Social Work

The 11 Best Master’s Degrees for Careers in Social Justice

The 11 Best Master’s Degrees for Careers in Social Justice
Looking to make a difference? Professionals with master's degrees tend to hold jobs with more responsibility and more influence. Image from Unsplash
Jordan Landsman profile
Jordan Landsman June 30, 2021

Interested in a social justice career? Many pathways are open to you, with many master's degrees that can advance your career and maximize your impact.

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If you’re looking to make the world a better, more equitable place, the good (and bad news) is that there’s no shortage of opportunities.

The Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare and accelerated already-existing inequalities in wealth distribution and access to health care, voting rights are currently being contested in Florida and Texas (among other states), racial disparities in police killings persist despite nationwide protests… the list goes on and on.

But, if you’re reading this article, chances are, you are likely undeterred by these challenges. Indeed, you’re eager to find a career where you can enact social change.

One way to figure out where you can do the most good is to employ the Japanese concept of “ikigai“—essentially, the overlap between what the world needs, what you’re good at, what you love, and what you can get paid for.

So, for example, if you’re passionate about mental health, and you love and are good at communicating, a career as a counselor or therapist may be a perfect fit for you. Everyone is different, but whatever your passion is, the best master’s degree for you will help you do what you love, get better at what you’re good at, and make the world a better place in the process.

In this article, we’ll go over some of the most common careers in social justice and discuss how the 11 best master’s degrees for careers in social justice can help you build the skills, networks, and qualifications to tackle today’s most pressing issues. In this article, we’ll cover:

  • Do you need a master’s degree for a social justice career?
  • 11 best master’s degrees for careers in social justice
  • Should I get a master’s degree to advance my career in social justice?

Do you need a master’s degree for a social justice career?

Whether you need a master’s degree depends on the field you want to enter and the type of work you want to do.

For example, if your dream is to become a public defender, there’s simply no way to plead your client’s case before a judge without first going to law school. You need to be a competent attorney to protect your client’s best interests, and there’s no way to develop that competency without passing the bar. An undergraduate degree in English may get you hired as a paralegal at a social justice-oriented law firm, but as with many of the careers we’ll discuss, there are some professional ceilings that can only be broken through with an advanced degree.

As such, deciding whether to seek a master’s degree may depend on where you are in your career. Sometimes our expectations clash with reality, so an entry-level job in a field that you’re passionate about can be an excellent way to make sure that you’ve found the right fit. Additionally, having some work experience before you apply for an advanced degree can make you a more desirable candidate.

However, if you’re already at a place in your life where you know where you want to devote your energy, a master’s degree can be a great way to develop your skills and knowledge, make professional connections, and gain the credentials you need to do the work you’re passionate about.

Skills and knowledge

Getting a master’s degree can help you develop the hard and soft skills you’ll need to turn your vision of a better world into a reality. Through coursework and internships, you’ll gain a broader understanding of the complex issues you want to address while developing the practical skills you’ll need once you enter the workforce.


As we discussed earlier, some social justice careers require advanced accreditation, while others do not. For example, you can be a caseworker or mental health assistant with just a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW), but if you want to work as a mental health counselor or clinical therapist, you will definitely need a Master of Social Work (MSW) as well as whatever other licensure or accreditation your state requires. The same is true of many non-profit social justice organizations; entry-level jobs are usually available to those with bachelor’s degrees, but you may need a master’s to rise to upper administrative and policy positions.


Master’s programs can be a great way to expand your professional network. By developing relationships with your professors and peers, you can open up new opportunities and get recommendations that will help you land your dream job.


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11 best master’s degrees for careers in social justice

Social justice and human rights

A master’s degree in social justice and human rights includes coursework on urgent social issues, including immigration, labor, education, incarceration, state violence, and the environment. Graduates often become human rights lawyers, policy analysts, and researchers or take jobs in lobbying or advocacy. Since this degree offers so many possible career paths, salaries vary widely; human rights lawyers may make between $45,000 and $200,000, whereas a human rights advocate can expect to make between $41,000 and $81,000.

Business administration

An MBA is one of the broadest and most popular graduate degree programs. It can lead to many different careers; core classes usually include accounting, ethics, finance, statistics, micro and macroeconomics, and operations. Social justice-minded MBA students may select concentrations in areas like sustainable development and public management. At Howard University’s online MBA, students “learn to champion a business that benefits the greater good while being attentive and respectful to the needs of humankind.” The University of Tulsa also offers an online program with a strong emphasis on ethics and offers a flexible course schedule for part-time or full-time study.

