To Study or Not to Study: The Value of a Master's Degree for International Education Professionals

May 15, 2013

By Heidi Bohn and Sora Friedman

By Heidi Bohn, MA and Sora Friedman, PhD

What is international education? Or perhaps a more modern twist is: What isn’t international education (IE)? A field that once was defined narrowly as international student advising and study abroad in higher education has expanded significantly since its founding. The advent and commonplace usage of air travel instead of boats, the Internet instead of phones and postcards, and the spread of globalization have connected our world in ways we could never have imagined even two decades ago. The result is that working in this field can result in a career of travel, global reach, grassroots interactions, and substantive impact on the lives of others as well as our communities and world.

While most NAFSA members work in higher education settings, the field of IE is ever expanding and can lead one to work in citizen exchange, immigration, refugee programs, international leadership, education policy and advocacy, nonformal education, English as a Second Language, and foreign language learning programs, to name just a few. You can work for the government as a diplomat, field service officer, or program manager. Or perhaps you may end up in the private, nonprofit sector as an agent for social justice and social sustainability, a trainer for the Peace Corps, or as a professor with a PhD. And yes, still yet, you can work with international students or scholars, advising them on their studies and work in the United States, or with U.S. students traveling to study abroad in a high-school, gap year, or university program.

But how does one get there? Is graduate school the answer? The paths are varied and never identical, but there are a few key considerations worth noting. Many positions still only require a bachelor’s degree and requisite skills and experience. However, often—and it seems more frequently—a master’s degree is preferred. How do you know if graduate school is right for you?

  • If you want to work with educational programs that focus on a particular area such as science or the arts, and your bachelor’s degree is in that area, attaining a master’s degree in education will provide the skills necessary to run educational programs effectively. Having expertise in both the program content and administrative process will make you an outstanding candidate for potential jobs.
  • If your professional network is limited, graduate school can connect you to others who are doing work that may be of interest to you.
  • Especially in higher education, a master’s degree is often required for mid- and senior-level administrators to have "a seat at the table."
  • Perhaps most practically, because the field is gaining in exposure and popularity, there is increased competition. A master’s degree often is the minimum level of education required for a résumé to be considered.
  • Perhaps most importantly, a high-quality master’s program will provide you with knowledge, skills, and awareness that you do not already possess so that you can be the most effective professional for your programs and your participants.

If you decide to pursue the graduate school route, here are a few questions you may want to consider:

  • What is your learning style (e.g., experiential, traditional lecture, other)?
  • Do full-time or part-time studies fit your life best at this point? Is a low-residency program a good match for your current situation and learning style?
  • Is there a practicum or internship phase in the program you are considering? How does the institution support you in finding and procuring one?
  • What is the school’s alumni network value?
  • Do you have a focus or interest area? For example, will the program allow you to dive deeply into areas such as policy, higher education, management, program design, advising and counseling, international relations/politics, language school administration, etc.?
  • What kind of environment do you want to study in? at a large or small school? in a certain region of the world or country?
  • Will you want to go directly into a PhD program at the same school? If your school of choice does not offer a related doctorate, how does the master’s degree program prepare you for later doctoral studies?

Many people fall into the field of international education by chance— but in our experiences, few ever regret doing so. Once "called" to the work, the first decision is often whether or not to pursue a graduate degree. Hopefully, the above considerations will help you to decide if graduate school is right for you, and if so, provide some factors to consider as you decide where to study.

Please join Sora Friedman at the NAFSA Career Center during the annual conference in St. Louis to learn more about specific skills offered by many graduate programs and ways to prepare for your graduate school search.


Heidi Bohn, MA, currently serves as the international education program coordinator at SIT Graduate Institute. Her own IE experiences began quietly with learning French in Montessori school at age 4 and listening to stories of her own mother’s postcollegiate travels to Germany in the late 1970s. But the passion truly took hold in college after studying abroad in Ecuador as part of her bachelor’s in Spanish (and sociology). Aside from living in Ecuador and Spain, Bohn’s travels have taken her to Belize, Costa Rica, Turkey, and England, most recently returning from living (again) and working in Ecuador. Heidi’s self-declared IE soapbox is domestic, early foreign language learning initiatives and policy but she is quickly developing a specialty in reentry and cultural readjustment.

Dr. Sora Friedman is an associate professor and chair of international education at SIT Graduate Institute, where she teaches courses in international educational policy, design and delivery of IE programs, theory and practice of IE, and research methods for both on-campus and low-residency programs. She has worked in the field of international education for 29 years, focusing on the administration of adult exchanges in public diplomacy, international training programs, high-school exchanges, and international policy advocacy. Friedman holds a doctorate in cultural studies, as well as a master’s degree in international administration, a certificate in distance education, and a bachelor’s degree in government and politics. She currently serves as chair-elect of NAFSA’s Region XI and previously served as chair of Trainer Corps and the Training Coordination Subcommittee.


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