How to make the most of your sustainability Master’s degree

How to make the most of your sustainability Master’s degree

If you have a question for Shannon, send it to [email protected].

Dear Shannon,

I'm a recent graduate with a bachelors in environmental management, and am now looking at whether I also need a masters. I'd like to work in corporate sustainability, so have been investigating Green MBAs and CSR courses at various universities in the U.S. and Europe, as well as doing online research. But the more I read the less certain I am that a masters is worth the investment. If I decide to proceed, how can I make sure it's worthwhile? Is work experience more valuable to an employer than a degree?

Elizabeth, New York


Dear Elizabeth,

I'm so glad you asked! It's one of the biggest dilemmas facing sustainability job seekers and one of the most common questions I get asked by career-coaching clients looking to transition into impact and CR roles. You've already made a huge investment in going back to school for your undergrad, and now you're naturally asking yourself whether you really need that masters. Annoyingly, the answer is yes and no.

There is a distinct trend in the sustainability jobs market showing that companies are hiring from within. This points to the importance of on-the-job experience and a deep knowledge of the industry, the company and its products or services. Practical, tangible work experience is worth its weight in gold in the sustainability space. But at the same time, everyone has a master's degree these days and the competition is fierce. By not having one and pitting your CV alongside others that do, you might be shooting yourself in the foot.

Master's degrees are expensive, intense and time consuming, and not — I repeat, NOT — guaranteed to get you a job. The belief that you can walk out of your masters graduation ceremony and into a great role is outdated. Besides, most university career centers don't understand the sustainability jobs market and only give generic advice. If you decide to go for it, it's up to you to make the most of your master's degree and squeeze out every last drop of opportunity. Here are some tips on how to do just that.

Before you start your masters ...

A masters helps you to build your networks and your knowledge, but it doesn’t automatically convert into a career change. You have to own that process and make it happen — that's why it's important to have realistic expectations of what your masters will do for you.

In her recent GreenBiz article, Nikki Gloudeman highlighted a few key questions to help prospective students determine what type of sustainability program is right for them, and pointed out some top programs in the U.S.

The point is, owning the process involves taking the bull by the horns and developing a career positioning strategy, of which the program itself will only be one aspect. Map out:

  1. the reasons why you chose the program,

  2. the key people you want to network with during it,

  3. what tangible takeaways you want to leave with, and

  4. how you plan to achieve them.

Pin it up somewhere prominent in your study space.

During your masters ...

Sustainability is a broad topic with branches that reach into all aspects of business so you'll need an overview of the entire agenda. The jobs market tends to value specialists now more than generalists. So to get a job, you also need to have detailed knowledge in one or two particular areas.

Pick your specialism now and plan to focus all your coursework and networking on this one area. It could be energy, climate change, natural capital, poverty, sustainable supply chains or women's empowerment, for example.

Leverage your dissertation, a consulting class or practical project to show hands-on corporate sustainability experience on your CV with an accomplishment statement like this:

"Led an MBA team of four to develop and propose new business models for client, Unilever, to bring distributed energy solutions to emerging markets and align with its Sustainable Living Plan."

Then give yourself a head start by kicking off your personal branding and job search six to nine months before graduation. Personal branding involves writing a compelling CV with 12 tangible accomplishment statements, designing a 2,000-character bio that translates into a LinkedIn summary, and also building your online presence through blogging your thought leadership on Twitter and LinkedIn. It's important to allow plenty of time for the job search process. With the tight competition six months is a minimum to start building your networks (remember, most roles are landed via word-of-mouth referrals) and getting the word out about what you are looking to do next.

After your masters ...

Make the most of your alumni network by getting active on social media. LinkedIn is particularly good for this — there may already be an alumnus group for your program, so join it and reach out to others who are already doing your dream job by sharing relevant articles or asking career questions. Always good to ask others about their career journeys and how they got where they are, lessons learnt, advice they may have for you. People love talking about themselves.

Lastly, make sure to stay connected to your university and give back where you can. Offering to speak at events and conferences to engage future students is a great way of maintaining that link with your old lecturers, some of whom might have professional contacts of value to you. This also allows you to build credibility and show leadership abilities. And don’t forget to put this on your CV. It's a two-way street and you get what you give, so be as generous as you can.

Good luck embarking on this next stage of your education. University is a fantastic opportunity to look beyond your day-to-day horizon and take the baby steps to get you where you want to be in three to five years. Let me know how you get on! And in the meantime, if you'd like some one-on-one support on aligning your educational opportunities to your future career, get in touch with me for a free 15-minute consultation.