Your Future in International Education: Goals, Skills, and Graduate Study

April 17, 2015

By Sora Friedman

Sora FriedmanIn my current roles as a teacher of international education and a member of the NAFSA Region XI chair stream, I am often asked about the value of an advanced degree for international education (IE) professionals. When does one need a master’s degree? Will it facilitate professional advancement? What value can a doctorate provide and how does the deep dive into a more focused area help in one’s work? This blog will explore these questions, taking into account that there is no one formula that works for everyone.

Do I need a master’s degree to work in the field of international education?

Many IE professionals agree that today a master’s degree is the minimal credential needed in the field. Whether in higher education administration, area studies, international management, international education, or another related field, a master’s level study provides you with needed skills that likely were not part of your undergraduate education. Learning about comparative educational systems; how to design and deliver a mobility program; training and advising skills; the structure and function of educational systems (e.g., administrative roles in higher education, accreditation requirements, the needs of faculty); the content and implications of accords, agreements, and legislation such as the Bologna Process, Generation Study Abroad, and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals; as well as how to conduct thorough and ethical research are all curricular learnings that advanced study can provide.

If I decide to pursue a master’s degree, how do I know which program is best for me?

The best way to begin is by reflecting on your personal and professional goals. Each school and program offers something different in terms of educational philosophy, approach to learning, time commitment, cost, financial aid, and program structure. I often equate this to dating in that each person can only find the best match for them after exploring their options. Some variables to consider include:

  • Preferred learning style: Do you learn best in a traditional academic setting or when involved with experiential methods?
  • Personal availability: Are you able to attend graduate school full-time for an academic year or are you tied to a job or personal situation such that you would be best served by attending an online or low-residency program?
  • Interest areas: Are you more interested in working in the corporate sector? Educational sector? Nonprofit or mission-driven sector? Which program best addresses those interests?
  • Institutional values: Which program most closely aligns with your personal values? Which institution offers electives that speak to you and will allow you to fill in gaps in your personal and professional understanding and skills?
  • Geographic location: Do you need to remain in a specific geographic region? If so, is there a program that is closely located to where you need to be? Is this as important as it seems, given the ease of travel these days? (I include this because often folks realize that they are not as bound to one location as they originally believed!)
  • Academic requirements: What is required by the program in terms of course work, research, and practical experience?
  • Additional services: What kinds of services are offered regarding career counseling, assistance with finding internships, if required, and writing (especially for folks with writing challenges and learning differences)?

What about a doctorate? Is one needed in the field?

Many IE professionals argue that while a doctorate if often not required, having one can be helpful because it is frequently a step in the process of securing a position in senior leadership. Of course, the doctorate may be required if one wants to teach at the collegiate level. While I agree with the above assessments, especially for those who work at institutions that are larger, more traditional in their academic approaches, and research-focused, it is important to recognize that many IE professionals have risen to senior IE positions without a doctorate, especially at schools that are smaller, that promote internal career advancement, or that have alternative educational philosophies (however defined).

Do keep in mind that a doctorate is more than just a credential, and that the process of earning such a degree provides you with certain skills and knowledge, including the ability to conduct advanced research, whether quantitative or qualitative (both strongly needed in our field), and insights into teaching advanced content. (Heck, in some schools, it also gets you a little raise!)

What’s the bottom line?

Remember, what is a clear path for your colleague may not be appropriate for you. We each carry our own interests, backgrounds, resources, needs, and visions of the future, all of which should play into your decision about pursuing further study. As you consider your options, I suggest speaking with as many people as possible to gather a diverse array of perspectives, and then following your gut about what is best for you. If you are thinking about pursuing an advanced degree only because you think you should, it may not the right path for you. However, if you are driven to pursue an advanced degree, whether a master’s or doctorate, and know in your gut that it’s what you want to do, then go for it! There are many ways to make it happen, and the rewards are tremendous in terms of both professional advancement and a personal sense of accomplishment, some of life’s greatest gifts.

Join me on Thursday, May 28, from 11:00 a.m.–11:45 a.m. for my presentation “Your Future in International Education: Graduate Study, Goals, and Skills,” in the Career Center located in the Expo Hall.


Sora Friedman, PhD, currently serves as associate professor of international education at SIT Graduate Institute, chair of SIT’s international education master’s degree programs (low-residency and on-campus), past chair of NAFSA’s Region XI, and on the board of advisers of CISabroad. She has worked in the field of international education for 30 years, focusing on the internationalization of higher education institutions, preparation of new professionals into the field, the administration of adult exchanges in public diplomacy, international training programs, high school exchanges, and international policy advocacy. She has lived in Bolivia, Colombia, and England, and is fluent in Spanish.


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