Criminal justice

The core curriculum of a master’s in criminal justice usually covers criminology, policing, corrections, judicial studies, quantitative research methods, and policy analysis. Graduate students prepare careers as correctional officer supervisors, forensic psychologists, criminologists, police and detective supervisors, and forensic examiners. A career in criminal justice offers opportunities to observe and improve the system from within; a criminal justice degree can also lead to a career advocating reform as a policy professional. According to, the average salary for someone with a Master of Science in Criminal Justice is $56,730.

Diversity studies

Master’s degrees in diversity studies teach graduate students to work more effectively with individuals from various backgrounds. Multiple dimensions of human diversity are addressed through these programs’ coursework, with particular attention to gender, national origin, race/ethnicity, social class, language, and exceptionality. Graduates are hired to work in community organizations and government agencies and at universities as directors of diversity and inclusion. Many Master of Social Work degrees also emphasize diversity studies in their graduate programs, such as Tulane’s Online MSW program, which numbers among its core goals “teaching students to value human diversity and working to promote social and economic justice.”


A master’s in education and a master’s in teaching offer different but frequently overlapping curricula and career paths. Usually, a master’s in teaching is geared towards people who want to work hands-on with students, while a master’s in education focuses more on the education system itself. Most schools will require that you take the GRE. For more information about the kinds of careers you can have with these degrees, check out our article on the 43 Jobs You Can Get with a Master of Education.

Healthcare administration

A master’s in healthcare administration, such as the one offered by New York University (ranked second in health policy and management), provides a robust curriculum that helps you move from an entry-level management position to an advanced leadership role. Graduates with this degree can get jobs guiding social welfare programs, directing private and public healthcare systems, or working in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The average salary for professionals with MHAs is $98,350, but the highest 10 percent of workers earn upwards of $176,000.


Master of Laws (LLM) are one-year (full-time) or two-year (part-time) programs for people who already have law degrees. The curriculum in these programs depends on your specialization, but candidates interested in social justice may choose to focus on areas such as environmental or human rights law. An LLM can help you become a judge, go from associate to partner at a law firm, or advance your career as a politician. According to, the average salary for an LLM holder is $132,500.

Public administration

A typical core curriculum in a Master of Public Administration (MPA) includes coursework on policy process, budgeting, project management, and organizational analysis. Students can also take electives focused on public-private partnerships, team development, and similar disciplines. MPAs set graduates up for various leadership jobs in politics, social services, nonprofits, and more. Public administration isn’t the most lucrative field, but MPAs won’t go broke either;according to, the average salary is roughly $66,000.

Public health

A Master of Public Health (MPH) will include coursework in epidemiology, research methods, healthcare administration and planning, and sociology. People with MPHs often work as healthcare administrators, research analysts, and biostaticians, but the degree can open a variety of career paths for graduates. If you’re considering this degree, check out Tulane University of Louisiana, which offers an online MPH as well as an online Master of Health Administration (MHA). For even more information about MPHs, check out our article What Is a Master’s in Public Health?

Public policy

An advanced degree in public policy includes coursework in data analysis, ethics, program evaluation, political science, and more. Some of the most common jobs for MPPs include urban planner, policy analyst, government affairs director, and social research officer. Salaries for MPPs can vary tremendously depending on whether they decide to go into the public or private sector, but puts the average income at $71,977.

Social work and counseling

Most master’s degrees in social work/counseling take two years to complete, though students with advanced standing may be able to obtain their degree in just one year. The first year is generally devoted to the foundations of social work and includes coursework on assessment and diagnosis, ethics, policy, and research. In their second year, students explore advanced social work concepts and choose a concentration. MSWs can work in a variety of fields (many of which are interrelated), including child welfare and family social work, death and dying, mental health, and substance abuse. Typical career paths for MSWs include clinical social worker, family counselor, community outreach worker, and social work planner. After completing a master’s in social work, graduates can expect to earn between $59,258 and $72,274. Both the Tulane and Virginia Commonwealth University social work degrees offer social work programs that can be completed online or on-campus, full or part-time.

Should I get a master’s degree to advance my career in social justice?

Getting a master’s degree can definitely help advance your career in social justice, but it may not be necessary, depending on the type of work you want to do. If you’re looking to occupy a leadership position or do work requiring specialized training, a master’s degree may be the only way to get your dream social justice job. Still, there are also entry-level opportunities in nearly every field. Just remember that the benefits of higher education extend beyond having a few letters after your name; graduate programs are great opportunities to network, specialize, and deepen your understanding of complex issues.

Today, many master’s degree programs offer online courses that can be completed in just one or two years. So whether you want to do hands-on clinical social work or take a leadership role in a nonprofit organization or government agency, pursuing a master’s degree can be a valuable (and sometimes necessary) step in your career in social justice.

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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