What should you learn in grad school?

Amy Potthast served as Idealist’s Director of Service and Graduate Education Programs until 2011. Read more of her work at amypotthast.com.


From Flickr user killfile (Creative Commons)

People debating whether or not to go back to school for a master’s degree — or debating when is the best time to do so — may appreciate a new framework for understanding the qualifications a master’s degree student should have upon graduating.

And current students may find the framework helpful in talking about the impact of their education with potential employers.

Recently the Lumina Foundation for Education published The Degree Qualifications Profile to describe the intellectual, civic, knowledge, and applied-learning outcomes students should demonstrate by the end of the associate, bachelor’s and master’s levels of schooling.

The idea of the project isn’t to comprehensively define what each field of study needs to include in its curriculum by any means. But it does offer some useful distinctions that highlight the relative complexity of training that, according to the authors, should signify a master’s degree versus a bachelor’s.

For example, in one category of learning, civic learning, a student at the bachelor’s level should (among other things) be able to develop and justify “a position on a public issue” and relate their position “to alternative views within the community/policy environment.” Meanwhile, a master’s student should assess and develop “a position on a public policy question with significance in the student’s own field, taking into account both scholarship and published positions and narratives of relevant interest groups.”

Other stated benefits of the Degree Profile for future and current students could include:

  • Offering a road map for navigating higher education options by giving students a framework for their educational plan if it’s not already determined for them.
  • Giving students a yardstick against which to measure their growth in “crosscutting competencies” or transferable skills – abilities that students can rely on regardless of changing careers or industries.

While the Degree Profile is non-binding, a few regional accrediting bodies and school associations have agreed to test the framework which will help flesh out the details of the document (by bringing critical feedback as well as examples).

In the meantime, I am going to share the framework with classmates in my grad school cohort. We’re developing portfolios right now and the outcomes detailed in the Profile may prove valuable categories for sharing our skills and abilities, even if our program wasn’t designed with these outcomes in mind.

To learn more about grad school, explore Idealist’s Grad School Resource Center.

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