Social Work

The 6 Best Degrees for Careers in Social Justice and Human Rights

The 6 Best Degrees for Careers in Social Justice and Human Rights
A 2018 survey of 2,000 workers in the US revealed that 61 percent of respondents said they would request more meaningful work, if given a chance to ask their bosses for a holiday gift. Image from Pexels
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Mairead Kelly October 31, 2019

The problem? The world is full of problems. The solution? Maybe, you.

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Despite any negative ideas you may encounter about American workers—like their obsession with a paycheck or their “stop at nothing to get ahead” mentality—the stereotype isn’t exactly true. In fact, according to a 2018 ServiceNow survey of 2,000 workers in the US, 61 percent of respondents said they would request more meaningful work, if given a chance to ask their bosses for a holiday gift. That’s compared to the 48 percent of employees who would ask for a better work-life balance and 34 percent who would ask for a raise.

Another Harvard Business Review survey of 2,000 workers found that nine out of ten people would trade an average 23 percent of their lifetime earnings for greater meaning in their careers.

The findings make sense, don’t you think? After all, it’s only human nature to want to feel an authentic connection between the work we do and our broader sense of purpose.

Of course, we all want to feel we’re making a difference, but not everyone chooses to integrate that value into their career. Some may choose to protest, donate to charity, or volunteer with a nonprofit organization while pursuing a different career path. For those looking to make a career out of serving the greater good, these degrees will let you take on leadership roles in the wide-ranging scope of social justice fields and take a top-down approach to confront inequity and injustice.

Education Policy

Maybe you’re a veteran teacher with plans to transform early childhood education or an academic who aspires to make higher education more accessible to low-income students. Or maybe you’re an administrator with goals to improve teacher retention within your district. Whether your objective takes aim at a local, state, or federal level, a Master of Education (MEd) in Education Policy is essential to securing a career tackling education’s most significant social justice issues—and shaping its more equitable future.

Degree holders typically find employment at government agencies or connected human services organizations, in roles such as lobbyists, consulting firms, or think tanks. On a local level, they can also work with individual school boards or districts to enact social change. Job openings span a range of occupations in policy development, investigative research, and advocacy at all levels of the educational landscape.


“I Want to Be A Social Worker!”

There are a couple of significant practical considerations:

- A Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in social work
- A license to practice or required social work certification

Credentials vary among careers, states, and territories. Licenses include:

- Certified Social Worker (CSW)
- Clinical Social Work Associate (CSWA)
- Licensed Advanced Practice Social Worker (LAPSW)
- Licensed Advanced Social Worker (LASW)
- Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW)
- Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
- Licensed Graduate Social Worker (LGSW)
- Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW)
- Licensed Mental Health Professional (LMHP)
- Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)

Most of these licenses require a Master’s or Doctorate, along with additional coursework or clinical internships. (source)

A survey of 2017 social work graduates by the National Social Work Workforce Study found that social workers with Master’s degrees and Doctorates made substantially more than those with no advanced degree. (source)

- People with MSW degrees made $13,000-plus more than those with only BSW degrees
- MSWs make more in large cities or urban clusters
- People with doctorates earned $20,000 to $25,000 more than people with only MSW degrees

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Social Work

In short, the field of social work exists to ensure opportunity and equity to our world’s most vulnerable populations. Social workers carry out an extensive and diverse number of tasks to promote economic development, confront social inequalities, and address public health issues. Groups help individuals, families, and communities not only address problems, but overcome them and better their lives.

Some social workers help families locate temporary housing, for example. Others may provide counseling and mentoring to students as they progress through school, or support hospital patients as they navigate the often-overwhelming experience of illness or injury. Social workers may hone in on specific vulnerable populations such as LGBTQ youth.

At the clinical level, this occupation requires a minimum of a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree and state licensure. MSW employers range from community mental health and substance abuse agencies to government organizations and medical clinics, as well as private practices. Internships, electives, and capstone projects encourage students to specialize in the areas of community organizing they plan to take on after graduation.

Licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) typically engage with clients by providing emotional and mental health counseling, as well as diagnosing and treating mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, or substance abuse disorder. Many LCSW employers overlap with MSW options and include hospitals, psychiatric institutions, and private practices.


In the legal field, civil rights lawyers are focused on safeguarding personal liberties like freedom of speech and press, as well as discrimination based race, age, sex, national origin, and other factors. When a violation of a person’s rights occurs, a civil rights lawyer may be consulted to determine the best course of legal action, and explain the process and procedures for filing a civil suit. They then may be hired to represent the client and tasked to carry out an assortment of responsibilities ranging from interviewing potential witnesses and preparing depositions, to filing court documents and presenting their client’s case before a judge.

While the precise path to becoming a civil rights lawyer varies, a Juris Doctor (JD) degree from a law school accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA) is necessary. In school, many students tend to take elective coursework in areas like restorative criminal justice, human rights, constitutional law, as well as international human rights. After graduating and passing the bar exam, professionals in this specialization tend to find work at private practices, as well as nonprofit institutions, advocacy organizations, and government agencies.

Public Administration

If you’re interested in contributing to the workings of federal, state, or local government, and are passionate about political science, activism, and community development, a career in public administration may be a good fit for you. As for how you can advance into higher-level positions within the field, look to a Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree. You’ll take courses that provide a holistic and humanistic approach to administration management, while gaining a nuanced view of the social, political, and economic systems and contexts that shape our country.

In general, an MPA is best for those seeking careers with nonprofits, philanthropic institutions, government agencies, and other organizations where an emphasis on public policy is most relevant. The full-time occupations attainable with this degree make up a long list, ranging from charity or foundation director and nonprofit executive to corporate social responsibility manager.


Justice for both our planet and the disenfranchised people living on it are two profound conversations that happen simultaneously, but often in different rooms. But they shouldn’t, especially when considering environmental issues like air pollution and land contamination from industrial production and processing facilities, and the adverse health effects that impact those living near them.

These inequalities are found more commonly in disadvantaged communities and socially excluded groups, who simultaneously tend to have fewer environmental benefits like parks, gardens and green spaces, and limited access to health care and political influence.

Is it possible to change the terms of environmental benefits and burdens through business? Yes, and many business schools have created degree programs to help future policy innovators, sustainable business entrepreneurs, and sustainability leaders do exactly that. Some may take the expertise gleaned from an energy Master of Business Administration (MBA) to tap into alternative, renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and biofuels and start mission-driven businesses providing green technologies and services to the masses.

Others may seek out programs like an Master of Science (MS) in Sustainability Management for an in-depth management-focused education that’s rooted in sustainability science and green business practices. Graduates may work as sustainability consultants, transforming existing companies and nonprofits towards a stronger focus on social and environmental purposes.

Many companies in the energy industry are embracing the transition to green energy and have created the role of chief sustainability officer within their C-suite. In this position, you can be an innovative force for driving a corporation’s shift of focus from one of compliance to one that makes a positive long-term impact on our planet’s health and people.

(This article was updated on December 21, 2021.)

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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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