce for a year or more. Unless you are one of the lucky few with a company willing to finance your education (or a substantial trust fund), this is not a commitment to be taken lightly. Taking a year or two out of your life to stop working, (possibly) relocate, and live like a student again is also not a realistic option for many people with young children or other responsibilities. So carefully consider whether you are in the right position, both financially and in your personal life, before investing in a sustainability degree program. Take the time to weigh the costs of a degree against the professional opportunities and future earning potential it would realistically afford you. Make sure you investigate other options that exist for expanding your knowledge and experience in the sustainability industry.  And finally, ask yourself if a degree is absolutely necessary for achieving your career goals.

2. The Theory-Practice Gap

One of the most common frustrations I hear from my clients who have completed a sustainability degree program is that it did not adequately equip them with the skills they need to compete in a corporate environment. Remember that the ivory tower is a very very different place than the Fortune 500 Boardroom – the curriculums of many graduate programs are developed by PhD-holding professors who might be out of touch with the demands of the practicing sustainability professional. This means that many students in sustainability degree programs find themselves yawning through jargon-soaked journal articles and debating the trivialities of obscure academic theories – not learning things they actually need to know, like how to consult on corporate sustainability measures or manage a project budget. So if you aren’t seeking a career in academia, make sure you choose a degree program that emphasizes practical knowledge and professional experience as a major part of its curriculum.

3. Nothing Compares to the School of Life

Sure, a master’s degree might look great on a CV, but, as Seth Godin advises, self-publishing a book or running a project for a non-profit can look even better. If you don’t have the credentials to land your sustainability dream job just yet, there are endless ways to get them without forking over a five-figure tuition payment. Think like an entrepreneur and find creative ways to gain the knowledge and experience you need to get you where you want to go. Contact a sustainability consultancy and offer to do a project for free in your spare time, volunteer for a leading global charity, publish a sustainability fashion blog, start an organic garden co-op in your neighborhood. Even the best degree program cannot hold a candle to real-life experience and accomplishments.

This article originally appeared on Acre

Shannon Houde

About the Author

Shannon Houde is an ICF certified executive and career coach who founded, Walk of Life Consulting, the first international professional development advisory business focused solely on the social impact, environmental and sustainable business fields.

Read more about Shannon's credentials →


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  1. Simon


    11:35 PM

    If I had to go back to school, that would be to learn new skills to have a real career in the real world… I have been working in the CSR field for more than 5 years now and I don’t feel I can progress in my career (in terms of opportunities and remuneration) as I am not an engineer or technical person.

    So, I would say for people like me, go back to school but get a technical, engineering degree!

  2. Life Experience Degree


    7:10 AM

    Nice post and Really nice information.We evaluate US degree equivalency, foreign credentials, and life experience to enable you to earn a college degree without setting foot in a classroom.


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